Nonprofit Congress not a grassroots movement

To the editor,

I want to begin this letter by stating that I have a deep belief in the need for a strong national network of state associations of nonprofits.

I think that they have a clear charge as “trade associations” to foresee and take action on policy and regulatory issues that might aid or unnecessarily constrain the legitimate functions of nonprofits.

They also perform much needed services in networking and  providing training, and in the best of cases they provide leadership on social justice issues as was the case when the Minnesota Council of nonprofits along with many others, opposed the constitutional amendment to prohibit civil unions and same sex marriage.

So I admire these associations and I believe the sector is much healthier for having them.

But Audrey Alvarado of the National Council of Nonprofit Associations in her letter of 04.25.06, [“Strong nonprofits essential for delivering change”] referred to the Nonprofit Congress as a grassroots movement and, as someone who cares about the power of language, I have to take strong issue with this.

Even if the congress were to involve a full range of nonprofits from across the country and representing the many fields of endeavor we are in, it would not be a grassroots movement.

Grassroots groups are, by definition, organizations that do not just reflect the voices of the citizens most affected by the problem being addressed but are responsive to and largely led by these citizen constituencies.

That is what makes them powerful – enviable.

It’s a strategic advantage to legitimately claim a grassroots base, as it should be.

Unfortunately, I think many nonprofits waive this advantage that is at the core of the sector’s purpose and do not practice in a way that would designate them as grassroots based.

Nonprofit Quarterly recently reprinted an article run in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly that examined the chasm between the views and beliefs of directors of poverty agencies and the people of the communities those agencies were serving.

This chasm existed even where the organizations used language about empowerment of the community and held themselves up as representatives of those communities.

Again, grassroots, by definition, involves individual citizens in making themselves heard on issues of importance to them.

And although I believe that the health of nonprofits should be of interest to individual citizens, it would be difficult to argue that this is among most people’s top 10 concerns.

As Rick Cohen of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy says [“Challenges for Nonprofit Congress”, Philanthropy Journal, 04.17.06], these concerns tend to be more basic.

“I can’t afford a house.”

“My house got washed away by flood.”

“I’m afraid my pension will be stolen.”

“I hate the war.”

“Toxic waste has been killing people in my community.”

Even: “I hate the way political campaigns are run.”

While you can make a good argument that the nonprofits of this country attend to all of these issues, and that in some cases they organize people at the grassroots level around them, it is patently absurd to assume that people now see nonprofits as a class as being important enough to fight about and for.

This maybe should be changed, but for now people take us for granted and we advocate for ourselves.

There is nothing wrong with that, but let’s be clear about it.

The National Council of Nonprofit Associations is the national voice for state associations of local nonprofits.

Someone coined the term “astroturf” during the last election relative to phony “grassroots” claims.

I guess I believe that we should be the last sector that abuses the term since I believe that the purpose of the sector is all about helping to organize people at the grassroots to take on activities and concerns in active organized ways.

The meaning of the term should be sacred to us and we should be crystal clear about what it means.

In a country suffering so deeply from a disappointed kind of democratic deficit, we need to avoid “spinning” what we do. It interrupts credibility and will, in the end, place us in very bad company.

Ruth McCambridge, Editor in Chief, NINA/Nonprofit Quarterly, Boston

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