The Center Cannot Hold


A Look at Political Polarization and Nonprofits

The Center Cannot Hold: A Look at Political Polarization and Nonprofits

On January 23, 2017, just three days after the inauguration, President Trump gathered a group of men around his desk. Familiar faces included Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, Stephen Miller, and Steve Bannon. The pictures that circulated afterward showed there was not a woman to be found in the room.

The President then took pen to paper and signed a presidential memorandum reinstating a 2001 memorandum on the "Mexico City Policy," which has also come to be known as the "global gag rule."

The 2001 memorandum, signed by George W. Bush just two days after his own inauguration, withheld U.S. government funding from foreign organizations that provide abortion counseling or referrals, advocate to decriminalize abortion, or expand abortion services. First implemented by the Reagan administration (and named for the location of the United Nations conference where it was unveiled), it is a policy that has been put in place and rescinded by subsequent Republican and Democratic administrations. (Similar to Trump's quick enaction of the policy, President Obama rescinded it on January 23, 2009, three days into his tenure.)

Previous Republican administrations applied the policy only to foreign funding that was specifically allocated toward family planning, about $600 million annually. The Trump version, however, applied the rule to all global health assistance, affecting $8.8 billion of funding. Roughly two-thirds of that is PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) funding, which Bush had exempted from the policy. Organizations that provide a variety of other health services must now sign a statement saying that they will not even mention abortion to their clients or they will no longer be eligible for funding.

On March 26, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an even further expansion of the policy. The administration said the expansion was to fix a "loophole," and now even more international organizations would be affected. 

Is the world more divided or does it just seem like it?

Is the world more divided or does it just seem like it? Are we more perceptive of a chasm that has always been there, or has the world changed?

While the last couple of years may seem like a sea change of partisan divide, they are the culmination of decades of ideological shifts. In 2014, the Stanford Social Innovation Review looked at "Philanthropy in a Time of Polarization." In the opinion of authors Steven Teles, Heather Hurlburt, and Mark Schmitt, it hasn't always been like this. They write that the "period from the 1960s through the 1990s is one that many in philanthropy recall with nostalgia. It was also, not coincidentally, marked by exceptionally weak political parties." Politicians would often reach across party lines. But changes were starting to brew and coalesce.

Many political historians point to Newt Gingrich's time as Speaker of the House as a landmark in the shift toward further partisan division. Teles, Hurlburt, and Schmitt write:

His leadership presented the first modern example of how an ideologically cohesive majority would govern in Congress. Gingrich and his fellow Republican leaders weakened committees, strengthened their own power to determine policy priorities, and exercised procedural control to prevent cross-party coalitions. They also eliminated funding for independent sources of ideas and expertise—entities (often highly reliant on foundation-funded work) that members had used to support cross-partisan policymaking.

From Gingrich’s tenure onward, it became increasingly expected that politicians would toe the party line. It's a trend that has gotten even more pronounced as the years have gone on.

DivideFrom 1994 to 2014, the Pew Research Center examined "Political Polarization in the American Public." Over the course of those two decades, they found that the ideological overlap between the two major political parties has diminished. There has become less and less of a middle ground for ideas. As of 2014, Pew found that "92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican." The ideology of the two parties is more distinct than it has ever been.

In those same two decades, animosity between the parties has also grown. In 1994, 16% of Democrats had a "very unfavorable" view of the other party; that increased to 38% in 2014. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans with a "very unfavorable" view of Democrats increased from 17% to 43%. 

Keep in mind that there is a large portion of the population that pays little attention to politics. However, as the voices on each side become louder and louder, it becomes much more difficult to stay out of the conversation. And as individuals become more involved in political discourse, that discourse affects more facets of our lives. Such as where to spend our charitable donation dollars.

Those in the middle, or without particular political leanings, may wonder why we can't all get along. But as Pew puts it, "an equitable deal is in the eye of the beholder, as both liberals and conservatives define the optimal political outcome as one in which their side gets more of what it wants." In the current discourse, there must be a winner. This idea goes against the entire idea of philanthropy, which helps those in need so that they can enjoy a life as successful and happy as everyone else. There are no "winners" in social justice; it is supposed to elevate us all.

The political leanings of the nation as a whole ebb and flow ever so slightly. Since the end of George H. W. Bush's single term following eight years of Ronald Reagan, the presidency has swapped between Democrats and Republicans every eight years. On the surface, it seems easy to look at an executive order such as the Mexico City Policy and say, hey, both sides do it. We have it under Republicans and we don't under Democrats. Different sides of the same coin.

Is it truly a policy that affects conservative and progressive organizations equally, depending on who is in charge?

But are we really talking equality here? Is it truly a policy that affects conservative and progressive organizations equally, depending on who is in charge?

Without the Mexico City Policy, there aren't restrictions on who can receive funds, in terms of views on reproductive choice. Both conservative and progressive organizations can apply for funding.

But with the Policy in place, organizations that are pro-choice, which are generally progressive organizations, are primarily impacted by being denied funding.

So we have a situation where denying funding to progressive organizations is being portrayed as the opposite of not denying funding to anyone. Brian Dixon, Senior Vice President of Media and Government Relations for the Population Connection Action Fund, told us it is "true that no equivalent policy exists under Democrats. This policy is designed specifically to block funding to certain providers, and seemingly to shift it to other kinds of organizations that do not provide the kind of comprehensive reproductive healthcare the program is designed to deliver. It seems the policy has two underlying objectives: first, to stifle efforts to address the public health crisis of unsafe abortion in the developing world, and secondly, to turn the entire global health budget into a sort of slush fund for conservative religious organizations who refuse to provide certain care—including a full range of contraceptives."

How would the conservative sphere react if they felt they were being targeted more so than progressive organizations?

In the early 2010s, whispers began to emerge from conservative 501(c)(4) organizations that they were being unfairly targeted by the IRS, occasionally having to prepare extra paperwork or provide extra documentation to achieve tax-exempt status.

Audit(Under the tax code, organizations with status under 501(c)(4) can partake in political activities, as long as they are a "social welfare" group and the majority of their work is not politically based. So on a practical level, they can be up to 50% political.)

Then, in May 2013, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration released a report stating that certain conservative groups had been targeted with requests for additional information that led to delays in the processing of their applications for tax exemption. Organizations with names referencing "Tea Party," "Patriot," or "9/12" had been specifically targeted, a total of 96 different groups. The IRS issued an apology and stated that the policy had been curbed.

And thus a "scandal" was born. Conservatives claimed that the call had come down from Obama himself to target these groups. The IRS needed to be gutted from the top down. Inquiries would drag on for years.

But what really happened?

In 2010, following the fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which overturned numerous previous restrictions on political campaign spending, the IRS was hit with an influx of applications for nonprofit status. As these applications poured in, some advocacy groups, as well as senators and other politicians, were complaining that the IRS was not providing enough oversight over potential political activities by these, and similar, 501(c)(4) groups.

To deal with these competing issues, the IRS devised a group of keywords that would trigger additional scrutiny in the application process, including "Patriot" and "Tea Party."

On its surface, the tactic seems to make sense. Which group is more likely to be political: "Tea Party for a Better Kansas" or "Kansans for a Better Kansas"? But the fact was that groups were being targeted specifically because of their names, not for any other sort of impropriety or malfeasance. When the lawyers at the IRS heard of the policy, it was shut down.

Then the report was issued, and the outcry from the right ensued and persisted. But as Newsweek put it, "The years dragged on, and the evidence continued not to pile up."

Finally, in 2017, the Treasury Inspector General issued a new report. In addition to the previous 96 groups, another 152 groups with right-wing leanings had also received extra scrutiny. But, in a twist, the Inspector General found that left-wing groups had also been targeted. Eighty-three groups had been targeted based on search-term criteria such as "ACORN," "Progressive," "Green Energy," "Medical Marijuana," and "Occupy." Another 63 liberal-leaning groups were targeted for other reasons.

While both right- and left-leaning groups had been unfairly targeted—no one was denying that fact—the scandal, the idea that there was some vast conspiracy against conservative nonprofits, seemed dead in the water.

Still, some commentators on the right continued to push the conspiracy. Yes, liberal groups were also targeted. But more conservative groups were targeted. Therefore, the bias must be real.

But could the answer be much simpler? Ninety-six organizations were targeted based on just three search terms. Was the discrepancy due to a mere lack of creativity in their names? Ultimately, hardly any applications were denied, though some organizations faced delays of over a year.

In the spring of 2018, the Justice Department ended up reaching a settlement with affected conservative organizations in a class action suit, and the acting IRS commissioner and the director of the exempt organizations division resigned. After the settlement was announced, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that the affected organizations deserved "an apology from the IRS" and that such an "abuse of power will not be tolerated."

Creating and running a nonprofit organization is not easy.

Creating and running a nonprofit organization is not easy. And as we've seen, it can be a whole lot more difficult when politics come into the mix.

Following President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson would ascend to the presidency. But nine years earlier, he was Senate Minority Leader, and would lend his name to a provision that would affect nonprofit organizations for decades to come.

The majority of nonprofit organizations are not classified as 501(c)(4), but as 501(c)(3). These organizations are subject to a provision known as the Johnson Amendment, named after the man who introduced it in 1954. The provision states that charitable nonprofits, religious organizations, or foundations may "not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." The idea is to keep nonprofits from undertaking political campaigns and from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

The Amendment is now under attack, despite the fact that the majority of nonprofit organizations and religious leaders support the Amendment. President Trump has claimed numerous times that he has gotten rid of the Amendment, which is absolutely not the case, but efforts to remove or weaken it are ongoing.

Keith Timko, Executive Director at the Support Center, which helps build nonprofit capacity, told us, "The Johnson amendment has for 60-plus years allowed charities and houses of worship to work in communities free from partisan pressures, divisions, and interference. I'm one of those people who believe that efforts to weaken the Johnson Amendment will politicize groups whose work we need regardless of the party in power. I think the impact would be widespread with a fundamentally different relationship between nonprofits and the public sector and an erosion in trust in nonprofits as they come to be seen as political rather than social good organizations."

The Amendment has stood through both Democratic and Republican administrations as a testament to the nonpartisan nature of the good works done by many nonprofit organizations. But in the current age of political polarization, who knows how long it will stand?

ThinkingAmidst all of this division and polarization in the world around us, how should a nonprofit organization react? On a practical level, there are several steps organizations can take.

First, know your constituents. Any nonprofit organization's first obligation should be to the people they help. Political affiliations tend to fall away when people are truly in need. By staying focused on your mission, you can filter out the outside noise and do what is best for your people. As Tim Delaney wrote for Nonprofit Quarterly, nonprofit organizations "operate as safe places where people can come together to actually solve community problems rather than just posture and remain torn apart." Compassion is not partisan.

Second, know your donors. We all know that organizations need money to keep performing their good work. Nonpartisan organizations don't run the risk of alienating any donors. Perhaps an argument can be made that they may not inspire the same passion in donors as a clearly ideological group may, so you'll have to find other ways of demonstrating your organization's effectiveness. The best approach is to direct potential donors to the actual results of your work. Remember: actions speak louder than words. Pointing to real-world successes can be more powerful than just talk.

Keith Timko points out that organizations can avoid political language by making an appeal to shared values in their marketing campaigns: "I have seen more open letters and calls to action around our values as a sector and what we stand for collectively on issues ranging from race to immigration to environmental policy. And you are seeing more of a collective voice rather than organizations only commenting on issues that they address directly." While a statement of values may strike some readers and potential donors as political, it is not making a direct political statement. The onus of interpretation is on the potential donor.

But not all donors are created equal. I recently looked at situations where it may be in an organization's best interests to turn down funding from specific donors. If a particular donor will bring too much unfavorable scrutiny on your organization, you may have to make a decision whether or not a donation is worth accepting.

Lastly, know the laws. Make sure you review the statutes pertaining to your organization's nonprofit status. If donors try to pressure you to take a political stance, you can point to the actual wording of the legislation. By knowing the laws, you can also protect your organization from accidentally overstepping any rules.

Politics may seem unavoidable, whether on the news or even just talk around the water cooler. But your organization must find a way of staying focused on the mission for which it was formed.

DeniedWhile President Trump waited only three days into his term to sign the Mexico City Policy, the "global gag rule," into effect, he waited a little longer to bring the issue closer to home. On May 18, 2018, news broke that the administration planned to partially reinstate Reagan-era regulations, a "domestic gag rule," to restrict the use of federal dollars (about $286 million annually) earmarked for family planning by organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, that offer abortion, as well as organizations that offer other less controversial forms of reproductive and other healthcare.

While federal dollars have previously been prohibited from being used to directly support abortion, the regulations would go even further in denying funding for other activities, unrelated to abortion, performed by these organizations.

In March 2019, the administration finally released its rule to deny federal funding for these organizations. But in late April, a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction, blocking the restrictions. The judge found that some of the restrictions were "arbitrary and capricious" and that the challengers to the regulations demonstrated that the regulations likely violate the "central purpose" of the earmarked funding, "which is to equalize access to comprehensive, evidence-based, and voluntary family planning."

Then in June, a panel of federal appeals court judges decided the rule could go into effect immediately. In July, the administration decided to give some affected organizations more time to comply. The situation has been a roller coaster ride, and it remains to be seen whether any appeals will gain traction.

Brian Dixon pointed out that some of the effects of the domestic rule would vary from the global rule because of the difference in our healthcare infrastructure versus that in developing countries. But there would be a similar effect in the way that some qualified organizations would be denied funding, with unqualified organizations accepting those dollars: "These programs weren't created to fund organizations; these programs were created to provide care to people who need it. The funds should be going to the organizations that are best able to provide those services. I'm not sure why an organization that refuses to provide the full range of services thinks they have some entitlement to federal money."

Throughout the ups and downs of the legislation and appeals, organizations such as Planned Parenthood have been biding their time in a sort of limbo, waiting to see how difficult it will be for them to survive.

Most organizations have enough to worry about without outside forces working to upend their funding.

Most organizations have enough to worry about without outside forces working to upend their funding. It can be difficult enough to focus on your mission even with the support of your community. But when that community gets torn apart, with the voices on opposite sides yelling at each other, your resolve will be tested.

We have looked at several political efforts to limit funding to specific organizations. But those institutional attacks have a way of filtering down into both public and private discourse. Nonprofit organizations may be feeling pressure not just from the government but also from some of their donors and constituents.

In the face of all these pressures, it can be difficult to stay strong. But there are some values shared by almost all nonprofit organizations. Most are driven by a desire to improve the world, for current and future generations.

This desire to do what is right is what binds us to each other. We are all in this together.

Until we're not.