Charity needs bigger role in presidential transition

[Editor’s note: A longer version of this column was published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy]3

Pablo Eisenberg
Pablo Eisenberg

Pablo Eisenberg

Barack Obama got his start working on the front lines as a community organizer for local nonprofits, and in his campaign he touted the importance of volunteerism and civic engagement.

Yet instead of relying heavily on people with real-world nonprofit experience as he plans for a new administration, Mr. Obama is getting most of his advice from people who work at think-tanks or who were old hands in the Clinton administration.

Despite some encouraging exceptions, too few nonprofit executives have been tapped for transition duties or White House jobs — people who have run community-development programs, built affordable housing, fought at the local level for immigrant rights, operated successful social-service programs, and developed strong community-organizing and advocacy efforts.

Many nonprofit officials are both distressed and puzzled by this turn of events.

Despite the shortage of nonprofit workers on the transition committees, committee members say they have reached out to officials at charities and grass-roots groups throughout the country.

At this stage, it is impossible to tell whether those contributions have really influenced or shaped the views and recommendations of the transition groups.

Many thoughtful nonprofit executives have not been contacted, and it is not always easy for nonprofit leaders to reach the transition aides.

Transition aides need to keep in mind that nothing can replace the experience and wisdom that nonprofit executives can bring to the day-to-day deliberations about priorities in the new administration.

To the extent that the transition committees will have an important say in the selection of White House and agency staff members, the exclusion of nonprofit executives may become even more meaningful.

In its thinking about nonprofits, the Obama transition has focused an inordinate amount of attention on social-entrepreneurship.

This heavy focus may be distorting the real needs of charities and the people they serve.

Entrepreneurship programs and organizations constitute only a tiny sliver of the nonprofit world, and do not and will not carry the major burden of curbing poverty, providing adequate social services, and spurring community development and job creation.

If there is to be a White House Office for Nonprofits, it should be much broader and more expansive in its outlook and mission than supporting entrepreneurship.

It should be concerned with the vast number of local social-service programs that face threats to their survival.

And it should pay attention to the role the White House can play in pushing foundations to assume a greater share of the responsibility for supporting nonprofits.

In short, the transition needs to have a larger vision of the role nonprofit groups play in civil society.

There is still time to add seasoned nonprofit leaders to the committees now working to shape policies and make personnel appointments.

Bringing in some new people with practical experience can only enhance the quality of the transition process. We don’t need a surfeit of policy wonks and think-tank operatives.

Pablo Eisenberg is senior fellow at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute.

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