Tuesday, November 11, 2008

President Elect Barack Obama and Philanthropy

The following is a great article titled "Priorities for a New President," written by Ian Wilhelm, about experts advice on how President Elect Obama can help improve and change philanthropy efforts. The article was a special report for The Chronicle of Philanthropy's November 13th, 2008 issue.

Priorities for a New President

By Ian Wilhelm





As Barack Obama prepares to enter the White House, he comes to power

during a turbulent period in American history, with the nation facing a financial meltdown, two wars, and an increasing number of people struggling to meet basic needs.

But nonprofit leaders see opportunities in the crisis. They say the new president should work more closely with charities and foundations to solve the country's big problems

— and help philanthropy grow during an economic downturn.

To explore what the incoming Obama administration means for nonprofit groups, The Chronicle interviewed numerous charity officials and experts, asking them what the new president can do to strengthen philanthropy, fund raising, and volunteerism during the next four years.

Of utmost importance for many of them is the need for the president to spur economic growth to trigger greater giving. But they also called for a more prominent role for charitable groups in the administration, a White House Office of Civic Engagement, for example, or a National Institute of Philanthropy, which would offer prizes for effective giving and promote collaboration among donors.

Others called for new government policies to aid cash-strapped charities, such as making financial assistance available to them from the Small Business Administration or allowing donors to food banks and other social-service charities to receive greater tax benefits for their gifts.

Still other nonprofit leaders argued that, despite the problems Americans are experiencing at home, Mr. Obama should not ignore the need in Africa and other impoverished regions of the world, urging him to increase foreign aid and reduce barriers to international giving.

The following are excerpts from the advice nonprofit officials have for the next president.

Create a Cabinet-Level Philanthropy Position

President Obama needs to be a consensus builder because he is undertaking challenging work during especially challenging times. To solve the many intractable issues facing this nation, he must recognize that only by bringing the three sectors together — government, the private and nonprofit sectors — can we begin to find solutions. He has to forge new alliances and bring them together focused on a common purpose to help Americans in need.

For the first time in a long time, people who haven't been interested in elections are extremely engaged this year, especially young people who are voting for the first time. People have turned out in unprecedented numbers for early voting. The next president must capture that passion and energy at the polls and convert it to a lasting commitment to make our society a better place. He must motivate and inspire people and our youth in particular — to act, whether it's through volunteerism or more active civic participation in our communities.

Resources are becoming more scarce and precious given the economic turmoil. Any way the president can rally the nonprofit community to align their efforts with his vision would amplify the impact.

The next president can get off to a good start by appointing a high-level individual to his cabinet, which would acknowledge, recognize, elevate, and most importantly, coordinate the vital work that philanthropy and nonprofits do to help the neediest Americans. Only then would ideas like engaging volunteers and renewing AmeriCorps or a similar public-service program create urgency for nonprofits and the citizenry who are battling hard times.

— Antonia Hern├índez, president of the California Community Foundation, in Los Angeles

Transform Political Giving Into Charitable Giving

This presidential campaign benefited from more than $1-billion in political contributions, the largest in our nation's history. Mr. Obama should capitalize on this momentum and encourage giving to continue, only now to philanthropy.

It will send a strong message that philanthropy can create solutions and empower individuals and corporations to tackle issues that were often discussed on the campaign trail. By making philanthropy part of the president's personal agenda, he can bring a national presence to the power of philanthropy as a catalyst for change.

Spearhead a national counterpart to the Clinton Global Initiative that brings together corporate and philanthropic leaders to address issues in the United States. To quote Larry Brilliant of Google when describing leadership, he suggests that "you may be successful as the president ... but if you do not think of philanthropy as part of your job description, you are not cool, you are not good, you are not doing your job, you are not modern." This modern president can establish a philanthropic agenda as part of his national leadership.

Embrace new civic engagement models for soon-to-retire baby boomers. Prepare our country to reap the rewards of this activist generation. Creative thinking could include a new twist on AmeriCorps that allows scholarship dollars for a grandchild or a reverse G.I. Bill to pay for second-career training, with a repayment made through service in industries with predicted labor shortages such as teaching and nursing.

— Linda B. Carter, president of the Community Foundation of Broward, in Florida

Provide Federal Assistance to Nonprofit Groups

In the past decade, government has outsourced huge segments of human services to nonprofit organizations, and we have been exhorted to behave more like private businesses.

Successful nonprofits have taken Sarbanes-Oxley seriously; we have high-functioning independent boards, strategic plans, measurable outcomes, and fiscal transparency. We are ready to meet the challenges presented by the economic crisis; indeed we already are meeting them.

Here in the South Bronx we have extended the hours of our food pantry to deal with the growing lines that start forming hours before we open. We are counseling families on debt management and how to avoid eviction and foreclosure. We provide training to the jobless in how to start their own microenterprises.

Yet we remain seriously undercapitalized, which will make it almost impossible to keep up with the skyrocketing demand for our help in preventing evictions, providing food and shelter, creating business opportunities, and caring for children. The success of our work will keep more families from homelessness, hunger, illness, and violence.

The federal government could do a number of things:

  • Expand the definition of "small business" to include nonprofit organizations, making them eligible for any assistance the Small Business Administration eventually provides.
  • Make loan funds and capital infusions available to high-performing organizations with track records of serving low-income communities.
  • Create a loan-guarantee program for nonprofits so that loan funds obtained from a nonfederal source would be guaranteed by the federal government.

It will take coordinated work among government, philanthropy, and the nonprofit sector to stanch the losses in our nation's poorest communities.

— Nancy Biberman, president of the Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation, in New York

Create an Institute on Philanthropy

President Obama can support philanthropy and service by creating a National Institute of Philanthropy, along the lines of the National Institutes of Health, that would:

  • Draw national attention to opportunities in giving and volunteering.
  • Convene donors and promote collaboration.
  • Collect and disseminate information from community foundations and communities.
  • Showcase philanthropic initiatives that are succeeding.
  • Develop national standards for philanthropy that address transparency and equity.
  • Present a national award, like the Malcolm Baldrige Award for quality or the Ron Brown Award for corporate citizenship.
  • Establish procedures that would facilitate international giving.
  • Promote the use of mission-related investing to leverage philanthropic resources.

— Melissa Berman, chief executive of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, in New York

End America's 'Me First' Mentality

American society has existed for a long time with a "me first" mentality. President Obama should lead by example, taking opportunities to support programs that care for others above oneself and championing individuals who demonstrate leadership in philanthropy, volunteering, and civil society. By encouraging Americans to return to a time when success was judged more by how many you helped and less by how much you helped yourself, the president can improve philanthropic and volunteering rates.

Students choose to enter public service for a variety of motivating factors. Some feel a strong loyalty to community. Others truly believe in the mission of one particular program. Still more identify with a special-interest group or policy goal.

Mr. Obama should fund programs that develop these motivations in high-school and college students, informing them of their options in the public and nonprofit sectors. He can also increase interest in public-sector careers by increasing the amount of scholarship money offered to students seeking higher-level degrees in public affairs.

Working in the private sector is often more attractive to students than working in the public sector due to the increased likelihood of paying off student loans in one's lifetime in the private sector. Increased funding for public-affairs students would level the playing field for students entering public careers.

— Susan Puskar, a first-year student at Indiana University working on a master's degree in public administration with a focus on nonprofit management and policy analysis. She is also a former AmeriCorps member.

Help Students Pay for College

The No. 1 source of stress for teens in America isn't getting into college, it's paying for it. The banking crisis wasn't caused by these kids, but they are certainly feeling the credit crunch as institutional college loans are more difficult to secure, more expensive to pay back. And loan forgiveness is a distant dream for most.

America is also going to need to depend on the strength of volunteers as organizations and causes fizzle without funds. We need to stop thinking about young people as leaders we're grooming for tomorrow and start thinking of them as powerful thinkers and doers right now.

My suggestion? Marry these two needs. Pour money into AmeriCorps and create loan-forgiveness programs tied to volunteer action.

— Nancy Lublin, chief executive of Do Something, in New York

Don't 'Bankrupt the Future'

It is vital that we not let the urgent demands of today bankrupt the future. It would be easy to cut investments in our future — the environment, energy retooling, basic scientific research, and the arts. These are critical to the strength of our future economy and the well-being of future generations. Please don't give in to the pressure to spend only on the "now," thereby sowing the seeds for a future subsistence society in America. Three specific areas of action to consider:

  • Emphasize prevention and positive social outcomes in government contracting. We are becoming an incarcerated and institutionalized nation, wasting lives and talent and burdening taxpayers. Our current system has strong financial incentives for keeping people in beds, or cells, or long-term care rather than as healthy, productive members of society. Focus on the outcomes we want: prevention, readiness, and rehabilitation. Create financial incentives for better outcomes, instead of tying reimbursement simply to numbers served. Emerging business models, new technology, and innovative partnerships between government, business, and nonprofits can all play a role in resetting the focus on the most important social outcomes.
  • Mend — and use — the social infrastructure. It's invisible, but much of the infrastructure of civil society is as battered as New Orleans's levees. Use executive power to improve operating conditions for nonprofits, reforming counterproductive contracting procedures, and rules. This will ultimately strengthen our social front lines and increase social value for the taxpayers' dollar.
  • Use existing programs to serve community goals. Many nonprofits with great programs fail to reach their potential. As a sector, we episodically launch, build, prop up, and reinvent organizations that, if properly invested in, could thrive. One exemplary program that currently exists to bolster organizations is the network of local and national Community Development Financial Institutions, certified by the Treasury Department. For decades, they have successfully partnered with banks, foundations, corporations, and government, leveraging and deploying private and public money successfully to help low- and moderate-wealth communities.

— Clara Miller, chief executive of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, in New York

Don't Overregulate Donors

If I had a few moments of time with our new president, I'd say this:

One of our nation's most valuable assets, especially during these tough economic times, is philanthropy.

When this nation is challenged by natural or man-made disasters, acts of terrorism or dismal economic times, it is the charitable sector that is first in line to respond, to calm fears and to restore a sense of order. It helps map a course of restoration. It navigates that restoration and stays on track long after the television cameras have moved on and the nation recalls the traumatic events as memories from months or years past.

President Obama should encourage charitable giving to grow. We should make certain that charitable giving can reach as many people and help as many causes as possible.

Philanthropy thrives and operates productively precisely because it is not heavily regulated. It is an enterprise in which passionate individuals are free to rely upon their good judgment, experiment with new and sometimes unconventional ideas and strive for success.

We must not establish roadblocks and restraints on the generosity of the American people. We must avoid the temptation to impose change before analyzing effectiveness, to regulate what doesn't need to be supervised, or to divert resources toward bureaucracy in Washington or toward prescribed causes instead of allowing charitable givers to use their discretion in donating generously.

— Sue Santa, senior vice president of public policy, the Philanthropy Roundtable, in Washington

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