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Over the past few days, the New York Times has offered a telling glimpse into the varied nature of the nonprofit sector and the ways in which it touches our lives—from day-to-day services to high policy. The Times coverage also offers insight into our shared instinct to preserve a sector that has the agility to help address market or policy failures.

Saturday’s paper reminded us that America’s increasing numbers of unemployed rely upon nonprofit food banks and other charitable services when their government benefits are exhausted. Another article reports on one of the most significant developments in nuclear non-proliferation policy—the establishment of a global nuclear fuel bank—enabled by a $50-million gift from philanthropist Warren Buffet to the UN’s resource-strapped and politically hampered International Atomic Energy Agency. The bank would provide low-enriched uranium to states seeking nuclear power, in exchange for their returning the spent fuel and foregoing the indigenous capacity to produce their own fuel, including that which is weapons grade. Thus, the nuclear fuel bank would control the cycle of nuclear production and its associated dangers.

It is against this backdrop that a debate erupted within the nonprofit sector over proposals to alter the tax treatment of the donations on which it relies. The Times covered that as well, treating it as more than an industry’s special pleading. The debate’s starting point is that deficit reduction will require the combination of reduced spending and increased revenues. The question is whether tax breaks for charitable gifts are off limits or on.

A range of organizations from think tanks, advocacy and service groups to churches, temples, universities and hospitals have long benefited from the tax write-off their benefactors enjoy. And, in the past decade there has been an explosion in the creation of new foundations, tax exempt endowments established to advance social causes. The introduction of these new philanthropic players with bold ambitions has created benefits not only for our society but also for others across the globe.

Our tax code reflects the importance we place on the freedom that these philanthropies and other nonprofits enjoy. Reducing charitable deductions could adversely impact a nonprofit’s ability to raise or grant the funds needed to fulfill its mission. The change would occur on the heels of a recession that has already reduced foundation endowments and individual givers’ accounts, forcing their grantees to make do with less. Moreover, as national, state and local coffers have shrunk, nonprofits have stretched to make up for the resulting reductions in government services, providing a safety net for America’s most vulnerable families.

But the impact on nonprofits of a changed tax treatment is likely to be as varied as the non-profits themselves—not to mention the philanthropists that support them. Donors are motivated by a range of factors. Tax relief is among them, but how much is not known. In order to judge whether it is right or wise to ask this sector to sacrifice further, policymakers would need to know the risks and benefits to society as a whole.

While that analysis is undertaken, it would be useful to come to a shared view of the reasons for the favorable tax treatment in the first place. Americans value the sector because it is unconstrained by the need to win elections or generate profits and can therefore take actions and generate ideas that may be unwelcome, unpopular and unprofitable today but produce true societal benefit tomorrow. In the process, they can help identify and tackle truly hard problems.

Among the hard problems the sector can help us address is the need to get our country on a sustainable course.

The sector has already contributed by sounding the alarm and offering specific options for financing the obligations we undertake as a country over time. The continued search for solutions will not only test our willingness as a citizenry to share in the sacrifice, but also our ability to think strategically, ask and answer knotty questions, explore novel solutions—and to imagine. These are the strengths of the nonprofit sector.

While the sector can and will continue to contribute in these ways, informing a larger process, it may also choose to shoulder a greater sacrifice. Whatever choices the sector and we make, let’s never sacrifice the sector’s independence from political and market constraints.

We must and they should preserve the sector’s freedom to help us solve society’s next hard problem.

—Jane Wales

“Social media powers social networks for social change.”

Beth Kanter and Allison Fine offer that thesis in The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change. They argue that transformation can result from online technologies, including social networking sites, blogs and wikis.

In recent weeks, the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell has stirred debate by criticizing this and other broad notions about the power of social media. In an article, Gladwell suggests that, at best, social media can make things more efficient. However, such technologies cannot fundamentally alter the status quo or foment social revolution.

Maybe not—though both Kanter and Fine took to their respective blogs to contest Gladwell’s claims, which are driven by a focus on past efforts at social activism and protest. Activism is not the only way to bring about social change, however. And technology advances have altered society (think of the introduction of steam, of the printing press and of the automobile) providing a new status quo. Finally, small changes can lead to bigger things. But not always better things.

In their book, Kanter and Fine focus in part on the way foundations operate, and on the way the next generation of “digital natives” will give: responding to causes rather than individuals and organizations. The authors contend that future individual givers will be inclined to join or support a network of people and organizations that collaborate to tackle an issue. And foundations have given rise to crowd-source grantmaking, as I’ve discussed in previous blogs.

Kanter and Fine believe that transparency will increase in the nonprofit sector. They envision more organizations operating with a “hive” architecture, rather than hierarchies or in silos. And they imagine that everyone in a hive organization, not just an organization’s leader or communications staff, would be engaged in true, two-way interactions with people on the outside.

Even if, citing Gladwell, “the revolution will not be tweeted”— and there has been too much hullabaloo over technology’s power— social media offer tools, which, when used to full advantage can promote transparency, collaboration and a new openness to ideas from unusual sources. Surely these are values to promote, especially in the world of social change. But— as Digg and its Digg Patriots demonstrate—this tool can be used to distort as well as to discover. Intentions matter.

—Jane Wales

Thanks to a decades-long focus on improving access to college, nearly seven in ten Americans today enroll in some form of postsecondary education within two years of leaving high school. That’s a record number, and it is impressive. But it also obscures another reality. Lurking in the shadows is a more sobering statistic: Not much more than half of college students—some 57 percent—earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

In short, colleges are getting more people to start a race they cannot finish. In fact, college graduation rates are increasing in every developed country except for the United States, according to Grantmakers for Education (GfE). Individual success is hindered, as is the nation’s competitive global edge.

Over the past couple months the college dropout issue has been getting the increasing attention it deserves. Last month, President Obama called for the nation to regain the world lead in college completion by 2020. (The US currently ranks No. 12.) Philanthropy is stepping up, too. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just launched a $12-million initiative with the National League of Cities to boost college graduation rates in four cities. The Intel Foundation, led by Shelly Esque and championed by Intel CEO Paul Otellini, has sponsored competitions to incent and reward achievement in science and math, thus encouraging dazzling stars in the next generation, not only to do well in high school, but to excel in college and in life. And the Lumina Foundation has announced a $14.8 million, four-year national effort to help adults with “some college”—even those decades removed from attending school— complete their degree.

Over the summer GfE released From Access to Success, a funders guide to improving college graduation rates, relating key themes from a spring meeting in Washington with prominent researchers, higher education leaders and officials from the US Department of Education. In addition to describing the reasons too many students don’t complete college, the short GfE guide offers ideas for funders. Among these: Convene K-12, higher education and private industry leaders to better define college- and career-readiness; help schools and districts strengthen the quality of student counseling and college preparation; and help build will among policymakers and the public to support adequate funding of community colleges, which are entry points for many into the larger, postsecondary system.

But in addition to dangling carrots, the guide also offers prodding with sticks. It calls on grantmakers to hinge institutional support on efforts at improving college retention, including better tracking and analyzing of data. According to the guide, basing funding on course and degree completion rather than mere enrollment will push schools to focus on true progress.

—Jane Wales

On Thursday, October 7 the World Affairs Council and Global Philanthropy Forum hosted the 2010 Awards Dinner. The event celebrated technology and social innovation for the public good and honored individuals and organizations who are leaders in this field. The honorees were: John Hennessey, President of Stanford University; The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and Paul Otellini, President and Chief Executive Officer of Intel Corporation. After receiving their awards, Hennessey and Otellini, along with Hewlett Foundation President Paul Brest, spoke in conversation with Jane Wales. Watch an excerpt of their conversation here:

Of all the pressing issues confronting the developing world, cancer gets comparatively short shrift. And yet, a majority of new cancer diagnoses come from developing countries.

The fact that these countries are significantly less capable to care for the afflicted than, say, the United States, where cancer has been a leading health priority for many decades, means that cancer is “a time bomb waiting to explode,” says Princess Dina Mired of the King Hussein Cancer Foundation. At last month’s Clinton Global Initiative, Mired said that addressing cancer depends on a sophisticated medical infrastructure above and beyond traditional health care. Much of the world is ill-equipped to tackle the disease, and increasing numbers are dying because they can’t reach or afford adequate treatment. As such, it’s disturbing that cancer is not a part of any global health agenda, Mired asserted.

A special session on the topic at CGI offered a rare spotlight on this global issue, which has striking parallels to HIV/AIDS in the level of ignorance and stigma surrounding it. For example, widespread concern that the disease is contagious leads victims to refrain from publicly disclosing their status. In turn, a lack of visible cancer survivors leads people to think it’s always a deadly disease, or less common than it really is. And then there’s the omnipresent issue of gender discrimination and the need for funding to specifically advance women and girls, a major theme at CGI this year as it was last. When it comes to cancer, for example, some women in the developing world who get a diagnosis of breast cancer forego a mastectomy for fear of losing their husbands, according to Felicia Knaul of the Harvard Global Equity Initiative.

Paul Farmer of Partners In Health and the Harvard Medical School called for the creation of a Global Fund for Cancer, one focused on all areas of need, from prevention to diagnosis to care. But, a recent study from the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine, as reported by VaccineNewsDaily, found that single disease campaigns in developing countries “interfered significantly with routine health care delivery.”

So, while cancer demands greater global attention and care, this work should be approached in such a way as to strengthen the general health infrastructure in developing countries, rather than compete with it for needed funds.

—Jane Wales

Today’s episode of NPR’s Fresh Air featured an in-depth interview with CJ Chivers, who will speak at the Council next Tuesday, October 19. A war correspondent for The New York Times, Chivers is the author of The Gun, which chronicles the history of the AK-47, from its early use by Soviet conscripted forces to its spread across the world as the weapon of choice of small-arms dealers. Register for the program here. Listen to the entire Fresh Air interview here.

This Tuesday the Council will host Larry Rohter, longtime Rio di Janeiro bureau chief for The New York Times and Newsweek. He will provide insight into Brazil’s transformation into the world’s eighth biggest economy, discuss this month’s presidential elections and explore the future of the country. Find out more about the program and register here.

After last weekend’s presidential election failed to produce a clear winner, Brazilians will have to wait until October 31st to vote in a run-off election between ruling-party candidate Dilma Rousseff and opposition-party candidate Jose Serra. To learn more about the candidates and the election, read this article from The Economist.

The World Affairs Council of Northern California’s 2009 Annual Report is now available online. This is the first year that we’ve created an interactive, online report. View it here.

This Thursday at noon the Council will host leading Islamic thinker Tariq Ramadan. He is a controversial figure and was barred by the Bush administration from entering the United States in 2004. Now, less than a year after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lifted the travel ban, he will join the Council to discuss why Western Muslims should escape the mental, social, cultural and religious isolation many have created for themselves, while at the same time, why the west should recognize its Muslim neighbors as citizens with rights and responsibilities the same as their own. For more information about the program or to register, visit our website here.

On Tuesday, October 19 at noon the Council will host Steven Rattner for a discussion of the Obama administration’s efforts to restructure the automotive industry  in 2008. As counselor to the Secretary of the Treasury in 2008, Rattner led this intervention during one of the country’s severest economic crises of recent history. He will provide a first-hand account into the clash between Washington and Detroit, as well as explore the implications the administration’s economic decisions had on automotive plants in Europe and elsewhere abroad. Register for the program here.

Steven Rattner appeared on the Colbert Report on Wednesday night. Watch the interview below.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Steven Rattner, posted with vodpod