Exploring the world of charity, philanthropy and civil society.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Washington is preparing again for a battle with America's third sector. At present, the target is one of our most important institutions: The Red Cross.

According to the Washington Post, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is asking whether the Red Cross' governing board "meets the high level of competence and engagement that Congress and the public should expect." This follows comments by other representatives, also quoted in the media, who are challenging the organizations ability in handling emergencies and questioning the government's heavy reliance upon them in such events. Much of this follows some widely reported but likely isolated cases of inefficiences or ineptitude among some of this organization's many thousands of staff and volunteers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

This is not new. America's government has an odd relationship with America's independent sector. On the one hand, it wants charities to be there to help us when we need them and when the government is unable (or unwilling) to do the job. On the other hand, it expects that this can all be done on the cheap, with volunteers doing most of the work and individuals, corporations and foundations providing much of the money. This is of course rather unrealistic. Fortunately for us all, some of America's leading not-for-profit organizations do have a vast army of volunteers who can and do pitch in whenever there is a need and a similarly large body of supporters who rush forward with financial support when the cause is communicated by the media and the need is understood by the people.

The last decade, however, has witnessed a growing clamor for change. Both today and in 2001, the lights of the press and government focused on the Red Cross. Before it included such organizations as the Nature Conservancy, Save the Children, the United Way, the ACLU, major hospitals and others. The complaints have often seemed valid on the surface: a need for greater overall accountability; inefficient and/or expensive fundraising practices; seemingly high salaries in an ostensibly volunteer environment; improper pooling of funds for endowments while charitable needs were unmet; competition with the private sector enabled by tax policy; or, speaking with voices which were perceived to benefit some particular political point of view.

But these complaints, even when valid, are often just a mask for something more important at work in general political discourse. It is as if all our best hopes and worst fears are placed in these organizations and, just like our politicians, we lift them up only to tear them down again, inevitably making the most able institutions the least likely to fully deploy their vast resources and talent in the most creative and effective ways lest they be perceived as too impertinent, too presumptuous, too corporate, too political. Pick your own adjective.

America is not unique in its generosity. But we are unique in how we organize and apply it. While people all over the world give and give generously, Americans give more largely for three central reasons. First, we have the most developed third sector on the planet. We have therefore more choices of organizations (and causes) in which to invest our hard earned money. Second, we are arguably the richest country per capita. Third, and perhaps most importantly, we have the infrastructure to ask for and to give money to causes we support and the freedom to be involved in these organizations through volunteerism.

When we give time and money to organizations, we are making an investment beyond dollars and hours. We are, in a sense, defining our community. We are saying: "I believe in this cause, in these people, and I stand with them." So if the government is beginning to question these same organizations--which, as our elected representatives, they have every right to do--we should do more than just "read about it in the morning paper." In the same way that a federal review of air safety or homeland security or wall street insider ownership warrants our attention, so does congressional inspection of our third sector. It is not only the place which many of us can in some sense call home, but it is also the only place which can at times provide us the help we need. Again, we need only think of Katrina to remember what condition our country would be in without America's charities, especially when our government still has no plan for reconstruction or other types of support.

It is my hope that this page and many others like will forge a dialogue between and among the major stakeholders in America's not-for-profit community: individual and institutional donors, charitable organizations, policy makers and academicians. We have a lot to do. And we can't leave it to the political winds on Capitol Hill or available column inches in the nation's papers to determine how we will judge the fate of America's critically important third sector.