Monday, March 12, 2007

The Congressional spotlight is being focused

The Washington DC Examiner reported the other day that a Congressional Philanthropy Caucus is being organized in the House, co-chaired by North Carolina Republican Robin Hayes. The Democratic co-chair was not identified, and the newspaper didn't name its source for the story. Some quick poking around just now didn't turn up any denials, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy appears to believe it.

Such a move seems inevitable given the various non-profit and philanthropy related issues that have in recent years been the subject of Congressional bills or hearings, and the general increase in public awareness due to things like the Gates and Buffett philanthropies and some non-profit scandals. And it does seem clear from kludgy messes like last year's federal Pension Reform Act that a lot of Congressmen and Senators are not yet up to speed on what this sector does and how, and a defined caucus ought to help with that learning curve.

Nonetheless I can't help thinking of the prediction Joel Fleshman is going around making (out loud and in his book) about foundations: that if they don't define and adopt a new more-transparent version of the charitable-foundation social contract, Congress will eventually define it for them. I think he's right about that -- our society slowly but continuously becomes less tolerant of secrecy from all its public or civic institutions, including publicly-held companies, and there's no reason to expect foundations to be exempted from that.

And I would apply Fleishman's logic to the not-for-profit tax-exempt sector as a whole: the statute of limitations on permission to be a young industry is not yet defined but it's also not open-ended. In some ways we perform our role in society better than other sectors do and some ways we don't, at all; and we won't be allowed to avoid that fact forever.

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