Nonprofits urged to confront crisis

By Jennifer Whytock

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — To reestablish public trust and head off future legislative regulation, nonprofits need to confront the current crisis in the nonprofit sector, a prominent foundation leader says.

“The inability to openly and candidly discuss what ails our sector, who and what caused it, and how to learn from it, is hurting our field,” Emmett D. Carson, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation, told the annual conference of the N.C. Center for Nonprofits on Oct. 9.

The public believes many nonprofits are not operating as they should, he said, and nonprofits spend too much time and too many resources on self-preservation and not enough on their missions.

Establishing standards of conduct, as many national and state membership organizations have done, is an important first step, Carson said, but when members violate those standards, they must be confronted and sanctioned.

“Without the courage to name names and cite examples, we will continue to repeat the same mistakes,” he said. “Open, public discourse, no matter how troubling, is a vital component of a healthy, well-functioning nonprofit sector.”

While many nonprofit leaders believe a scandal at a distant or unrelated nonprofit has no effect on their operations, Carson said, the public does not distinguish between foundations, United Ways, grantseekers and small and large nonprofits.

“Any nonprofit organization that violates the public’s trust puts the work of all of us in jeopardy,” he said. “The nonprofit sector’s most important asset is the public’s trust.”

Nonprofits are experiencing a loss of public confidence that, if not corrected, will lead to even greater media scrutiny and legislative regulation, Carson said.

Nonprofits must be seen as leading the charge for accountability, not as being forced, kicking and screaming, to be accountable, he said.

Carson’s speech addressed issues similar to those he tackled in a recent article he submitted to Independent Sector, a national membership association for nonprofits.

Independent Sector, however, refused to publish the article because it identified groups alleged to have engaged in wrongdoing, Carson says.

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