NAACP move is difficult choice

Nonprofits detail benefits, setbacks to settling in D.C.


That the country's oldest civil rights group wants to move from Baltimore to the nation's capital seems logical.

After all, as the nexus of power and politics, Washington is the place to be.

It's where most nonprofit organizations make their home, be it the National Organization for Women, the American Association of Retired Persons or the National Council of La Raza, the leading Latino advocacy group. Now, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hopes to join their ranks.

"For any organization that wants to affect the outcome of public policy, it's an important location to be in," said Diana Aviv, president of Independent Sector, a group of large nonprofit organizations. "The influence you have being there is just different. Even if you're in Virginia or Baltimore, the access isn't the same. Psychologically, it's very different.

"So I think for a national organization like the NAACP ... this would be an extraordinarily beneficial development."

This month, Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, said he hoped to move the group's headquarters from Northwest Baltimore to Washington, calling it "the center of the universe in which we work."

Though the NAACP has not picked a site or set a timetable to try to move, Bond's comments sparked immediate concern from Baltimore officials, who have vowed to craft an incentive package to persuade the NAACP to remain in the city.

"You don't have to actually be inside the Beltway to be effective," said Peter Berns, executive director of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations. "Baltimore has a lot of advantages for nonprofits compared to D.C."

Still, there are advantages to being in D.C., including immediate and easy access to policymakers, the ability to coordinate with similar groups and the attention of the Washington press corps. Not surprisingly, the bulk of national nonprofit organizations are in Washington or New York City.

But alternative examples abound, including the Sierra Club in San Francisco, Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore and the YMCA in Chicago. Still, most such organizations maintain liaison offices in D.C. The NAACP, for example, has an office in Washington with about a half-dozen employees. Aviv said outside-the-Beltway locations work perfectly fine for large international agencies that are more focused on human aid issues.

Being away from the hustle and bustle of the Hill is among the benefits CRS officials count from their location in Baltimore.

"We like the image of having a little distance from our federal government," said Michael R. Wiest, vice president and chief executive officer of Catholic Relief Services. "It's good to be close to Washington but not too close."

Furthermore, being in D.C. can limit an organization's perspective and blind it to other avenues of resources, say some nonprofit officials.

The founder of the Sierra Club was from San Francisco, and so its headquarters remain there. But the national environmental advocacy group has a staff of about 40 employees in D.C., said Bruce Hamilton, conservation director.

"When one is based in Washington, one tends to become very federal-centric or focused on Washington and the whole culture and federal governance that goes with it," said Hamilton. "Being here enables us to kind of look outside the Beltway and have a broader national perspective."

For example, he said, the Sierra Club is working on an effort to promote smarter energy choices, which is an issue handled at the state level.

But for civil rights groups, such as La Raza, being close to the center of power is crucial, said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy.

"Part of our work and focus is on public policy and in order to influence public policy, it's very helpful to be in the nation's capital," said Munoz. "It's useful to have your leadership in the capital in order to leverage relationships and coordinate with other civil rights groups."

Munoz said she would be thrilled if the NAACP moved to Washington because it is a critical partner. The only downside to a Washington location, aside from high expenses, is all the distraction, said Munoz.

"It can be hard to stay focused because there are plenty of events and distractions," said Munoz. "I would expect that there will be a greater expectation if the NAACP is based in D.C. that they'll be in a better position to be present at a lot of events and meetings. Some of those are worthwhile and some of those aren't. So it does require a great discipline to stay focused."

Richard Cohen, CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, said it seems unusual that the NAACP isn't based in Washington.

"I think most people would think that's where they already are," said Cohen. "I'm not even sure most people would know they're in Baltimore."

But others say Baltimore provides nonprofit organizations with unusual opportunities -- a low-cost alternative to D.C. with access an hour away.

Indeed, high rent is what brought the NAACP from New York City to Baltimore in 1986.

Certainly, Wiest of CRS says, he wouldn't choose Washington over Baltimore.

"We find this situation just about ideal," said Wiest. "We don't see any greater benefit in Washington versus Baltimore."

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