|Nonprofits Take Issue with Green on Discretionary Funding Charges|
|Thursday, 17 September 2009 23:54|
When Mark Green kick started his runoff campaign for Public Advocate on Wednesday with an attack on opponent Bill de Blasio, he couched it as a defense of vulnerable nonprofits at the mercy of ruthless politicians. Unfortunately, the effort didn’t sit well with at least some executives and board members of nonprofits who disagree with both Green’s analysis and his policy prescription. They also resented being tarred in yet another round of mudslinging over City Council discretionary grants.
Green questioned why board members and/or staff at 60% of the organizations receiving a total of $7 million in discretionary grants sponsored by de Blasio over the past three years have responded with $107,300 in contributions to his political campaigns. Among the 65 groups identified by Green as having been associated with donations were the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, the Prospect Park Alliance, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
“Groups receiving Member Items are usually worthy and honorable, as are their executives, staff and members,” says Green. “But they shouldn’t feel the implicit coercion to contribute to politicians in the belief that’s necessary to receive more funds…This looks like a conflict of interest because it is a conflict of interest.”
The de Blasio campaign dismissed the charge as “divisive” and “negative” and stated that “Mark is attacking local non-profit organizations that provide vital services for their community.”
However, nonprofit executives and board members also took issue with what they saw as Green’s broad brush diagnosis of all campaign donations as political payoffs.
“City Council discretionary funds to legitimate and established organizations support essential services and programs in a range of communities that would not otherwise exist,” said Allison Sesso, Deputy Executive Director of the Human Services Council of New York. “To suggest that organizations are given these funds based on political kickbacks or quid pro quos is insulting.”
“BAM has no organized, semi-organized or unorganized effort among its trustees to make political contributions. None! Flat out! End of story!” said Alan Fishman, Chairman of the Board at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Nonprofit leaders pointed to myriad personal reasons why individual board members might make campaign contributions -- ranging from their support for a candidate’s policies to their own business interests -- totally unrelated to nonprofit board service.
“The board members and staff of the Conservancy are civic-minded individuals, who are engaged in various issues and projects in their communities, including the Conservancy's support for Brooklyn Bridge Park,” said Nancy Webster, Acting Executive Director at the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy. “It should come as no surprise that in their personal giving, those involved in building the park have supported candidates who share their enthusiasm and interest across a range of issues and matters, including the park.”
“It is certainly an overstatement to assume that there is always or even typically a direct connection between a nonprofit board member’s political contributions and any benefits that the nonprofit might receive through city or state funding,” said Sean Delaney, Executive Director of Lawyers Alliance for New York.
Despite this general assessment that Green’s charges were exaggerated, some observers acknowledged that there are cases of individual nonprofits which encourage political contributions by board members or staff to curry favor with elected officials.
“Our concern is to protect nonprofits from implicit coercion by elected officials in order to maintain or receive member items,” stressed Green spokesperson Benjamin Kallos.
To accomplish this goal, Green is proposing to “ban contributions from the boards of directors and employees of non-profits that receive member item funding”.
This proposal, too, drew a negative reaction from people in the nonprofit sector.
“That raises a major first amendment issue,” said Bill Josephson, former head of the New York State Charities Bureau as well as a trustee at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “The whole question of regulation or prohibition of campaign contributions is now before the Supreme Court once again and the betting is that the first amendment is going to win.”
“My biggest concern about this proposal is that it might discourage nonprofit board membership,” said LANY’s Delaney. “If I know I won’t be able to make campaign contributions, then I might not be as eager to join that nonprofit board.”
“Our nonprofits, particularly smaller, human service agencies, are in desperate need of terrific directors,” says Alan Fishman. “Anything that makes that more difficult is just a very, very, very poor idea.”
“It is unfortunate when the not-for-profit community that works to strengthen and enhance communities throughout the City is dragged into the middle of political battles,” said HSC’s Allison Sesso. “The overwhelming majority of not-for-profit organizations manage the City funds they receive honestly and are accountable to both the law and to the moral code that guides public service. The City Council discretionary funding process should continue to allocate funds to legitimate organizations that meet important community needs.”