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Nonprofits face moral complexity, scholar says

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By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Rooted in moral traditions, the nonprofit sector faces its most daunting moral challenges because of dramatic growth in its size and visibility, a leading nonprofit scholar says.

More nonprofits are competing for more resources in a more competitive marketplace and face more intense scrutiny from private donors and government, which are demanding better results and greater accountability, sometimes for conflicting goals, says David C. Hammack, professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and president of the Association for Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action, or ARNOVA.

“Precisely because customers and voters so commonly disagree among themselves, they have made nonprofit accountability increasingly complex and contentious,” Hammack told more than 100 nonprofit leaders at the second annual National Experts Seminar sponsored by the Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State University in Raleigh.

The complex issues nonprofits face have grown rapidly since the 1960s because of a surge in family wealth and government spending, he said, and because the civil rights movement led to the lifting of restrictions that traditionally had limited nonprofits’ role.

Because of increasingly competing demands and expectations, Hammack said, nonprofits can find it tough to “maintain fidelity to their missions,” and donors can find it tough to “evaluate the moral impact of their gifts.”

Other experts at the seminar said the challenges facing nonprofits represent opportunities.

The widespread poverty in New Orleans exposed by Hurricane Katrina, for example, should prompt the sector to “renew and reclaim its advocacy role, its community-change role and its systems-change role,” said Barbara Metelsky, the institute’s director.

Tom Lambeth, a senior fellow and retired executive director at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, said Katrina may pose the “supreme moral challenge to nonprofits and funders.”

Citing the creed of the U.S. Army Rangers never to leave a fallen comrade behind, Lambeth said the charitable world must ask “who have we left behind, who are we leaving behind every time we make decisions” on issues such as affordable housing, public schools and health insurance.

Jocelyn DeVance Taliaferro, an assistant professor of social work at N.C. State, said shaping policy discussions and staying true to their mission is tough for nonprofits because they increasingly rely on government funding and thus face growing pressure to adjust their mission to respond to government.

“Organizations have to decide how far to move the line,” she said.

And Bettie Murchison, executive director of The DuBois Center in Wake Forest, said donors are “looking for ways to make giving and volunteering and their work more meaningful.”

Nonprofits that “morph into a wider vision will be the most stable,” she said.

Barbara Goodmon, president of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal, said nonprofits should get more involved in pushing to change public policies that underlie social problems.

Not enough nonprofits, funders and corporate givers, for example, spoke up during the just-ended session of the state legislature to push for a big increase in state funding for affordable housing, she said.

“Where were the voices calling and harassing?” she asked.

Taliaferro said many nonprofits can be reluctant to get involved in policy debates in the belief that are not permitted to be advocates.

“We’re timid,” she said.

Hammack said that while all nonprofits to some extent play an advocacy role, public policy as it develops tends to be more uniform and thus counter to the diversity that represents nonprofits’ strength.

Equally challenging for nonprofits, he said, is the dilemma of deciding whether to approach donors to “give to the immediate need versus investing in the future.”

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