If all goes well, on October 16 and 17 of this year, 500 soup kitchen staffers, Republican think-tankers, bowling league captains, and other nonprofit representatives will join forces to make a big noise about America’s Third Sector. They’ll gather in Washington, DC at the first-ever Nonprofit Congress, brainchild of Audrey Alvarado, executive director of the National Council of Nonprofit Associations. I interviewed Dr. Alvarado about the origins and aims of this ambitious effort ,
SSIR FORUM: How did the Nonprofit Congress come into being?
AUDREY ALVARADO: In the fall of 2004, I queried my national colleagues about the possibility of having a joint national meeting. There had been some talk and encouragement from both funders and nonprofits to have one large conference for the sector; however, there was little support from my colleagues for the idea.
Shortly after trying to generate interest in a national combined event I met with Robert Egger who runs DC Central Kitchen. He had just published his book, Begging for Change, which challenges some of the current thinking about the purpose and role of nonprofits. We talked about the idea of having a national event where nonprofits and their allies would come to DC for a Congress. We both were concerned with the direction of the nonprofit sector and wondered out loud what the sector would look like if it was united—what kind of power and influence would we have. We were also concerned with the negative press around the sector and the impact that this media attention was having on the thousands of nonprofits that are doing amazing work in their communities. We both felt like it was time for the sector to unite and exercise a collective voice.
You mention voice, and in fact the tagline for the Nonprofit Congress is “many visions, one voice.” What are the kinds of things, in your view, that organizations as diverse as the ACLU, the Heritage Foundation, the National Refrigeration Association, and the local soup kitchen might say with one voice?
It is not really a matter of the actual message but rather the role that the nonprofit sector has historically played in stewarding our democracy and raising the voices or the concerns of their constituents. We, along with many others, see a real need for nonprofits to reclaim their role in advancing civil society by organizing, mobilizing, and encouraging those they serve to speak out and advocate on behalf of their causes. I suspect that Heritage, ACLU and the NRA would all agree that they want to retain their rights as organizations and individuals to “petition their government” or raise a ruckus when they see the need; as well as to work in effective partnership with the government and business sectors to promote efforts in the public’s best interest.
There are some in our sector who believe that keeping a high profile can only hurt us, that showing our strength will invite hostile legislation and regulation. How do you respond to that?
I have heard that concern. We have some good-hearted folks who just want to serve and prefer not to receive recognition for their service. This is commendable and is reflective of the unique character of many individuals who work in the sector. But we have also found out the hard way that being silent often comes at the cost of not addressing the systemic issues facing our constituents and communities. Also, the nonprofit sector is a partner with the public and for-profit sectors so let’s act like equal partners.
The 500 delegates to the Nonprofit Congress will gather in Washington, DC in part to create a policy platform for the sector. What are the kinds of things this policy platform might include?
The substantive content will be informed by the numerous Town Hall meetings that have been and will be held in communities across the country. It is absolutely essential for the legitimacy of this effort that the issues in the platform come from the field and the Town Hall meetings are designed to do just that. The issues/discussion points we have heard so far are not surprising. Yet they affirm what many of us trying to represent the perspectives and issues of concern to nonprofits have heard. Issues raised, thus far, include the need for sustainable funding strategies, the interest in partnering with the public sector to meet community needs, the need for greater collaboration among nonprofits to enhance service delivery, and the need to raise public awareness of the vital role nonprofits play in our communities. There is also recognition from nonprofits on the frontlines that we must come together as a collective force to make a difference at both the state and local levels.
OK, so now we have some regulatory and legislative proposals on the table. And we’re trying, as you say, to act like equal partners with the public and for-profit sectors. Even supposing that we could get 2,000 nonprofits to participate in this effort, we’d still be representing less than one percent of all the charities in the United States. Why would policymakers and businesspeople to listen to us?
You are right 2,000 nonprofits is a drop in the bucket, when you are looking at a sector that is over 1 million plus. That is why we plan to use the magic of technology for additional outreach. We want to hear from as many nonprofits as possible and are encouraging their postings on the Nonprofit Congress website. After the event in October, information will be widely distributed for further refinement so the number of nonprofits and allies involved in this movement can increase exponentially. The NCNA network has 22,000 members right now and we are actively seeking partnerships with other networks so that we can get more nonprofits informed and involved. This is a beginning and with all beginnings you must start somewhere. Our hope is that this movement will grow as the Nonprofit Congress platform takes shape and shows results.
Audrey, thank you so much for helping us better understand the Nonprofit Congress. Any closing words for your colleagues in the Blogosphere?
We encourage people to learn more about the Nonprofit Congress and sign up for regular updates via our website. We want as many nonprofit leaders as possible to get informed and involved. Thanks for the opportunity.