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The Need For Nonprofits

The Need For NonprofitsTufts political scientist Jeffrey Berry says that nonprofit organizations play integral roles in society and must be allowed to fulfill the expectations of populations who need them.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [08.16.05] Nonprofit organizations play a critical and wide-ranging role in society, affecting everything from local communities to city infrastructure to federal services. But according to Tufts political science professor Jeffrey Berry, the ability of nonprofits to fulfill these roles is being unfairly limited.

Evoking Founding Father James Madison, Berry said, "The one thing we ought not to do is to limit liberty in any way, is to curtail liberty. Instead the best thing we can do is let everybody lobby."

Speaking at a panel discussion entitled "When Nonprofits Attack" sponsored by The Hudson Institute, a public policy think tank, Berry said that nonprofits tend to be "passive" when it comes to legislative lobbying and grassroots activity.

"We need more participation by nonprofits, not less," he said at the forum.

Berry in part blames the part of the federal tax code concerning nonprofits, section 501(c)(3).

"What it says is it's perfectly legal to lobby; it's perfectly legal to engage in grassroots mobilization, but there is a limit to how much you can do it -- an ambiguous limit -- which makes things difficult," he explained. "The impact is profound."

The function of nonprofits in a democracy should be to stand for underrepresented populations, Berry contended, but he said the system does not currently work that way.

"If all sectors are representative of policymaking process, then that's a fairly good approximation of a democracy – as Robert Dahl put it, 'Democracy, warts and all,'" said Berry. "But we don't have that kind of system in this country where every sector is effectively represented."

He cited "market failure" as the reason behind this poor representation.

"There are many constituencies that are badly underrepresented in the policymaking process: poor, those on Medicaid, battered women, mentally retarded children, disabled, immigrants, non-English speakers," he explained. "There are lobbies that would represent them if they felt comfortable doing it… but these constituencies, because they lack discretionary income or the skills or the wherewithal, are not going to form on their own. It's simply not going to happen."

One area where the influence of nonprofits is increasing, said Berry, is in city politics. As the dynamic of city politics changed over the years, it "created a vacuum that nonprofits are starting to fill," he explains.

"Business is fundamentally changing. The businesses that used to be interested in Boston politics are now more interested in the European Commission in Brussels," he noted. "As that was happening, cities were given more to do, and of course they're strapped for resources, and they become increasingly dependent on non-profits to run the government."

But contrary to what one might think, nonprofits and businesses need each other, Berry said.

"We need business to create wealth. Non-profits don't create wealth," he said. "There is a great opportunity for business and non-profits to partner, and I think that I feel very optimistic about that actually."

Berry tied the need for a higher profile role from nonprofits to a need for higher levels of civic engagement in the United States.

"Political scientists are very concerned about disengagement… that more and more Americans are doing less and less in their communities," said Berry. "There is a pattern of barriers to participation."

The Tufts expert said that communities are born out of collaboration and action.

"You build communities by first creating bonds with your neighbors, and out of that grows trust," explained Berry. "And out of that trust grows a spirit of cooperation where we become [Alexis] de Tocqueville's America, where we work together to solve whatever problem comes before us."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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