The Nonprofit Association of Oregon is a membership body like a council for voluntary service back home. The kind of services it delivers will be familiar to anyone who knows their local CVS; support to build and run your organisation, space to connect with a network of other organisations, some practical back-office support (insurance, conference calls, posting – even finding an interim CEO for you when yours disappears). And, crucially, advocacy on behalf of nonprofits; trying to influence policymakers to make better policy for nonprofits; in this context that means fighting for better regulations, tax laws, funding and so on. NAO is one of a network of state-level associations, members themselves of the National Council of Nonprofits. I’m interested in these organisations, on both sides of the Atlantic, because of their part in ‘representing’ the sector (and all the challenges that come with that claim), shaping the language, rules and roles of the sector, and bridging gaps between government and voluntary fields.
I met with Jim White, Executive Director of NAO in Portland about some of the challenges and opportunities facing organisations across the state. We talked about a number of topics, and from the beginning, Jim emphasized the importance that nonprofits are putting on better understanding their roles in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion issues in Oregon. Portland’s regarded as a pretty right-on place, but it’s also part of a territory that banned being black in the mid-19th century. A quickly repealed ‘Lash Law’ in 1844, requiring all black people to leave Oregon Country or face up to 39 lashes, was replaced by three ‘exclusion laws’ featuring fines, arrests, deportations and a prohibition on black people entering Oregon, enshrined in the state’s Bill of Rights. Native American tribes, too, faced persecution. The 1954 Western Oregon Termination Act, part of a nationwide policy of ‘termination’, ended government responsibility for and relationship with tribes, authorised the sale of reservation lands and aimed to ‘assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American society’. Restoration acts in the 1970s and 80s went some way to reinstating tribes’. Chinese people were prohibited from voting, holding public office, attending public schools or becoming citizens through enforcement of the national-level Chinese Exclusion Acts from the 1880s, and there was extreme violence towards the Chinese community in the city and the state. The aim as the state entered the Union in 1859 was the foundation of a racist ‘white utopia’. Redlining and gentrification further isolated communities of colour in the whitest large city in the US. The constitutional measures in the Bill of Rights weren’t fully removed until 2002, and in that vote 28% of the electorate opposed removing the offensive language. Neo-nazis maintained a strong presence in the 1980s and 90s, and more recent violence has been linked to a new wave of far-right organising.
At the same time, Jim tells me, there is a fast-growing Latino population, forming its own groups, making sense of how it fits into and understands itself in the white-dominant culture of Oregon, and Portland in particular. There is also an increasing population of undocumented migrants. The non-profit sector, Jim says, needs to be not just responding to these growing populations, but leading on efforts to build and support valued and diverse communities. NAO itself has been looking at its own practice recently in response to these issues, and Jim cites it as a challenge for many organisations; “We’re a weird state in that we’re very progressive and yet we have these very real inabilities for, particularly white progressives to recognise how they’re actually continuing to reinforce and support what are inbuilt inequities in the system, and that’s really hard for people to hear.” The Building Movement Project has done some work at a national level and in Oregon to quantify the ‘non-profit racial leadership gap’ – this has some familiar messages to the sector’s work back home, including about the lack of role models, and the frustration of being called on to ‘represent’.
There are 20,000 registered nonprofits in Oregon, around 55 per 10,000 persons, higher than the US average (excluding the country’s capital where there are many non-profit HQs, Montana has the highest rate at 95, and Nevada the lowest at 27). It’s visible around the Portland neighbourhoods – even the guy in the first microbrewery I went into (there are a lot of them too) said ‘well you’ve come to the right place!’ when I told him what I was researching. There are 29 different ways to be a registered non-profit, governed by a 75-page tax code, although NAO mostly deals with 501(c)3s. Of course, this gets shaped by changes in policy; the Affordable Care Act created a new category of health insurance co-operatives, for instance (although there are only a handful in the country and they’ve been… a challenge). In Oregon there is also a B-Corps law, which creates a kind of social enterprise status. Like in England, there are often accusations that there are ‘too many charities’, often coming from government or foundations. “I’m a strong defender of the ability for anyone to create a non-profit, a charitable non-profit that is meeting some kind of public good, even if that good doesn’t fit within the lowest end of Maslov’s hierarchy of need,” says Jim. “That’s a false equivalency from the start. If anything has taught us anything people value their spirituality, their faith, their love of community, their ability to talk to each other. It’s right baked into the 1st amendment, we have the right to associate – that is what nonprofits are, they are private people associating together and creating public good in their community. Let them decide what that public good is, not the government. I would really be cautious and concerned if a government starts to determine what’s good and what’s bad, because that’s a fast route to which religions are good and bad, what rights are good and bad.” Jim adds that organisations need to be pragmatic; they need to be really creating public good, doing something to help address relevant problems today and in the future, and Jim believes even for grassroots movements that shell or structure of nonprofit helps organisations to keep movements going forward and relate to other key players.
I ask Jim whether he thinks there is an identifiable, coherent sector in Oregon. “It’s one of the things I believe we play a role in trying to create.” Recognising the diversity of sub-sectors beyond 501(c)3s, he says “we would like to believe we create some kind of agreed general understanding that charitable and community oriented works are valid, are important, are what Oregonians believe in, they’re what Americans believe in.” He is frustrated that it is defined by what it’s not – non-profit – rather than what it does – public benefit. He also stresses that while they should be independent and impartial, organisations are not, and should not be, neutral. There is some campaigning legislation to adhere to, and some restrictions on what groups can do (I shall try and explain these in a later blog), but nonprofits can and should be lobbying. Jim recognises some challenges to independence where funding is involved, and particularly where that’s in the form of government contracted services, rather than more flexible grants for programmes. But he argues; “how can you possibly say you’re serving your [cause] if you’re not influencing policy makers? Because the vast amount of money that’s spent on whatever it is you’re going to do, is actually spent by government. So if you’re not influencing how the money’s being spent and how their outcomes are being tracked I don’t think you’re doing your job in the non-profit sector.”
The issues here should all feel pretty familiar to you folks back home. I’ll be writing more on some of these themes within local fields, and meeting more organisations like NAO along the way. If you’ve got any burning questions about American nonprofits let me know!