Conservatives waging war on nonprofits

February 16, 2007|By Robert Koulish

The Bush administration's proposed 2008 budget, which threatens elimination of 141 programs, is a reminder of another war - the one against nonprofits.

Since 9/11, nonprofits have been financially starved, privatized out of business and even criminalized, under the "material aid" provisions of the Patriot Act. The Bush budget attempts to escalate this low-intensity conflict against nonprofits.

The seeds for the war on nonprofits lay in the 1971 "Powell Memo" penned by corporate lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell. The memo instructed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to confront nonprofit critics of the business community, personified by Ralph Nader and the American Civil Liberties Union. It urged forming right-wing think tanks and philanthropies, hiring intellectuals and confronting progressives.

The Powell Memo has been credited with providing a blueprint for conservative dominance after the 1978 midterm elections as well as the surge in right-wing think tanks and civic organizations, and the "K Street Project" for conservative domination of lobbying firms.

After 9/11, confrontational strategies against nonconservatives took an unprecedented turn with funding cuts, financial audits and National Security Agency surveillance of political opponents. Suddenly, policy wonks, social workers and civil litigators were subject to investigation as if they were suspected terrorists.

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, audits of 501(c)3's engaged in social programming have risen sharply, with Greenpeace, Advocates for Youth and the National Endowment for the Arts enduring such politically inspired harassment. The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights report that Greenpeace and dozens of other progressive nonprofits have also been targeted for NSA and Pentagon spying.

Another strategy is to deprive nonprofits of resources. Recent Bush budgets have drastically cut such strategic initiatives as Community Development Block Grants, Community Outreach Partnership Centers and the Community Reinvestment Act. The evisceration of these programs has had the effect of securing the demise of nonprofits.

Privatization provides another means of accomplishing this. In New Orleans, multinationals such as KBR have replaced nonprofits in delivering services. Federal funds earmarked for emergency social programs - funds ordinarily channeled to nonprofits - ended up in Halliburton's bank account.

Regrettably, the nonprofit sector has adapted to these attacks by emulating conservative strategies - and turning these strategies not on the conservatives but on itself.

The nonprofit sector increasingly boasts a "big box," one-size-fits-all culture. Look no further than the Red Cross in post-Katrina New Orleans. New York City's Foundation Center says the Red Cross, which raised perhaps $2 billion for Katrina relief despite widespread accusations of mismanagement, "ranked as by far the largest named recipient of contributions from foundation and corporate donors in response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita."

To its credit, the Red Cross is favored for its convenience, economy of scale and historical legacy. Unfortunately, its economy of scale is responsible for sucking the air from donors, crushing smaller nonprofits, and making decisions that are not responsive to local concerns. The "big box" phenomenon overlooks grassroots organizations with records of responsiveness and accountability.

Conservatives have won an enormous amount of turf in their war on nonprofits. Progressives must take back the nonprofit sector and its mission of caring for people.

We need a progressive version of the Powell Memo that calls on adherents to create a movement that goes beyond what liberal think tanks are doing. This movement should include progressive media programming, progressive news sources funded by foundations and philanthropists, new think tanks and political strategies that solidify progressive values and lead to political success at the local, state and national levels.

Congress must be urged to reverse the damage to the nonprofit sector and establish a new progressive agenda that supports local associational life and a government committed to the things the private sector cannot do.

The alternative is a nonprofit agenda that will continue to strengthen and perpetuate the very conservative system that seeks its demise.

Robert Koulish is a political scientist and France-Merrick professor of service learning at Goucher College. His e-mail is

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