Government can do better for charity

With some nonprofit leaders pushing hard for closer ties with government, the time is ripe for those working in the charitable marketplace to think hard about how to partner with government more productively.

But in seeking a greater partnership, nonprofits also need to recognize the limits of government and the obstacle it can post to social progress.

Despite access to vast resources and regulatory power that can have a big impact on charity, government has failed to use its assets to develop innovative and even-handed partnerships with nonprofits to address critical social problems.

Government has proved a weak cop in policing foundations and nonprofits, a bully in menacing charitable groups that oppose its policies, a failure at creating innovative incentives to giving and volunteerism, and ham-fisted in channeling public funds to religious charities while ignoring discrimination in who they hire and serve.

For their part, nonprofits and foundations often act as if their social mission frees them of the obligation to account for themselves in return for the tax-exempt status they enjoy.

There has got to be a better way to tackle urgent social problems.

Nonprofits and foundations address the symptoms and causes of those problems, often serving as civil society’s research-and-development arm.

But nonprofits lack the resources and power more readily available to government.

As the Washington Post reported recently, some nonprofits leaders are calling for a special White House office or government agency to focus on nonprofits, community initiatives and volunteerism, while others are pushing for greater collaboration among charities, corporations and government.

Jockeying for influence in a post-Bush administration, nonprofit leaders rightly are looking for ways to play a greater role in shaping public policies and leveraging government resources.

But nonprofits need to be smart, and to be careful what they wish for.

The charitable marketplace in the U.S. plays an indispensable role by taking on difficult and messy jobs no one else wants or cares about.

Because of their independence, nonprofits can be creative and entrepreneurial, can take risks and can team up with partners that make sense and that recognize true collaboration requires giving as well as taking.

By treating government as a potential partner that requires cultivation and engagement, nonprofits can find ways to put its resources to productive use and develop innovative and productive collaborations.

But in making use of taxpayer-support resources, nonprofits also must recognize their obligation to be more open and accountable about the work they do and the results they generate.

While it is not the answer to society’s toughest problems, which are more effectively addressed through strategies that are market-driven and collaborative, often spearheaded by nonprofits willing to take risks, government has the resources and power to make it an important partner in developing, supporting and investing in those strategies.

But in seeking closer ties with government, nonprofits must not forget it can be slow to take change or take risks, quick to meddle, and arbitrary in using its power.

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