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Charities Must Act Now to Mitigate Misguided Oversight | Commentary

By Steve Taylor Charities and foundations should brace themselves for a fresh round of excessive criticism; increased Congressional and state legislative scrutiny is likely to follow. As a sector, we need to act now to prevent unnecessary new laws or regulations that will make our ability to serve people and communities less efficient, more costly, and much more difficult.  

Reports about the Clinton Foundation abound. Make no mistake — that coverage is fueled by politics, and it’s bad for all nonprofits. To avoid the appearance of pure partisanship, Congress will likely explore regulation and oversight of nonprofits and suggest that new rules could ensure increased transparency and accountability.  

The scheme to create sham charities to secure donations for non-existent cancer research also made a splash. While the federal and state prosecution of these fake charities demonstrates that safeguards to catch con-artists work, criminals will still try to take advantage of good-hearted people, no matter how much regulation exists.  

Unfortunately, good news is rarely as appealing as a scandal, real or sensationalized, and charities are rarely in the spotlight for doing their work well. In the absence of media coverage and public knowledge about the incredible work that charities do—often on shoe-string budgets—tales of misspent funds will seem like the rule, rather than the rare exception.  

We’ve also seen the inaccurate association of 501(c)(3) charities and foundations with political nonprofits. The confusion, often accompanied with calls for new regulations, is always to the detriment of politically-agnostic charities and foundations, as this narrative taps into the disillusionment the public has with partisan dysfunction.  

Add to that the desire of some in government to substitute their own values and priorities for those of donors, along with a lack of clarity on the role of nonprofits in modern society, and you have an environment ripe for political posturing.  

Perhaps we’ll get lucky, but we can’t count on it. The convergence of politics, sensationalism, misinformation, and misguided value judgments could result in damaging policy changes, changes that will ultimately harm the individuals and communities we strive to improve. But we can mitigate the damage if we act now.  

Leaders of charities and foundations must step up and act to prevent policy-makers from pursuing unwise, uninformed policy decisions based on a few bad anecdotes or sensational news stories. That means better educating our elected officials about how our work impacts the communities both we and our elected officials serve.  

Food pantries should invite their Members of Congress to meals served by volunteers. Museum directors should invite state legislators to attend after school arts programs for low-income children. Community foundations or local United Way CEOs should invite U.S. Senators to meet with their boards to see how committed these leaders are to their communities. As nonprofit leaders, part of our job is ensuring that the elected officials from our communities not only know our charities but can also articulate their value.  

Members of both parties can be touched by our work, but too few get the chance. The vast majority of elected officials care deeply about what’s happening in their communities. It is incumbent on us to give them opportunities to learn about our work, and we must do a better job of showcasing our stewardship of the trust donors have placed in all of us.  

Steve Taylor is the senior vice president and counsel for public policy at United Way Worldwide.  

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