We Best Hang Together or Place the Region at Risk of Hanging Alone

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 - 12:45
The City of Los Angeles by Storm Crypt (CC)

Los Angeles nonprofits trying to move the needle toward stronger, more caring communities face monumental obstacles. The appeal of staying nose to the grindstone and laser-focusing on just the immediate work at hand certainly feels understandable. 

But bunker-hunkering with a silo mentality – especially among so many separate, disaggregated organizations – will prove a recipe for diminishing returns. Certainly that was one key conclusion reached by a distinguished group of four national, state and local leaders at a recent discussion sponsored by Community Partners and Southern California Grantmakers, and moderated by myself.

“Where is LA in the Federal Game: How Regional Philanthropy Can Make a Difference” featured Diana Aviv, president of Independent Sector; Leonard Aube, executive director of the Annenberg Foundation; Jan Masaoka, president of the reinvigorated CalNonprofits, and Wendy Garen, president of the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation. The group raised their voices in unison about the critical need for Los Angeles to project a collective voice of its own – one loud and nuanced enough to be heard in Washington, D.C.

“Everyone [in DC] will tell you, oh they just love the nonprofit sector,” said Aviv. “But they often don’t understand how their positions on [issues and legislation] can adversely affect our work.” They need to be told, she said, in no uncertain terms. And that requires nonprofit sector leaders to act as diligent, insistent and organized educators.

Tax reform matters, as do other policies addressing nonprofits generally, such as preserving the favorable treatment of the charitable deduction for taxpayers who itemize, Aviv pointed out. But it’s not always easy to get even the best leaders advocating generally for protecting the nonprofit sector; too often they and their boards insist on more narrowly focusing their efforts on assuring resource flows directly to their causes or communities.

“Nonprofits are more comfortable advocating around their own category or issue area,” agreed Masaoka. “So it’s harder to join them together to put muscle behind [a cross-cutting] issue like tax reform.”

But stretching out of our comfort zones is exactly what needs to happen. Aube pointed out an “anywhere-but-LA” mentality that’s taken hold in Washington and Sacramento, a view that Los Angeles is too silo-ed by cause or issue and too spread out geographically for government dollars to show strong results. To counter such a destructive mythology, Annenberg Foundation, with Aube’s strong leadership, is working to write a new narrative for the region through an effort they’ve dubbed LA n Sync.

“This administration places a high premium on integrative, cross-sectoral and cross-divisional approaches,” said Aube, who heads Annenberg. “We have to recognize that and better reflect it in proposals seeking funding for efforts in this region. He cited LA n Sync’s support of an unprecendented five-college consortium working with businesses and civic leadership to have Los Angeles designated, with federal funds to follow, as an advanced manufacturing community.  

“We need to change the local narrative,” Aube said. The idea that Los Angeles nonprofits can’t or won’t work together is “cancerous” and LA n Synch is working at excising that view – and its various manifestations – from the civic landscape.

Aube cautioned against the temptation to willfully ignore one another’s efforts in ways that cause organizations to engage in self-defeating competitions where they chase after federal dollars separately rather than working out their turf and relational issues to apply as networks of organization and present the Los Angeles region overall as a good investment.  

“Collaboration is a paradigm for success,” Aube noted.  

Aviv made an impassioned case for true connectivity between big, broad-based national groups like IS and statewide and local associations of nonprofits and philanthropic foundations.  

“We take our credibility from weaving together and presenting the full spectrum of local realities encountered every day by our members,” Aviv said, “when we advocate at the White House or on Capitol Hill for policies and legislation that addresses what’s happening in cities and rural areas.”  

Wendy Garen, of the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, concurred. “The beginning places for a consistent narrative about people and place begins in gatherings like these where we form the kinds of relationships that break down walls and permit us to break through to more collaborative efforts.”

Indeed, Aviv said, “who we are as nonprofits and how we’re defined is on the table” in Washington, D.C. So the better course, she advised, is to throw in our lot together, join forces formally, or risk losing some of the precious capital it’s taken generations of civic sector leaders to build.

Two great ways to join forces with colleagues in the sector: CalNonprofits holds its 2014 Policy Convention on August 1 (with pre-convention workshops on July 31); and Independent Sector’s annual conference will take place in Seattle Nov. 16-18. 

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