Tag Archives: nonprofits

Nonprofits SHOULD Influence the Vote

More than ever it is imperative that concerned citizens pay attention to mounting efforts to suppress voter rights.  Though the recent Supreme Court ruling may not have immediate impact in Minnesota, but it is the proverbial sparrow in the electoral mineshaft.

Many times people involved with nonprofits shy away from getting involved in anything relating to elections.  Though it is true that nonprofits cannot support or oppose candidates, they are free to take a stand on ballot measures, many of which have direct and powerful impact on their constituents.  Nonprofit VOTE is a national initiative to promote better understanding of the ways in which nonprofits can advocate for their community and its interests at the ballot box.

To clarify the election rules Nonprofit VOTE is sponsoring a national webinar:

Laws on the Ballot: Ballot Measure Advocacy for Nonprofits

Thursday, July 25, 1:00 p.m. Central Standard Time (local)

Featured presenter is Nayantara Mehta, Senior Counsel with the Alliance for Justice, Oakland CA.  Ms. Mehta works through their Nonprofit Advocacy Project and the Foundation Advocacy Initiative to strengthen the capacity of the public interest community to influence public policy.  She also manages the Immigrant Advocacy Initiative of the Nonprofit Advocacy Project.  The speaker holds a J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, an M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. from the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

To register webinar, click here:  https://cc.readytalk.com/cc/s/registrations/new?cid=mrf0kxjie2cp

 

 

Access-More in the Breach than in the Observance

It is no surprise that virtually all of the talk to and about newly-elected officials focuses on the economy and jobs, jobs, jobs.  One undertone that is too often ignored is the ever-so-subtle issue of the public’s right to information by and about the government.  Two disparate situations bring the latest issue to the surface.  One is the approach to the electoral process evident in the openness of the recent vote count and in plans underway for a potential recount.  The Secretary of State, the election judges, the legacy and alternative press are all at the table, exposing the process and the results.  On the other hand, the doors have remained slammed on the press and public seeking information about the selection of a President for the People’s University.  It’s time to aim the spotlight at an issue too often relegated to the closet.

One basic reality is that open government enjoys a special place in history as a nonpartisan issue, articulated by the founding fathers (who disagreed about just about everything) as a fundamental tenets of the democracy.  Similarly, the State of Minnesota has a distinguished and nonpartisan history of nonpartisan support for open government and informed popular.  In spite of this proud heritage open government is currently more honored in the breach than in the observance.

To a great extent it’s change rather than malicious intent that poses the threat.

  • Because the President has positioned his administration as a vocal proponent of open access, the inclination on the part of the other party may be to turn a deaf ear.  In fact,
  • The first change is in the newness as much as the politics of newly-elected decision-makers.  Access to information is an extraordinarily complex political arena in which experience, institutional memory and practice balancing forces are not infused but shaped by time on task.  Elected officials, incoming administrators, fledgling staffers and others who forge the information chain are often new to the game, newer still to the nuances of public policy relating to information.  In the current information environment mastery of the tools far outstrips attention to policy implications of technology.
  • Second, the information chain itself is in flux bordering chaos.  The inexorable march of information and ideas from decision-maker to constituent, agency to consumer, candidate to the public is cast aside as information – and misinformation – pulsates through the “pipes”, favoring those who own and understand the tools, disenfranchising those for whom time, geography, skill, finances and other incidentals present insurmountable barriers.  Agencies live is solitary splendor while the floodgates open to horizontal flows that ignore and supercede traditional organizational structures.
  • Third, the decline of investigative journalism has had a devastating effect on an informed public.  The  journalists, print and electronic, who bore a heavy responsibility/  They served the public good by ferreting out the truth, researching the record, separating fact from fiction, poking and probing, digesting and deliberating  – then producing information that makes sense to the reader, listener or viewer .   As their ranks  twindle there is a scramble to fill the void and a desperate search for a viable replacement model able to enhance public understanding rather than drivel.
  • Fourth, though ignorance of the law may be no excuse, it nonetheless persists.  Those who need to know often do not know their rights.  Public and nonprofit agencies face critical challenges that cry out for immediate resource allocation.
  • Finally, though current laws need constant review and tweaking, the base is firm;  transparency is recognized as a basic right.  As technology presents both possibilities and pitfalls existing laws deserve review and revision.  More importantly, implementation of laws and policies requires specific attention to oversight by responsible agencies at every level.  Again, it’s one of those implicit tasks that is so basic it can be neglected in deference to issues that are more dire, more doable or more politically persuasive.

Though undeniable and non-controversial, the basics are implicit and thus overlooked:

ü      Every Minnesotan has a RIGHT TO INFORMATION  BY AND ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT.

ü      That right is stated with clarity in legislation and regulation.

ü      Responsibility for oversight is sometimes unclear, more often buried in or blurred the bureaucracy

ü      Organizations and agencies that provide services to the public have an urgent responsibility to affirm that right and to provide the tools, skills and attitudes essential to an informed citizenry.  I

ü      The priority is to affirm and internalize the fact that an understanding of access must join the roster of essentials for elected officials, bureaucracies, nonprofits, schools, communities and families.

ü      Information, alone among public goods, does not diminish but expands with use.

ü      Sound information policy, combined with attention to implementation of that policy, is not a cost but a long-term investment.

It is at our individual and political peril that we ignore the basics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Open government enjoys a special place in history as a nonpartisan issue, articulated by the founding fathers as one of the fundamental tenets of the democracy.  In spite of this proud heritage open government is currently more honored in the breach than in the observance.  To a great extent it’s change rather than malicious intent that poses the threat.

Scholars Without Walls

The walls of academia, that is….

Though I was present at the birth of the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum over two decades ago, I’m never really Poked Around some of the details or independent scholarship, its various permutations and connections…  What I did know is that, in the early 1980’s an assemblage of disenfranchised researchers, educators and lifelong learners, working with the Minnesota Humanities Commission, joined forces to address the critical needs of serious scholars working on their own and without the perks of academic life.  To some extent their inspiration came from am emerging national recognition of independent scholarship, manifest in one way by publication of the widely read The Independent Scholar’s Handbook by Ron Gross.

After much deliberation (as becomes a gathering of independents) these folks agreed that independent scholars experienced specific needs – for access to library resources, for recognition of writing, speaking and other scholarly pursuits, for foundation and government funding, and, above all, for opportunities to share information and ideas with colleagues.

Many of the barriers, the group concluded, were remedial.  Thus they created the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum, now a 501c3 nonprofit.  Though time and technology have alleviated some of the problems, e.g. access to library resources, others persist. Time constraints and a dearth of venues that support sharing information and ideas top the list.

Today, the MISF works to anticipate, address and meet the changing needs of scholars working on their own.  At the same time the scholars enrich the community by sharing their research and insights with the community at large.  Membership is open to learners of every stripe – no degree requirements.   The current MISF sports a lively mix of active learners in a host of settings – homemakers, part time students, attorneys, librarians, government, museum, corporate employees.  MISF provides a structure that offers common space and opportunity for independent learners — physicists, historians, literary scholars and creative writers, musicians and artists, even lurkers like me. Members share their experiences, their studies and opinions,  and their commitment to an environment that actively supports an academic life that is shared and recognized.

The “independent” in MISF is the tie that binds and the spirit that creates the “lively, interdisciplinary, and non-traditional environment” that is the hallmark of the organization.  MISF dues start at just $25.  All activities are free and open.  Check it out, drop in on a study group or public forum.  Check out the MISF website, email info@mnindepdnentscholars.org or send a note MISF at USPS: Box 80235, Mpls 55408.

National Coalition of Independent Scholars

The Independent Scholar’s Handbook by Ronald Clark revised and available in digital format from Simon Fraser University and the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars.

Elections and Nonprofits

Recently I was working on a series of public events to be sponsored by a 501©3 wannabe organization that intends to apply for tax exempt status in the near future. My thought was that these summer events pose a great opportunity to invite candidates and to share heaps of information about early primaries, voter registration. absentee voting and logistics. I was appalled, disappointed, but totally sympathetic when the chair of the project rejected out of hand any involvement in the political arena. Her fear was that the organization would jeopardize that essential tax exemption. It’s not the first time I’ve met such resistance.

It is totally understandable that nonprofits are skittish. The threat is not so much losing tax exempt status but lack of valid information and an abundance of misinformation widely disseminated by those who may not welcome nonprofits or their open communication with those they serve.

When I got honest with myself, I realized that I have lingering questions myself and that it is not so easy to find the answers. What I found was a richness of information geared to voters, but not enough information for the intermediaries – e.g. my colleague planning these Summer events – who are the most effective link to the voter the non-voter.

I turned to a long-time colleague, Jeff Narabrook. the well-informed and generous point person for the Minnesota Participation Project, a project of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Building on my own ignorance, I posed a series of questions to Jeff.
By turnaround email I received a response who quickly acknowledged that, though nonprofit managers are understandably skittish about “nonpartisan voter engagement.” Then Jeff quells program planners’ angst with precise and comprehensible affirmation of nonprofits’ appropriate role.

Jeff’s answer to my first question promptly set me back on the proselytizing path with renewed passion for the cause.

Q (MT): Can a nonprofit offer voter registration information?
A (Jeff) Absolutely! Not only is it legal, but nonprofits that receive state funding are required to conduct voter registration activities. Voter registration must be conducted in a nonpartisan manner. The MN Participation Projects offers a great toolbox for those who may be considering or planning a voter education, participation or registration project.

And so the Q & A continued:

Q (M) : Can a nonprofit offer absentee voter info?
A: (J) Yes, nonprofits can provide information on any aspect of how voters can participate, from absentee voting to Election Day registration, to vouching, to special programs for victims of violence to remain anonymous on the voter rolls.

Q (M): Can a nonprofit provide information about the early primaries?
A (J) : Yes, as with the general election, nonprofits can help individuals become aware of the primary, how to register for it, and other logistics items involved in with primary.  Again, this just must be done in a nonpartisan fashion and the organization cannot try to influence how the person will vote.

Q (M) : Can a nonprofit invite candidates (challengers and incumbents) to visit their event or program?
A (J): Yes.  The golden rule:is that all candidates are treated equally.  If one is invited, all must be invited.  If not all candidates invited can attend, you may or may not choose to cancel.  Generally, if two are invited and only one can attend, it’s best to cancel.  If more than two are invited and at least two can attend, you may decide to go forward. Candidates may not be given preferential treatment and the organization may not attempt to make one candidate look better or worse, explicitly or implicitly, for example by asking leading questions.

Q (M): Can a nonprofit invite incumbents only to visit an event?
A: (J)   If they are invited as candidates, they may not only invite incumbents. If they are invited to speak in their capacity as a legislator, that is fine. It should be made perfectly clear, in writing or email, that the individual is being invited as a legislator, NOT as a candidate, and ask that the legislator not use the visit as an opportunity to campaign (please, no campaign literature, buttons, etc. during the visit).

It’s common to remind the legislator politely that the organization is forbidden from explicitly or implicitly endorsing a candidate, and that a violation of this could harm the organization and that’s why it’s important they only wear their hat as a legislator.  But if your intent is really candidate education, you should invite all candidates, not just the incumbent.    I’m less clear on what to do if the candidate has no challengers.  Can you still invite that person as a candidate to educate them?  I will look into this.

Sometimes people ask a question as to whether you need to invite ALL candidates who have filed, which sometimes can be quite numerous.  It is acceptable to limit invitations to candidates of major parties as long as the organization documents why that decision was made. At a minimum all major party candidate – in Minnesota these are the Democratic Farmer Labor Party, the Republican Party and the Independence Party – need to be included if there is someone from that party running for the seat in question.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is the elected official responsible for implementation of this and a zillion other election rules and procedures. The Secretary of State’s website provides more than you ever wanted to know about the process – polling places, rules, dates, forms and my personal favorite, the list of all candidates who have filed.

Primary election – August 10, 2010 – absentee ballots due August 9
General election – November 2, 2010 – absentee ballots due November 1