Earlier this month, the Center for Civil Society convened philanthropists, fundraisers, and nonprofit leaders for a day-long conference in Winter Park, Florida. The conference investigated “Democracy and Philanthropy in America,” considering the ways in which philanthropy can both strengthen and threaten our democracy.
A core focus of the Center is the role nonprofits play in building up a healthy democracy, and especially their unique role in American civic life. The nonprofit sector is essential to our American tradition of limited government—but independence of nonprofits is also essential.
One panel during the conference lamented the declining independence of the Independent Sector, the 42-year-old membership and lobbying organization that was founded to represent nonprofits and charities. Today, however, the Independent Sector, so it was argued, is hardly “independent.”
The organization today focuses less on the independence of small, voluntary, civic organizations peppering our nation from sea to shining sea. Instead, the organization is a D.C.-based behemoth obsessed more with federal government regulations and policies.
Backing up this insight is full-throated endorsement from the Independent Sector of a newly proposed bill to establish a permanent office in the White House to represent the nonprofit sector.
The stated purpose of the bill is “to strengthen the nonprofit sector, make the federal government a more productive partner with nonprofits, improve access to data about the sector, and raise awareness of the nonprofit sector throughout government.” So much for independence.
This new office would be led by an adviser to the president and would make “recommendations on federal policies that would strengthen the nonprofit sector and its partnership with government.”
Of course, this proposal should be unsurprising. It fits squarely in line with a decades-long trend of focusing all American attention in D.C. and increasingly in the Office of the Executive. This trend was another theme at the conference. Senator Ben Sasse’s keynote address lamented that the only shared narrative Americans have today is a shared political narrative, a thin gruel to foster the “mystic chords of memory” that Lincoln thought necessary to ensure the vitality of our Union.
The nonprofit sector has—or at least had—the ability to bind Americans together around shared interests and values. Missions local and diverse draw citizens out of themselves to answer a need in the communities, their states, their nation. But with this bill we see the collective head-turning of the sector, a move that betrays a preference for dependence rather than independence.
Perhaps this adviser to the president and the streamlined federal grant applications would “strengthen the nonprofit sector”—but it would hardly strengthen the independence of the nonprofit sector. It would hardly strengthen the diversity and local affiliation of the millions of organizations that together make up the nonprofit sector. It would hardly strengthen the “middle space” of civil society that exists between the individual and the government.
This bill is just the next act in expanding the federal government to the detriment of civic associations. It is a subtle move that purports to bolster charities; but in forcing a new marriage between the nonprofit sector and the federal government, it cuts off at the knees the real vitality of American charitable giving.