imageA year from now our country will be moving in a new direction, God willing.  The presidential election of 2008 will be here before we know it.  How should our large nonprofit sector participate, what message would we like to send to our fellow citizens about how to vote?

At the recent Independent Sector conference in Los Angeles, several hundred foundation and nonprofit representatives spent the better part of the opening afternoon thinking about what nonprofits need from Congress and the public: SBA-type financial and technical support?1   Increased understanding of nonprofits among Congressional representatives and the public?  The Nonprofit Congress puts forward similar goals; its top priorities are to increase capacity of nonprofits, “advocate for the sector at large” and “increase public understanding and support” for nonprofits.

Umbrella associations like IS or the Nonprofit Congress can’t be blamed, of course, for looking for the common interest among their otherwise divergent membership.  Unfortunately, though, those common interests are often the ones that are least important to everyone, or at least the most boring, things like arcane tax issues.  This makes it hard for any organization to be as invested in those lowest common denominator interests than in ones more closely linked to their core work. 

It should be clear that talking about what nonprofits need is not the way to make nonprofits relevant to the general public, certainly not in the upcoming presidential election. People don’t care about nonprofits, they only care about the work nonprofits do, and that doesn’t translate so neatly into caring about what nonprofits need.  Worse, to the extent the targets of messages about nonprofits are members of Congress, can we imagine a group of people less susceptible to persuasion, more disciplined in the art of discounting such pleas as entirely based in self-interest?

But even if such efforts were successful, would they really help?  Should a stronger nonprofit sector be at the top of our wish list?

The U.S.has perhaps the strongest independent sector in the world.  Sadly, we still rank at or near the bottom of developed countries in many important indicators of well being, including educational attainment, infant mortality, access to health insurance and health care, gap between rich and poor, and the list goes on.  

Most likely, the problem isn’t that the U.S. nonprofit sector is not strong enough.  And with all due respect to advocates of social enterprise, the problem isn’t that we simply haven’t figured out how to use the markets better or change the values of American business.  The problem, rather, is that the broader social policy environment is hostile to most of our missions, hostile even to the concept of a common good.  That’s the limiting factor that should be changed. 

The question is how to do it, of course.  A good start might be a common agenda of a different kind.  There is no shortage of options here.  Universal health insurance is already a dominant issue in both parties, second only to getting out of Iraq (and hopefully not Iran too).  Education is near the top of most voters’ concerns, and it is getting a boost from a $60 million investment from the Gates and Broad foundations and their ‘Ed in ‘08” campaign.  Likewise, the poverty is being pushed forward by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Eos Foundation in their “Spotlight on Poverty” campaign.  (For my two cents, reducing poverty is the key.  It is often the very same people who get sick, drop out of school, can’t find work or adequate housing – in the medical lingo, they show multiple indicators of the sickness of poverty.  This should be the subject of another post altogether.)

So how can umbrella organizations like IS, Nonprofit Congress, National Council of Nonprofit Associations, the Council on Foundations and others, best help change the environment to increase the odds their members can succeed?  Again, they all must serve member organizations with very broad and diverse interests. But if there is anything nonprofits share in common, it is the belief that people can make a difference by working together, and that in many instances, they owe it to each other to try.  This might be a common highest denominator.  Exploring this theme seems a good place for nonprofit associations to start. 

1 To be fair, other bits of the IS conference were terrific – for example, the closing panel discussion did feature an excellent debate on how to increase understanding across cultural, ethnic and religious communities and reduce poverty (and everything Andy Goodman said was both simple and brilliant at once).

imagePeter Manzo is the director of strategic initiatives for the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization, and a senior research fellow with the Center for Civil Society in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Previously, he was the executive director and general counsel of the Center for Nonprofit Management.