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An important article by Lucy Bernholz: Strategic threats to the nonprofit and philanthropic sector in the USA
Lucy Bernholz

March, 2017

Civil society in the U.S. is being deliberately undermined. There are several federal and state level regulatory and legislative actions underway that aim to dismantle civil society as we know it. Just as current attacks on a free press are both deliberate and purpose-built, so, too, are these attacks. And the importance of an independent space for voluntary association to a democracy is as great as that of a free press (It's not an accident that both are constitutionally protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution).

  • Efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment. Repealing this (already rather weak rule distinguishing between advocacy and partisan action) would affix charitable nonprofits into place as money laundering handmaidens to electoral politics.  
  • The proposed budget cut to the IRS, especially alongside the possibility that this administration will be in a position to swing all 6 FEC Commissioners to the right. Count out any oversight of either charitable or political nonprofits.  
  • The surveillance state and the reigniting of the "crypto wars," in which government claims unfettered reign to peer into our lives while limiting individuals' ability to encrypt and protect their own data. A digital environment where you can't have a conversation or organize a meeting without government/corporate awareness is the definition of a system without civil society. It means there is no place for private conversation, private learning, or free expression in digital spaces - our democratic values and rules don't apply there. 

Already, an independent civil society only exists in a small corner of the internet, where the technological elite know how to use, have access to, and the means to keep hopping one step ahead of both business and government surveillance. Most every nonprofit and foundation has compromised their independence (knowingly or not) by setting themselves up on commercial software, servers, cloud systems, and devices without considering how the default values of these systems counteracts  their organizational missions.  Public libraries provide the only place of protected access for the rest of us. (Note to self - keep an eye out for challenges to libraries)

There are more threats than just those listed above. Every action to weaken people's ability to communicate without being listened to, to come together voluntarily, and to maintain a private space for learning, assembly, worship, or action is a threat to our basic rights. These rights are the raw  materials from which we've built an independent civil society. 

It's important to note that the above list doesn't even include familiar arenas such as the tax code or corporate law - two central frameworks for U.S. nonprofit advocacy. This is a wave of major change, coming in from the edges. Individually, these threats are not new to readers of this blog or of the Blueprint series. But the simultaneity of the proposed actions should not be underestimated - these actions are not coincidence. These are considered challenges to the presence and strength of a functioning independent civil society as a bulwark of democratic life.

You can join a coalition campaign against the repeal of the Johnson Amendment here. You can learn about the Equal Rating challenge (action to maintain access to the internet) here. Action against the other threats is going to requite even broader coalitions. 

This article is by Lucy Bernholz. You can read more of her important article on her blog at http://philanthropy.blogspot.com



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