Nonprofits need to be watchdogs, not suck-ups

[Editor’s note: A longer version of this article was published in The Cohen Report, a publication of the Nonprofit Quarterly.]

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

Rick Cohen

Here’s the worst thing we can do for the Obama Administration and the 111th Congress: Be quiet.

No, there’s even something worse: We can transform into an uncritical handmaiden of the handful of insiders who have grabbed the “nonprofit expert” roles in the new
administration rather than doing what the nonprofit sector should always do, which is to stand apart, critique, mobilize the communities we represent, and demand social justice.

This is not a knock on the new president, who has been in office for only 100 days in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s.

But President Obama does not need nonprofit suck-ups; he needs nonprofits that remind everyone about the kind of change that the public thought it got and hopefully will get with his election over John McCain.

As a former community organizer, Obama knows the importance of reminding even your elected friends and allies about what they promised to deliver – and how.

So how should nonprofits approach the new administration?

First, rather than pitching slogans and soft-soap PR, nonprofit leaders have to weigh in with detailed, substantive analyses to move the Obama administration on these critical issues.

This is not the time to dumb down.

We all know that former Obama campaign aides who didn’t end up in the White House are being gobbled by K Street lobbyists to represent various corporate special interests, while others in the
White House were hardly immune to a lobbying paycheck from, for example, the banking and hedge-fund industries.

None of this should mean Obama is controlled in any way by aides with lobbying connections.

In some instances, these Obama-connected lobbyists might actually be advocating policies and programs beneficial to our nation and to the nonprofit sector.

Lobbying isn’t a bad thing, but the lobbying game, from the perspective of lobbyists serving well-heeled corporate clients, depends on connections to the sitting decision-makers, no matter how progressive or conservative their pedigree.

Prior campaign involvement is no impediment to successful K Street careers.

Nonprofits have to lobby, too, but in the public interest, not for narrow special interests.

The historic role of the nonprofit sector is not to be the government’s community outpost with a “human face”, but truly a “third sector” scrutinizing government and business, advocating for policy change, giving voice to communities in need – few of which will have the resources to get much attention from K Street powerhouses.

While the Obama Administration is so far displaying all the right signals on transparency and accountability, we have sharp memories of disappointments on that score with the Clinton Administration, not to mention the closed-hop operations of the Bush Administration.

Nonprofit watchdogs are needed as much whether a “friend” or less-than-friend is in the White House.

There are big challenges for the nonprofit sector even within ostensibly pro-nonprofit initiatives.

Will the Social Innovation Fund built into the Serve America Act support a wide range of groups or only some large, self-defined socially entrepreneurial groups?

Will the nonprofit-appropriate economic stimulus programs in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act reach nonprofits or be diverted to state and municipal delivery mechanisms, as has happened with some of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds for the redevelopment of foreclosed homes?

Will nonprofits effectively mobilize to monitor expenditures in the stimulus to ensure they really create jobs and protect households most severely impacted by the recession?

For government and the nonprofit sector, the devil is in the details of the programs and their implementation, and that requires a critical, analytical posture.

At the same time, nonprofits have to know where they want to target and why.

Some of the advocacy around the Serve America Act against potential advocacy gag amendments was counterproductive, given that much of it occurred after the gag amendments were already dead and buried.

Telling nonprofits to flood the likes of Senators Barbara Mikulsi and Ted Kennedy with emails reminding them to do the right thing when they were the Congressional floor leaders doing exactly the right thing doesn’t come off well.

So let’s spare members of Congress, in the worst instances, nonprofit branding and PR masquerading as public-policy advocacy.

Let’s spare Obama and his aides from having to read treacly materials whose subtexts read, “I (heart) Obama”, “notice me”, “fund me”, and “give me an earmark”.

Let’s keep the heat on Congress and the administration when they need it, not on behalf of individual nonprofits or even narrow nonprofit subsectors, but on behalf of the communities our organizations purport to represent.

Or else the big-time interests in society, even within our sector, will gorge themselves at the Obama administration’s table, and we’ll see less delivered from Obama than what he himself wants to see happen.

Rick Cohen is national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly.

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