Nonprofits Should Adjust Their Founding Missions to Face Modern Issues
By Sam Gill
AS THE political-campaign season heats up, so have debates about whether courts should interpret
the Constitution based on exactly what
it says or more as a set of principles to
guide contemporary affairs.
Foundation and nonprofit leaders
should ask themselves the same kind of
Nonprofit organizations are beholden
to their stated missions in a way prof-it-seeking corporations are not. As new
pressures complicate how charities and
foundations carry out their missions,
the issue has become more significant
than many organizations may recognize.
The political debate boils down to
some simple questions: Can courts
rule on the constitutionality of matters
not in any way stated in the Constitution? Do we abstract principles in a way
that has contemporary relevance, or do
we have to stick to the text’s original
Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court
justice, explained what is known as the
“originalist” argument in a 1996 ad-
dress by describing the impetus for the
19th amendment, which enfranchised
women: “As you know, there was a na-
tional campaign of ‘suffragettes’ to get
this constitutional amendment adopted,
a very big deal to get a constitutional
amendment adopted. Why? Why did
they go through all that trouble?”
Justice Scalia’s answer is that even
if denying women the right to vote was
offensive to the ethos of the Constitu-
tion, the way to deal with the issue was
to amend the Constitution itself. Those
who say that we can simply reinterpret
the Constitution to suit our times miss
its primary virtue—immutability.
Ultimately, this is a
question of identity—does
our mission require active
efforts to influence public
policy or constrain them?
those documents in light of contemporary realities is the very substance of
Nonprofits also grapple with this issue, often asking themselves exactly
how closely they must hew to the words
in their founding documents.
One view says that nonprofit charters, missions, and statements of principle are rule books, laying out exactly
what you should do.
Another says they are compasses,
helping you figure out where you are
and pointing you toward where you
want to go.
Both approaches have their virtues.
The rule book approach stresses the importance of permanence and stability.
The compass approach is flexible and
Figuring out which approach a non-profit wants to follow is essential. That’s
because, unlike businesses, which enjoy
the luxury of assessing their effectiveness against profit margins, foundations and nonprofits can only measure
themselves against how well they fulfill
Even the great advances in nonprofit assessment and evaluation over the
past 10 to 20 years are limited because
they seek to measure something that’s
not concrete—a mission to achieve some
While fidelity to the mission has always been an important tenet of philanthropic and nonprofit efforts, three
trends are making questions about
what philosophy a nonprofit follows
even more pressing.
Growth in use and sophistication
of evaluation. Though foundations and
nonprofits have vastly improved their
ability to track, manage, and measure
strategic efforts, they have not fully examined how evaluation results should
affect changes in mission.
If, for example, a foundation discovers that a new grant-making program
faces insurmountable barriers, does
that mean it should pull the plug or re-calibrate the mission?
Increasing relevance of pub-
lic policy. The reality is that domes-
tic and international public policy can
make a difference far larger than what
nonprofits can collectively achieve. This
suggests that to advance their missions,
nonprofits must become substantially
more involved in influencing public pol-
Sam Gill is a project director at Freedman Consulting, a Washington company
that advises nonprofits.
Legal Efforts to Suppress Voting Should Draw More Concern From Charities
AYEAR FROM NOW, the election of 2012 will be history. The big- gest question on the ballot may
be not who wins the contest, however,
but whether our democratic system survives.
Wealthy special interests have always held a disproportionate share of
power. But in recent years, America’s
political system has swung wildly out
Not only did corporations and the
wealthy gain more power through the
Supreme Court’s Citizens United
decision, which allows them to spend unlimited sums on political advertising,
but also a growing cadre of state lawmakers has been making a coordinated
attack on the voting rights of minorities, the elderly, and young people.
No matter how vigorous nonprofits
are in their voter-registration efforts
this year, little of it may matter as long
as such rules are in place. And every
other foundation and nonprofit, regardless of its mission, needs to understand
and act on the threat to its ability to
serve society when the basic premise of
democracy in America is at risk.
While many people in the nonprofit
world have paid attention to the influence of money and power in elections,
perhaps less well understood, but just
as important, are the efforts to make
it much harder for millions of people to
In dozens of states across the country, legislation has been enacted or is
under consideration to greatly restrict
the rights of average citizens to cast
Restrictions already on the books will
make it harder for more than five million eligible voters in states that will
provide 171 electoral votes—nearly
two-thirds of the votes needed to win
the presidency, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York
University School of Law.
In a new report, the center paints
an ugly portrait of the rapid decline of
One of the most far-reaching changes
highlighted in the report is the new requirement for voters to present a piece
of government-issued photo identification before they can vote.
The new identification rules, which
are in place in five states with nearly
29 million eligible voters, may not seem
like a great hardship at first glance.