Has Obama forgotten his community roots?

Pablo Eisenberg
Pablo Eisenberg

Pablo Eisenberg

Despite his background as a community organizer in Chicago, President Barack Obama has not been willing to unleash the power of community organizing.

The Obama administration’s lack of understanding of what organizing is all can be seen in its efforts to help nonprofits do more to expand their services to the neediest Americans.

The White House said it wanted to strengthen nonprofits by providing new resources through the Corporation for National and Community Service and one of its projects, the Social Innovation Fund.

The innovation fund is supposed to spearhead the administration’s efforts to solve big problems by promoting innovative practices and effective nonprofits, as well as by devising better measurements to evaluate effectiveness.

The advisers who laid the groundwork for the Obama administration’s national-service efforts, especially the new Social Innovation Fund, were largely people who focus on using business techniques to advance social goals.

It soon became clear the administration held a narrow view of those nonprofits it hoped to strengthen.

That focus did not include community organizers or nonprofit activist organizations.

It fixated primarily on social-entrepreneurial organizations and efforts like Harlem Children’s Zone and Citizen Schools that could be spread nationwide.

In its briefings on the Social Innovation Fund, White House staff members made it clear that nonprofit activism was not a priority, or even a concern.

If Obama staff members were really thinking like community organizers, they never would have allowed the Social Innovation Fund to be set up to perform so much of its work by relying on aid from foundations.

Officials of the Social Innovation Fund say they adopted this approach because foundations know nonprofits well and have the skills to identify appropriate groups and help them grow.

The administration also hopes to inspire grant makers to give more money to promising nonprofits, with the goal of spreading the most effective approaches broadly.

How naïve can a group of supposedly high-powered presidential advisers be?

Foundations have spent only a tiny share of their resources to help low-income people, minorities, disabled Americans, and social-change organizations.

And they have spent even less to support charities that seek to organize community residents and influence public policies.

While the United States has dozens of solid and creative grant makers, foundations and their boards in general are the most elitist institutions in the country, often unfamiliar with their communities and frequently insensitive to the needs of the majority of citizens and immigrants.

So why give them total responsibility for running this pilot ship of innovation?

Many other organizations – and their leaders – are better suited for this task.

White House staff members have said they want the Social Innovation Fund to spread promising nonprofit efforts and expand the reach of effective organizations that provide services in education and health care.

But their attention is likely to focus on well-known groups with social cachet, not the thousands of successful small and medium-size nonprofits throughout the country that are in desperate need of financial support and assistance.

They most certainly will not include community organizing, advocacy, and watchdog groups.

While there is a great deal of independent community organizing and activism taking place across the country, it is clearly not a movement with which the Obama administration feels comfortable or cares very much about.

The fund’s architects do not seem to have given much thought to the leadership needs and costs that it takes to promote good programs.

Nor does the fund’s tiny budget – it is expected to receive $35-million to $50million next year – indicate any seriousness on the part of the administration.

For all the publicity given to the White House’s desire to support nonprofits and social innovation, we are instead left with a vague, confused and irrelevant effort.

The administration’s goal of increasing the amount foundations spend is laudable, but the Social Innovation Fund is not the way to go about it.

The Obama administration could do far more by pressing Congress to increase the percentage of assets that foundations must distribute each year and by using the powerful tool of presidential persuasion to spur foundations to give more.

Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. A longer version of this article was published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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