Aaron Dorfman, Executive Director, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

Aaron Dorfman, Executive Director, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy was created thirty-five years ago to encourage foundations to do more to address public needs that were then — and often still are — underfunded. The organization works to promote 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.

Aaron Dorfman has served as executive director of NCRP since 2007. Prior to joining the organization, he worked for fifteen years as a community organizer, spearheading grassroots campaigns to improve public education, expand public transportation for low-income residents, and improve access to affordable housing.

Recently, PND spoke with Dorfman about the public education crisis in America, how foundation support of nonprofit advocacy has changed in recent years, and the likelihood of new legislation affecting nonprofits and the nonprofit sector.

Philanthropy News Digest: Confronting Systematic Inequity in Education, a recent NCRP report written by Kevin Welner, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Amy Farley, a doctoral candidate at CU's School of Education, argues that the American public education system is in crisis and that foundations working in the education space are likely to have the greatest impact if they focus on marginalized populations. That's difficult, expensive work. How much of an education funder's grantmaking budget should be devoted to educational equity and access efforts?

Aaron Dorfman: I agree it's difficult and expensive work. And I think most education funders are in it for the long haul and want to see long-term, sustainable results. But there's no right way to determine how much of a particular funder's portfolio should be devoted to these kinds of efforts. At the end of the day, it has a lot to do with the comfort level of trustees when it comes to funding advocacy and focusing on long-term change versus achieving short-term results. One of the points we were trying to raise in the report is that, on the whole, there is far too little funding for efforts that confront systemic inequity in education. So I would encourage each foundation to think about its own long-term goals and how the high-impact strategies offered in the report might help them achieve those goals.

PND: In the report, NCRP recommends that foundations consider allocating at least 50 percent of their grant dollars for the benefit of marginalized communities. At the time of the report's publication, I believe you noted that roughly 11 percent of foundations in the U.S. were meeting that goal.

AD: That's right. The 11 percent figure was based on the thousand or so foundations in the Foundation Center's database that have given an average of a million dollars or more for education. Our analysis also found that only about 2 percent of foundations were allocating 25 percent or more of their grant dollars for advocacy efforts, another recommendation in the report. Again, we did not intend for the recommendations to be inflexible benchmarks — obviously, what individual foundations can and are willing to do varies a great deal. The point is to encourage funders to have a serious discussion, at the board and staff levels, about whether or not they are devoting enough of their portfolio for the explicit benefit of underserved groups and whether they are investing enough in strategies with the potential to produce long-term systemic change. We think if funders do that, it will lead to positive change.

PND: Education reform has been a major theme of the Obama administration. Is the administration doing enough to address educational equity and access issues in low-income communities? And how would you rate its efforts to work collaboratively with foundations and nonprofits to advance educational reform?

AD: Well, the Obama administration has taken a good first step, in that it recognizes the serious and ongoing education needs in our nation's most vulnerable communities. However, it hasn't really made a meaningful attempt to break the cycle of systemic inequity or address the power imbalances we talked about in the report. Its approach has been more one of promoting favored solutions rather than focusing on policies that enhance the political voice of those most likely to be affected by reform. A focus on these kinds of participatory issues is very different than, say, devolving power to individual parents through school choice, which tends to leave schools in low-income neighborhood stuck in a cycle of decline. So, while I think the administration has done some things well, I would be more impressed if it recognized the importance of supporting active, engaged constituencies willing to fight the systemic inequities that exist in the system.

PND: How is the shift in the balance of power in Congress likely to affect nonprofits and the nonprofit sector? And how does NCRP plan to insert itself into that conversation?

AD: It's clear to me from recent events that discussions about deficit reduction are going to include changes to or elimination of the charitable deduction. I think we'll hear a lot of talk about that in 2011 — indeed, my guess is that that will be the number-one policy issue affecting the nonprofit sector in the new Congress. And we're working on establishing a position with respect to that. We've always felt that it is important to incentivize charitable giving, and we would be open to changes in the current system that actually improve the regulatory framework for giving.

PND: Nonprofit advocacy and the need to support it is a huge concern of NCRP's. How would you rate the work of foundations in terms of advancing advocacy over the past few years?

AD: They're making progress. Foundations are much more comfortable talking about funding advocacy, and they've made some real headway in terms of where the dollars actually go. So while I'm looking forward to the opportunity to analyze 2009 data to see how much progress we have made, I do feel as though there has been movement in terms of funders recognizing the importance of funding civic engagement, community organizing, and policy advocacy work.

Matt Sinclair