Highlights from 2020 Nonprofit Policy Conferences

A few major policy-oriented conferences followed the November elections. Here are some highlights from the sessions I had an opportunity to attend.

Council on Foundations Public Policy Summit

  • Unpacking the election. You can find some of speaker Charlie Cook’s talking points in these articles available on the Cook Political Report: Lots of Turnout, Little Ticket Splitting; The Divides That Define Us; Democrats Must Go Down to Georgia to Save Disappearing Hopes of a Senate Majority.
  • Advancing Equity & Building Power in Black Communities. Tonya Allen moderated an incredible panel composed of Spencer Overton, Rashad Robinson, and Bakari Sellers. “Black communities are suffering more acutely on nearly every indicator—job loss, health outcomes, housing instability and the list goes on. This panel will discuss intentional investments and policy solutions needed to address the injustices that have caused these long-term disparities for Black people and communities.”
  • Overton: How can Black communities be at the forefront of the change in the economy post-COVID and not just an afterthought? Long-term, systemic investments in Black institutions are required because it is going to take a generation to shift these structural racial inequities.
  • Allen: Philanthropy has been basically starving Black organizations which leaves them ill-equipped to be at the table for essential policy conversations they need to be a part of.
  • Robinson: We need to recognize policy and power dynamics that created philanthropy in the first place when making decisions on [temporary] charitable solutions or structural solutions. Let’s not spend our time fixing people; let’s spend our time fixing systems and structures.
  • Sellers: I don’t believe you can have race-neutral policies fix race-specific problems. The Payroll Protection Program was a disaster for Black communities because the policy makers failed to consider the disadvantage that unbanked and underbanked Black-owned small businesses would have in accessing the forgivable loans. Every significant change for Black people has been because of blood and bodies on the street.

CalNonprofits Policy Convention

  • California Attorney General Xavier Becerra Keynote. What’s next? The continuation of our democracy (and that was in some doubt). The Office of the Attorney General (AG) is trying to keep pace with how the charitable sector is evolving, including with platform charities [and charitable fundraising platforms, which currently may not fall within the AG’s regulatory regime].
  • This is an opportunity moving forward to get to where we want to be, including with Mother Nature. Governments are not nimble so they depend on the nonprofit sector to move us all forward. But the AG must be a supportive partner of the nonprofit sector and needs to hear how it can best be of help.
  • What Makes Nonprofits of Color Different? Moderator Vu Le asked the panelists if they’ve been questioned about why their organizations focus on specific communities rather than more broadly on all communities. The “All lives matter” motto immediately popped in my mind. Surprising (but not really) to hear from Milan Balinton (African American Community Service Agency) that it was recommended him to remove “African American” from the name of the corporation. He replied, “That’s not happening.”
  • Le also asked about how the public and media treat indigenous communities as a monolith, just a single community, Native Americans. Britta Guerrero (Sacramento Native American Health Center) responded that she has to regularly spend time educating people about the very diverse communities that are all referred to as indigenous or native. Disaggregating data can be incredibly important in other communities as well.
  • Lu expressed his frustration with funding patterns that result in grants going to White-led organizations without relationships to the communities being served by grassroots organizations. Balinton recommended that funders come to the grassroots organizations to learn the truth rather than to dictate their requirements. Community foundations can convene and facilitate important discussions. Vincent Pan (Chinese for Affirmative Action) stated some more practical and immediate solutions: foundations contributing to pooled funds and fiscal sponsorship models supporting greater collaboration. Joanna Jackson (Weingart Foundation) is optimistic and hopeful about the changes occurring during this moment to make grants more expedient and equitable may stick and advance even after the COVID crisis passes.
  • Lu next asked about how White-led organizations could be better aliies in the racial justice movement. Guerrero said think less about what you have to lose and more about what you have to gain. Hugo Villa (The Village Family Services) summarized it by stating partnership, partnership, partnership.
  • Resilience in Adversity: Personal and Organizational Strategies Panelist Kad Smith (CompassPoint) : We’re not going back to a business as usual mindset. For resilience, need to set our teams up for success with more agility and autonomy. Can’t just be in prolonged crisis mode.
  • Eveline Shen (Forward Together): For resilience, we need tools to deal with conflict effectively and we need to see conflict as a partnership rather than a boxing match.
  • (Fun) Debate: As a movement, we should advocate for moving wealth into communities through increased taxes vs. tax breaks to incentivize philanthropy.
  • Pro-tax is pro-democracy, pro-public good, and pro-safety nets. Tax breaks were designed to favor the wealthy and this also applies to the charitable contribution deduction, which is not available to the vast majority of tax payers. Tax incentives are not the primary driver of charitable giving and are big contributors to the nonprofit industrialized complex. We can’t rely on private individuals to make decisions on what public goods to fund with almost no accountability. Government may be inefficient but it’s really the only way to make necessary changes at scale. Adam Smith: The purpose of tax is to remedy inequality.
  • Pro-tax breaks. Fair and just tax system would be a better way to move wealth into communities, but we’d first need to change the tax system and fundraise to advocate for such changes. Simply allowing the government to collect more taxes without rules about how those funds must be used would not ensure more wealth flows into our communities. And government and its bureaucracies would result in much less efficient and less innovative application in our communities. Social movements don’t work through funding from the public sector. Higher taxes and higher and more equitable incentives for giving is a better solution.

NAAG/NASCO Conference: Weathering the Storm

  • State/Federal Trade Commission Update. “[A] discussion of major regulation and enforcement priorities of the NASCO and NAAG memberships and the FTC for 2020-21.”
  • Schools and Colleges: For-profit conversions to nonprofits are a regulation focus area; mergers can be challenged by many stakeholders, but charity officials need to prudently support mergers where they are lawful.
  • Crowdfunding: Brief discussion from Tania Ibañez (Senior Assistant Attorney General California Attorney General’s Office Charitable Trusts) about the California online crowdfunding bill AB 2208 that died largely due to COVID-related priorities; she expects the bill to be presented again at the next session. Mention of PayPal Charitable Giving Fund settlement with 22 states (see NASCO press release). Notice of Prof. Lloyd Mayer’s recent article on charitable crowdfunding and NASCO’s current work on developing donor-focused guidance.
  • Form 990: Tip from Jim Sheehan from NY Charities Bureau: Nonprofits should pay extra attention to Form 990 Schedules J, L, and O.
  • FTC: Donating Through an Online Giving Portal.
  • More from California: Charities must disclose “adverse actions” (including suspension, revocation, denial of registration, civil or criminal judgment, fine, administrative or civil penalty, settlement) from different states; failure to disclose can result in denial of registration.
  • Navigating the Turbulence: Asset Management in the Current Environment. “This session will address asset management strategies – including tapping into endowments, modification of gift instruments, and mergers – and the practical and regulatory issues raised by these mechanisms.”
  • Board engagement emphasized. Meet early and often during extreme challenges. The role of the board chair is critical. Must be proactive and open to and prepared to make difficult decisions.
  • Charitable trust doctrine. Charities must respect and honor donor restrictions and also the restriction on assets created by their mission statements at the time they receive or earn their revenues. See, e.g., Charitable Trust Doctrine.
  • Executive compensation and incentive goals to stay with organization during pandemic. Even if total compensation is reasonable, there may be still be issues.
  • Riding the Wave: Fundraising in the Current Environment. “This session will address solicitation of donations through both old and new forms, with a focus on the regulatory and legal issues raised by fundraising in the virtual world.”
  • Brian Armstrong (CA AG): Charities regulators emphasize protecting the charitable sector and the public including through regulating in the following areas: proper registration, charity supervision and control of fundraising on its behalf, prevention of donor confusion or misunderstanding, proper use of donations for the solicited purposes, prior written consent from those who sponsor, endorse, or approve solicitations.