Thursday, October 05, 2006


Si Se Puede: Nonprofits, Government & The Left
by pam ashlund

When does government start and politics end? In my experience most nonprofits are heavily funded with government dollars to implement government programs (so much so that I have come to think of many non-profits as not much more than government sub-contractors). The ironic thing is that if we can do the work more effectively (and cheaper) than the government…and the only reason we can do it cheaper is because we’re exempt from government taxes…and the government revenue stream is lower because we aren’t paying taxes… what exactly is happening here?

Furthermore, if we (and the government) are committed to many of the same causes (e.g. to provide a good and just life for the citizens of the world)…why exactly is prohibited?

I know, I know, there is always the 501(c)4 status that can allow some lobbying…but what I am thinking about today is the attack on non-profits participating in the political process. Specifically, if the platform of Senator Grass-Heap’s is that non-profits are secretly “for the left” and therefore one avenue to attack the left is attach non-profits … Then—

    1. are nonprofits actually more skewed toward the left?
    2. do we actually want to be doing politics?
    3. isn’t being involved in the political process the best way to move our causes forward (i.e. helping the homeless, increasing the opportunities for the disadvantages, reducing poverty), etc. etc. etc.

To quote September's OMB Watch:

“(recent) developments highlight the continued confusion and ambiguity that have plagued IRS policy on voter education and mobilization activities by nonprofits.”
This reminded me of an AmeriCorps fiscal training I attended some years back. In particular, the section on “allowable costs”—a favorite topic for non-profits managing federal funds.

For the funding, some costs were allowed and alas, some were not. Food was okay, IF the food was for volunteers involved in heavy labor. But was not allowed for snacks for staff at a planning meeting. We couldn’t pay for the cost of a grant writer, nor pay for lobbying a local politician, we aren’t allowed to buy t-shirts (unless they were educational or uniforms).

But then came the clincher. The funding we were talking about was in memory of . Our speaker had the awkward honor of letting us know that among the disallowable costs was: the cost of union organizing, protesting, and organizing a march!

I’ll hand it to him, at least our trainer, Ben Luna, begged our forgiveness and reassured us that we should support the cause but that we just couldn’t do it with government dollars. I just couldn’t help thinking that Cesar was probably rolling over in his grave when he heard that one.

Can our government mess up even a sure thing? ¡Si Se Puede!

Click to read Pam's complete send-up of the Cesar Chavez Day of Service Fiscal Training

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