Nonprofits and Democracy at a Crossroads - Next Steps

Nonprofits and Democracy at a Crossroads - Next Steps






January 21, 2010
Dear CLPI Colleagues:
Today, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruled that large corporations and unions can now spend unlimited amounts of money from their general treasuries on partisan political activity. As the recent debates over foreclosures, health care, the environment and financial regulation all make clear, large moneyed interests already dominate public policy. Regardless of ideology or views, the nonpartisan voices of public-interest advocates and constituents must fight hard to be heard. 
Nonprofits and democracy are at a crossroads. As crisis and change envelop us and our constituents, will we change with the times? Will we decisively jettison the culture of fear and update the rules that still engender so much confusion and hesitation? Will we and our constituents continue to be cast as second class citizens in a democracy of, by and for the people?
The Chronicle of Philanthropy today has re-posted a CLPI Opinion piece entitled Philanthropy Must Change Culture and Rules in World of Money and Politics, which recommends next steps for nonprofits and philanthropy in light of today's Supreme Court decision. 
Some next steps for charities and foundations to prioritize policy and civic engagement include:
• Simplify and update the IRS charitable lobbying rules and related federal and state rules;

• Create bright line IRS rules to simplify, expand and facilitate compliance with permissible nonpartisan voter engagement by charities and related federal and state rules;

• Lift the advocacy restrictions on Legal Services Corporation funds and prevent such restrictions in other government programs so that charities at a minimum can use private, state or local funds for advocacy; 

• Promote democracy reforms including, but not limited to, public financing of elections through matching of small donations, automatic voter registration of all citizens, and a proper Census; 

• Fund dedicated policy staff and/or general support, and, as a field, establish a target of substantially more than 12% of private and community foundation funds for "structural change" through organizing, policy and civic engagement (see Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies and Foundation Center reports);

• Forge a stronger nonprofit identity that cuts across issue and geographical communities in order to address issues like nonprofit advocacy, budgets and democracy.
We hope there will be many discussions of these and other ideas for "making real the promise of democracy."  Please visit for more information on several of these nonprofit advocacy reforms.
Thank you!
Larry Ottinger
Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest

P.S.  Please visit Common Cause to find excellent materials on the Supreme Court case and several democracy reform efforts. Please also see Public Campaign on the federal public financing bill to broaden civic engagement.  For funders, the Funders' Committee for Civic Engagement and Piper Fund will be co-hosting a briefing on the Supreme Court case in the next few days. 

Click here to read Suzanne Perry's article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, quoting CLPI President Larry Ottinger. This article, published January 22, 2010, addresses the implications on Nonprofit Advocacy that the Citizens United decision may have.

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"Getting the change you want in public policy will occur most readily when you join with other groups in coalition."

Elizabeth M. Heagy

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