Does Sexism Keep Nonprofits Out of Politics?


Late last week, in response to a report from the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations (advocating for nonprofits and churches to be able to directly engage in partisan politics), Diana Aviv, the CEO of Independent Sector,  issued a rather predictable statement  “Urging Public Officials to Reject Recommendations to Allow Political Activity by Charities.”

I understand this historic point of view, but rather than call for open debate about our role, she shut the door with this definitive closing sentence, “501(c)(3) organizations, as the public trust demands, should remain above the political fray, advocating and informing leaders, but never engaging in political activity.”

Needless to say, I disagree.

Before you say it, I will….YES, it would be messy. YES, it would change the very nature of our sector. YES, it would open the door for conflict and collusion. But we don”t have a choice. Here’s why:

First, businesses now have unfettered ability to engage in politics, and can help elect leaders who create laws and policies that affect our work, the communities we serve, and the economy that binds us together. Democracy isn’t easy, and it’s patently undemocratic for our sector to not have that equal right. For those who suggest we trade those rights for “tax-deductions,” I would counter with: corporate America solicits and receives tax breaks too, on a level equal or greater than those afforded to nonprofits, and that does not disqualify them.

Second, our role in the economy is undeniable. We are the third largest employer in America, pay payroll taxes, and attract significant financial investment into every community we touch. Our work sets the social stage for traditional businesses (and cities) to thrive. This should give us equal rights and political voice as we debate the future.

Third, as my friend Joel Berg was quick to point out in a discussion about Independent Sector’s statement, “In a democracy, there should be no activity more noble than political activity. This idea that non-profits are pure and righteous — and that somehow evil, slimy, politics is beneath them — is both an insult to democracy, and absurd self-aggrandizement on behalf of the nonprofit sector.”

But at a much deeper level, I think the rules and attitudes that are used to demarcate our role in politics are based on outdated, and patently sexist bias.

In 2008, I wrote “A New Generation, a New Commitment to Change” for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. It reflected on the 40th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination and the birth of modern charity. In it, I suggested that gender and sexism played a profound impact on how we were founded and funded, and how we’ve been conditioned to view our role in the political process. Here are some excerpts:

“Driven by idealistic citizens who were moved by the decade’s historic, inspirational, yet often divisive struggles — civil rights, the women’s movement, Vietnam, and the tragic roster of murdered visionaries —a new generation of leaders began to emerge who would not let the dream die. And during the next 25 years, the number of nonprofit groups in the United States exploded.

Back then, nobody was trained to lead a nonprofit organization. It was considered more a calling than a career. And while people from varied backgrounds emerged as leaders, perhaps the most unexpected, and undervalued, were the tens of thousands of college-educated, stay-at-home mothers.

 These were women who had married, managed their family’s finances, ran the PTA, and, as their children began to leave home in the 1970s, decided it was now their turn —and by the tens of thousands they asserted themselves both personally and professionally and set out to make a difference in their communities and for our country by starting thousands of nonprofit organizations. Yet as intelligent, capable, and forward thinking as this generation of women was, they and the organizations springing up ran headlong into two seemingly intransigent forces.

In the 1970s, America was still deeply divided and mired in gender and race bias. Many of these “founding mothers” brought with them an internalized understanding of their “role,” and if they didn’t, it was imposed on their fledgling organizations by the cultural norms of the larger society. One thing seemed certain: As long as these new organizations limited their work to nurturing, feminized charity work, like feeding poor people, beautifying communities, or elevating the arts, they were humored, and even honored.

 But “radical” talk of economic empowerment, social justice, or political inclusion was overtly discouraged.

And while some pioneering women, like Marion Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund or Elouise Cobell at the Native American Community Development Corporation, were able to break partially free of these societal confines, the majority of the women who fought to redefine the decision-making process in America faced another great barrier: the foundation system.

Often dominated by men who were charged with dispensing money made by other men, foundations rarely awarded money that fostered independence for grantees, nor did they make grants to organizations that pushed too hard on the dominant social order or to those that engaged in political advocacy.

In these formative years, and even today, grants are primarily made to submissive organizations — those willing to jump through countless hoops, those that would not push back when confronted with short-sighted policies, and those that would make do with much less than they knew was needed to do the job right.

Rather than organize into a collective political force or explore their growing economic potential, this new generation of nonprofit groups spun off in a thousand different directions. Rather than pick up where King and Kennedy left off, with the goal of economic inclusion and equality, they were forced into — or accepted — the narrow confines of “charity,” with its flawed power dynamic that emphasized the redemption of the giver over the liberation of the receiver.”

My point then, and now, is that the rules that govern our sector — indeed, the very nature of our how we view ourselves — is rooted in systemic sexism.

Sure…another “new generation” of nonprofit and foundation leaders are MUCH less prone to genuflect to these old barriers. But, as evidenced by the response from Independent Sector, the conversation halts when we talk about an unrestricted role in politics. Then, as now, there is no money or appetite for the fight we must eventually have–for a real voice in the process of defining America.

If this strikes a chord, please read it in it’s entirety and consider passing it on. It’s five years old…but it still cuts.