Last week the House of Representatives passed legislation to take away the majority of National Public Radio’s federal funding. Much of the national dialogue around this decision has been centered on the firing of Juan Williams, the perceived political leanings of NPR, and the candid taping of executive Rob Schiller’s unfortunate statements and the subsequent resignation of its CEO. While the loss of funding is concerning for those who see the great value of publicly supported media outlets, there should be even greater concern over who is advocating for and protecting nonprofit organizations that find themselves in situations like NPR’s.

The Wrong Side of the Legislative Process

In an SSIR blog I wrote last year, I noted that the three largest pieces of legislation created in the first two years of the Obama administration—amounting to 3,000 pages—the nonprofit sector was barely mentioned. I heard a story from a colleague in Washington who said that when House Democrats were about to present the health care bill for passage, a prominent House Congressional aide announced that the nonprofit sector was left out of the language of the bill completely. They went on to say that the legislators looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and moved on to the celebration. As I have written before, this is concerning: The nonprofit sector will have a major role in implementing the work, but has little or no role in designing it.

On the other side of the policy issue is a more troublesome challenge that has shown itself in recent years. Lately, our political leaders in Washington are looking to engage the nonprofit sector to help meet its political agenda. This engagement has had very serious ramifications for several organizations. The most notable might be the Association for Community Organizations for Reform, better known as ACORN.  Just over a year ago, Congress passed and the President signed bill S.182, which prohibits the “Federal government from awarding contracts, grants, or other agreements to, providing any other Federal funds to, or engaging in activities that promote the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now”. Several months earlier, a report by Republicans on the House Oversight Committee stated, “Both structurally and operationally, ACORN hides behind a paper wall of nonprofit corporate protections to conceal a criminal conspiracy on the part of its directors, to launder federal money in order to pursue a partisan agenda and to manipulate the American electorate”. Similar to NPR, ACORN was a victim of a video “sting” that had a significant impact on public opinion; one study showed that 52 percent of Republicans believed ACORN “stole the 2008 election”. A short time later, legislation was introduced, and subsequently, the 30-year-old organization that helped tens of thousands of low-income people register to vote was defunct.

The challenge in all of this is that there was little outrage in the nonprofit sector. Now, as NPR, Planned Parenthood, and other organizations fall in the path of a political agenda, where will the nonprofit sector stand? Shortly after ACORN closed, both the United Stated General Accounting Office (GAO) and the Massachusetts Attorney General released audit reports related to ACORN. The GAO looked at the six highly publicized cases of alleged ACORN-related voter fraud, and all these cases were closed for lack of evidence. The Massachusetts AG report stated, “While some of the advice and counsel given by ACORN employees and volunteers was clearly inappropriate and unprofessional, we did not find a pattern of intentional, illegal conduct by ACORN staff; in fact, there is no evidence that action, illegal or otherwise, was taken by any ACORN employee”.  There are scary similarities in the ACORN case and where we are with NPR, but the most shocking similarity between NPR and ACORN is the lack of support shown by the nonprofit sector.

The Disconnect Among Nonprofit Leaders in Understanding Policy Development

I teach social policy to undergraduate social work students at Rutgers University. To help the students understand the policy process, I developed a simple outline of how areas within policy development interact with each other, loosely called within my classes the “Brothers Policy Framework”.  The following outlines the important areas around this policy development model.


1. Actual Law or Policy – As a starting point to understanding a piece of policy or legislation, we must understand what is the actual law or policy that is proposed or in effect. This is the centerpiece in understanding and dialoguing around the other movable parts of policy development.

2. Popular Culture or Media Around Issue – One important dynamic that can pull or sway policy development is how that issue is depicted in popular culture. Many policy scholars call this “framing the issue,” and this is the source of much of the public debate around policy. Of course, this aspect of policy development can have a major impact on the legislative process, as we saw with the ACORN debacle.

3. Historical Pull on Issue – Most issues have a long history in the public domain, and there have been many ebbs and flows as it relates to its development.  An interesting and volatile issue is the New York City nonprofit organization that wants to create a mosque near the World Trade Center. The history of that area is the single most important issue in the debate.

4. Implementation – Once the public has moved on to another policy area and the dialogue is added to the history books, sorting out the actual policy becomes the work of practitioners through implementation. While the health care debate continues to find itself in the public discussion, there are thousands of health care professionals now working through how to implement the new legislation.

While each of the areas has a relationship to the actual developed policy, they also have a relationship to each other. History impacts popular culture, popular culture impacts implementation, and all of the other combinations impact each other within the model. This is what policy scholar Debra Stone might call “policy dynamics”.

While the above is not monumental thought as it relates to understanding policy development, I am worried about how little nonprofit leaders understand about policy development and where they can place themselves within the policy development process. As I met with over 20 nonprofit leaders last week and had an open discussion about the sector, many of the individuals passionately brought up issues surrounding the challenges at NPR or the union debate happening in Wisconsin. When pressed on how these issues relate to policy, and what they or the nonprofit sector could do to have an impact in these areas, the room largely fell silent. A small number stated that they rely on their state or national associations to advocate or that they were unsure about how they could inject themselves into the situation and be helpful.

These are valid responses, but the problem of the sector’s involvement in the protection of our fellow nonprofits is still there. How can the country’s fastest growing sector, one that represents 10 percent of our country’s GDP not protect itself and each other from this? Why are leaders who represent this awesome sector unable to or unaware of how to take action? We know that there will be a future ACORN/NPR-type action against a similar major nonprofit. It will rouse public controversy and spark legislation that will come to a vote. Given the momentum behind using the nonprofit sector in political debate, this is a given. My major challenge is getting the sector to respond and advocate for itself. For future ACORNs and NPRs, I certainly hope it’s possible.

Read more stories by John Brothers.