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Roxann Mayros headshotby Roxann Mayros, President and CEO, VisionServe Alliance

With most of the news focused on immigration issues, I was interested when a message from Independent Sector appeared in my in-box talking about a new series of articles and a Podcast focused on the Civil Society.  I clicked in expecting to read about how the United States was founded and enhanced by people coming to these shores to participate in a democracy that is the envy of the entire world.  I expected to read about diversity and immigration issues.  What I did not expect to read was a new name to describe the work done by nonprofits.  In my years of study – I have a Master’s and two certificates in Nonprofit Management/Leadership – I have heard the nonprofit world called the third sector, charitable sector, impact sector, voluntary sector, and nonprofit sector, but never the Civil Society, which Independent Sector describes as  “private action in service of the public good—as opposed to public action for public good (which is government), or private action for private good (which is business).”

No matter what we call what we do, Independent Sector says that it all adds up to “1.5 million organizations that employ more than 11 million professionals, mobilize more than 63 million volunteers each year, and take in more than $390 billion in philanthropic donations annually, plus many hundreds of billions in government grants and contracts.”   So, whatever we call ourselves, the nonprofit organizations in America touch every aspect of our daily lives in profound—though often unnoticed—ways.

Even so, we are in an era when, as a sector, we are facing challenges to the way we do business.  Last year’s tax law disincentivizes the everyday donor from making charitable contributions. The tax law also made changes to the Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT) that could significantly increase nonprofits’ tax burden. And the potential repeal of the Johnson Amendment would open charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations to the demands for political endorsements, contributions, and other partisan electioneering activities. Dan Cardinelli, CEO of Independent Sector also identifies in his Blog posting about Civil Societies – https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_adaptive_challenge_of_restoring_trust_in_civil_society – other challenges, including the concentration of wealth in the top 1%, how we define community, and sharp increases in political and cultural polarization.

If you are reading this, and you are a nonprofit leader, I encourage you to follow these issues by reading VisionServe’s regular updates, looking at our website for news, and searching Google.  Once you are up-to-date, contact your legislators to tell them NOT to repeal the Johnson Amendment, and then contact the IRS and ask them to clarify how the law should be interpreted because nonprofits are already expected to make payments on things like parking or transit passes and other fringe benefits. And finally, think about how you interact with your donor base – you must give them a reason to want to continue to donate to your organization even though most will no longer be able to itemize it on their income taxes.

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One comment for “The New Civil Society

  • Florida Agencies Serving the Blind

    I like very much the phrasing used by Independent Sector you quoted: “private action in service of the public good.” That is an excellent way to define what our sector does. However, I am not a fan of the term they coined, “Civil Society.” I think this new moniker is completely imprecise and confusing. It must have come out of some kind of meeting of people looking for something new and punchy. But it is too cutesy and I think it will turn off the legislators and thought leaders we seek to influence. Civil Society sounds like an update of temperance leagues or defenders of etiquette and proper manners in public discourse. We need that! We need a more civil society. We don’t need another name for the nonprofit sector.

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