Monday, May 30, 2005

Nonprofit law and international NGOs (slightly off-topic)

I have been reading my way through Bruce R. Hopkins' new book, Nonprofit Law Made Easy (Wiley 2005). In another part of my professional life, I'm actually a nonprofit law lawyer, specializing in international NGOs and international philanthropy - this goes back to my days as general counsel for George Soros' Open Society Institute, and it continues with my work on the board of the Media Development Loan Fund and other groups.

Hopkins is a leading light on US nonprofit law - his treatise is the standard work on US charities law. This new volume is directed at nonlawyers - people contemplating formation of a nonprofit, nonprofit board members, and so on. It covers the basics in an extremely readable fashion - it explains the law and puts it into the context of how real world organizations have to deal with such issues as executive compensation, unrelated business activities, conflicts of interest, etc. Interestingly, it offers no footnotes, no citations to authority - but Hopkins is so reliable that for the non-lawyer there is no need. Even for an experienced nonprofits lawyer like me, I found it a refreshing overview to reread, a sort of checklist of issues to think about in dealing with an organization. From my own parochial point of view, I would have liked more about international philanthropy, but that's a very specialized topic.

In general, I believe that US nonprofit law has become too permissive in the area of what counts as a charitable activity, and has essentially blessed activities that are essentially campaigning as falling within the law. I would sharply curtail the ability of nonprofits to engage in political advocacy, even under the rubrics of "informing" and "researching" public policy issues, and press the model back to the actual delivery of charitable services, rather than the endorsement of a model that is largely about advocacy to get government to deliver services.

The power of the nonprofit lobby as a political force for its own interests is also very troubling, and it cuts across the usual political lines. I recall a few years ago the subpoena issued by some Congressional committee seeking information and transparency on nonprofit political activities - the nonprofit world responded, from the leftwing ACLU to the rightwing NRA by simply saying, we won't comply, and we have such important people on our boards of directors and such clout that you can't make us, being merely the people's elected representatives and all. There was such an element of outraged virtue - hey, we're civil society, we're the virtue organizations of society, and you're just a bunch of elected boobies, and y'all can go'n fuck yourselves. The ability of the nonprofit world to protect itself against the kind of transparency and accountability that exists even in the for profit world utterly amazes me. There are some moves toward greater accountability, but in general it is a very protected world.

1 comment:

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