Navigating the future

Nonprofit leader guides sector through change.

By Ret Boney

When Diana Aviv became president and CEO of Independent Sector in 2003, she had her own list of priorities for the 500-member coalition of nonprofits, foundations and corporate philanthropy programs.

But a series of scandals among high-profile nonprofits and foundations sparked a Senate Finance Committee investigation of the sector, launching Aviv onto the frontlines of unavoidable change.

She now serves as the executive director of the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector, an advisory group created by Independent Sector at the urging of the Senate Finance Committee.

“We have so many organizations with enormous skills and background,” says Aviv. “The challenge is how to balance the different perspectives so we come up with credible recommendations.”

Independent Sector, whose mission is to “help be a voice for the sector on issues that affect the entirety of the sector,” Aviv says, delivered an interim set of recommendations to the finance committee last month and will submit a final set this spring.

Aviv says she already sees results, including the voluntary creation of conflict-of-interest policies and codes of ethics by several groups.

“Airing these issues as a serious matter stimulates many organizations to take a look at their positions,” she says.  “We raise the bar by having those issues already on the table.”

Diana Aviv

Job: President and CEO, Independent Sector, Washington, D.C.

Born: 1951, Johannesburg, South Africa

Family: Divorced

Education: B.S.W., University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa; M.S.W., Columbia University

Recently Read: “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini

Hobbies: Reading; art museums and galleries; hiking; movies

Currently Reading: “The Photograph,” by Penelope Lively

Inspiration: Life of Nelson Mandela

She says there is a consensus around most of the issues included in the panel’s interim report, which include recommendations like establishing clearer definitions on donor-advised funds and imposing tougher penalties for self-dealing.

“The next step is to see what else needs to be included,” Aviv says.  “There will be more.  And there will be items around which there is no consensus.”

Next on the agenda is a 12-stop tour to places like Minnesota, Iowa, Texas, Georgia and New York to hold forums to impart information and gather feedback for the panel’s final report.

But Aviv keeps her initial priorities in mind while juggling the needs of the finance committee and the panel, working to boost civic engagement, preparing for the effects of a burgeoning federal deficit, and strengthening ethics and accountability, an area the panel is stressing.

In 2004, Aviv created a task force on civic engagement, in part in response to data indicating that active involvement in communities was declining.

“We see our role as bringing together the broader groups in society to see what special contributions we can make to encourage greater involvement,” she says.

That includes groups who focus on the logistics of issues like voter participation, those who believe in the importance of citizen education and helping people find a voice, and organizations whose goal is helping people understand underlying conditions that cause social problems, such as how the legion of homeless can include full-time workers.

Aviv is also keeping an eye on the federal budget deficit, expected to reach almost $400 billion this fiscal year and between $2 trillion and $5 trillion over the next decade, by various estimates.

“Given the deep concern by members of both parties about the deficit, there will be a strong desire to limit spending,” she says, causing a ripple effect on the nonprofit sector, which receives almost a third of its funding from government.

“If they limit funding to Medicaid and Medicare, in the end the result will be those individuals will still need the services those funds pay for,” she says.  “Independent Sector’s concern is the broad decisions that are going to be made concerning priorities and the impact on the organizations that will be affected.”

Aviv’s commitment to the nonprofit sector and its goals began at about age 11, when her parents left her and three sisters at a youth group while they went to the country club.

Counselors with the group took the children to Soweto, a black township outside Johannesburg, South Africa, her hometown, where she witnessed conditions she calls “appalling.”

“I told my parents what I saw,” she says.  “They didn’t believe me.  They thought I was exaggerating.  I got really mad.  I think I was mad for six years. I promised then that my life would be dedicated to dealing with injustice.”

To do that, she worked on dual degrees in psychiatric social work and community organizing, and then earned a master’s in the U.S., embarking on a career that included heading up a domestic violence clinic, working at a mental health clinic and running her own psychotherapy practice.

As a result of those professional experiences, she was asked to become an expert witness in cases involving battered women and people facing the death penalty for their crimes, most of them murder, both in the guilt and penalty phases of trial.

Her expert testimony centered around relevant background or conditions under which the person had grown up that could be mitigating factors, and led her to visit all the prisons in New Jersey and some in New York, she says, to help defenders prepare their cases.

“It was among the most profound experiences I’ve had in my whole life,” she says of the work she did from 1980 to 1994.  “The burden was on my shoulders to find a way to persuade the jury not to give them the death penalty.”

During that time, she spent five years with the National Council of Jewish Women focusing on national policy development and, in 1993,  joined United Jewish Communities, where she was responsible for the group’s domestic agenda focusing on the health and welfare of the nation’s vulnerable people.

Now at the helm of Independent Sector, she has high hopes for the future of the sector to which she has dedicated her life.

“Our vision is to have a certain quality of society,” says Aviv.  “An inclusive society of active citizens and vibrant institutions and engaged people and institutions to serve the common good.”

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