By William Fisher
While “community organizing” has become a punch line for late-night comedians since the election of Barack Obama as US president, the activity “delivers enormous benefits to communities,” according to a new study conducted by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP).
The report, based on research into nearly 70 nonprofits from New Mexico, North Carolina, Minnesota and Los Angeles County over a five year period, concludes that “Americans receive extraordinary benefits from the policy advocacy and community organizing efforts by nonprofit organizations in their area, funded by foundations and other donors.”
It reports that these groups combined “generated nearly $14 billion worth of benefits for their diverse communities, and many other non-monetary gains. The return for every dollar invested in these groups ranged from $89 to a staggering $157.”
The report’s co-author, NCRP Senior Research Associate Lisa Ranghelli, told IPS, “Despite what some high profile commentators may decry as ‘community organizing,' this report clearly demonstrates that such activity delivers enormous benefits to communities.”
She said that most Americans are unaware of the substantial benefits generated by philanthropic funding of local organizations. Students of philanthropy acknowledge that many cultures have centuries-old traditions of charitable giving, and in a few countries wealthy benefactors have created foundations or trusts to organize their giving. But the United States is probably unique in the scope of its community voluntarism. The volunteer phenomenon has traveled only to a handful of other countries.
Community organizing has achieved a high level of notoriety since the Obama election, since the president was involved in this kind of work in Chicago as a young man. The field came under additional scrutiny centered around the organization known as ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). Critics, largely politicians and TV “talking heads” from the far right-wing of the Republican Party, have charged that ACORN was involved in widespread voter fraud. These charges have never been substantiated.
ACORN was one of the Los Angeles groups studied in the NCRP research.
The latest stage in that research involved 15 Los Angeles County nonprofit organizations, and found that from 2004 to 2008, area groups generated nearly $7 billion in benefits for local citizens, including $2.6 billion in higher wages, $2.2 billion in health care savings and more than $2 billion from increased use of public transit, construction of new schools and expanded affordable housing. These benefits were the direct result of community involvement in public policy.
“On every issue of concern to residents of Los Angeles County, from clean air to immigration, from equality to education, foundation support for community-based activist organizations yields positive results," said Aaron Dorfman, executive director of NCRP. "Foundation support turns indifference into democracy and the benefits of a thriving democracy are indeed substantial."
Los Angeles County is NCRP's fourth site in a series of reports. It documents how 13 nonprofit organizations and their allies leveraged foundation grants to secure nearly $91 of benefit for every dollar spent for Los Angeles citizens.
The report says there is a “dramatic, substantial return on investments” in policy engagement. “For every dollar foundations and other donors provided to community organizations engaged in advocacy and organizing, the funded groups realized $91 in benefits to the communities they serve.”
The report also tracks such non-monetized benefits as protection of voting rights, improved working conditions and expanded, more responsive service delivery to such marginalized groups as lesbians and gays and residents with limited English proficiency.
"The report demonstrates that foundations best serve their own objectives and generate the greatest impact on communities when we support advocacy and organizing at the grassroots level,” its authors say.
“There is no doubt that the impact could expand even more if we work in concert and focus resources through strategic grantmaking," said Kafi Blumenfield, CEO and executive director of the Liberty Hill Foundation, a Los Angeles-based foundation that provided seed money and supported a majority of the organizations featured in the report.
The report, entitled “Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities: Impacts of Advocacy, Organizing and Civic Engagement, ” was written by NCRP Senior Research Associate Lisa Ranghelli and Research Associate Julia Craig.
The Los Angeles report found that policy advocacy and community organizing also has non-monetary impacts on thousands of underserved Angelenos. Examples include cleaner air, better working conditions, more balanced immigration enforcement, greater student access to college-prep classes and more responsive services.
It recommends that foundations increase grant funding for advocacy and organizing, help educate donors about the benefits of advocacy funding, support effective collaboration among community organizations, collaborate with other grant makers to leverage resources and invest in the infrastructure and organizational capacity of grassroots organizations over sustained periods of time.
"Los Angeles is richer, stronger, healthier and infinitely more democratic because foundations have learned that advocacy, organizing and civic engagement really do make a difference in the lives of everyone," says Stewart Kwoh, executive director of L.A.'s Asian Pacific American Legal Center, one of the 15 organizations surveyed in the study. "When foundations support strategic grassroots initiatives, every resident of Los Angeles benefits."
The Los Angeles research involved a wide range of non-profits engaged in legal advocacy, immigrant rights, substance abuse, better environment, gender discrimination, public transportation, and many others.
Research is currently underway for further reports on areas in the Pacific Northwest and Pennsylvania.
The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in Washington, D.C. is a national watchdog, research and advocacy organization that promotes philanthropy that serves the public good, is responsive to people and communities with the least wealth and opportunity, and is held accountable to the highest standards of integrity and openness.