The U.K. Office for Civil Society

In Great Britain there has long existed an active Cabinet-level Office for Civil Society (OCS). By contrast, most members of Congress are scandalously ignorant about the non-profit sector. This is despite the sector’s broad presence in every district, its 10% share of the U.S. economy, the tens of billions of federal dollars that flow to charitable organizations, and the central role our sector plays in shaping and preserving our culture and values. The Obama administration’s Office of Social Innovation is a worthy effort, but it has a small budget and little influence.

In Great Britain there has long existed an active Cabinet-level Office for Civil Society (OCS). By contrast, most members of Congress are scandalously ignorant about the non-profit sector. This is despite the sector’s broad presence in every district, its 10% share of the U.S. economy, the tens of billions of federal dollars that flow to charitable organizations, and the central role our sector plays in shaping and preserving our culture and values. The Obama administration’s Office of Social Innovation is a worthy effort, but it has a small budget and little influence.

The Office of Civil Society supports Ministers in their commitment to:

  • make it easier to run a charity, social enterprise or voluntary organization;
  • get more resources into the sector and strengthen its independence and resilience; and
  • make it easier for sector organizations to work with the state.

In an earlier ED Forum, I wrote about Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s efforts to begin to address this congressional knowledge vacuum. Those efforts continue, and her Nonprofit Sector and Community Solutions Act, which now has 22 co-sponsors, will be re-introduced in 2011. It deserves our robust support.

Survive and Thrive

Meantime, our British friends are operating at a different level. The OCS recently announced a £100 million ($155 million) Transition Fund designed to assist nonprofits that have lost substantial public funding.

The goal of the fund is to “help charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises survive and be in a position to take advantage of future opportunities.” It will make grants of between $20,000 and $775,000 to replace up to 50% of an organization’s reduction in public funding. Funds are to be used primarily to support the organizational changes needed to enable groups to achieve their service-related missions.

There are a few privately funded initiatives in the United States with the same general purposes – the Catalyst Fund for Greater Boston nonprofits is one example – but no national program. Why not?

An SBA for NPOs?

The absence of any federal agency charged with conducting research on and supporting U.S. nonprofits, as the Small Business Administration does for its constituency, is reason #1. (The idea of replicating the SBA and its less-than-stellar record does not have universal support.) Given the size of our sector and its essential contributions to virtually every community in the country, the federal government’s blindness to its existence as an entity worthy of attention is unconscionable. Private philanthropy in this country plays a greater role than in most other places, but even the largest foundations can’t replicate the federal government’s role or financial capacity.

Conversely, one British idea that’s been getting some attention lately is Social Impact Bonds, pioneered by Social Finance, a U.K.-based group. A U.S. offshoot of this organization has recently set up shop in Boston.

The Obama administration’s 2012 budget includes $100 million to support pilot projects in this field. That’s encouraging. But regardless of whether this initiative gets off the ground, there’s a very long way to go before the U.S. government approaches the level of recognition and partnership with nonprofits that’s well-established in the United Kingdom. That needs to change. It is well past time for federal-level recognition of and support for the non-profit sector as the primary steward of our core societal values.


In the ED Forum, TSNE’s Executive Director Jonathan Spack reflects on issues facing non-profit organizations. He invites your ideas and insights in response to his columns. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanSpack.


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