Michael Weekes, Chairman, National Council of Nonprofit Associations

Michael Weekes, Chairman, National Council of Nonprofit Associations

Philanthropy News Digest: What is the Nonprofit Congress?

Michael Weekes: The Nonprofit Congress is an initiative of the National Council of Nonprofit Associations, in partnership with other organizations, most notably DC Central Kitchen, and our member associations. We launched it earlier this year as a way to unite nonprofits, especially small to mid-size organizations, and to strengthen the charitable sector. Our objective is to bring together nonprofit leaders and their supporters to identify and affirm the values that all nonprofits share, to develop a vision and priorities for the nonprofit sector, and, perhaps most importantly, to map out a plan to begin to exercise the collective voice of the sector. The tagline of the Congress is "many missions, one voice."

PND: Why this kind of gathering at this particular point in time?

MW: Well, as you know, there are more than a million nonprofits in the United States, and they provide every type of service imaginable, from feeding the hungry to feeding minds, from the life-sustaining to the life-enriching. But they all have one thing in common: They're focused on the public good. You know, the culture and values of this country are intrinsically connected to the power of association — in fact, that's the basis of our democracy. Well, as the board and staff of NCNA began to talk about that, it occurred to us that, remarkable as it may seem, nonprofits in this country have never had an opportunity to come together in a united way. There has never been a venue in which nonprofits could come together and discuss the issues they have in common and how they might develop a collective vision and a common agenda. We think the time to do that is now, not least because we're seeing more scrutiny of nonprofits and the nonprofit sector. Much of that scrutiny is driven by others, not by the sector itself, and that's not a good development. We appreciate the attention, of course, but we also need to be working in partnership with other nonprofit groups about how they can best help and serve the sector. So, with mid-term elections just over the horizon, we hope we can bring many of those groups together and formulate an agenda that might encourage those who are running for political office this November and in 2008 to not only pay more attention to the contributions the nonprofit sector makes to this country, but to think about how they can help us do more to provide vital services to Americans in need and, in the process, become an even stronger voice for democracy and the democratic process.

PND: How will the Congress work?

MW: There are four aspects to it. The first involves personal declaration. We are asking individuals across the nation to read or make a commitment to nonprofits and the nonprofit sector by signing the Declaration for America's Nonprofits. It's really just a call for people to show their support for the Congress, and it's my understanding that more than three thousand individuals from all fifty states and the District of Columbia have already signed it.

The second phase consists of town hall meetings in which nonprofit leaders and delegates to the Congress get to hear from the communities and constituents they serve. More than a hundred such meetings have already been held or are planned, and we think that as a result of those meeting the delegates to the Congress are going to be much better informed about the problems and needs in their communities.

The third phase is the National Meeting, October 16-17, in Washington, D.C. As of today, we anticipate having approximately five hundred delegates in attendance to review the summaries from town hall meetings and to share their own experiences and aspirations and vision for America's nonprofits and nonprofit sector.

And the final phase involves taking that shared vision and putting it in front of the American people. To that end, we're hoping that after the national meeting we'll have some strategic ideas and a strategic focus to talk about, and that people will go back to their neighborhoods, to their communities, and continue the conversation we've started and talk about how they can, in partnership with business and government and civic leaders, help and support nonprofits and put the health and vitality of the sector back on the political agenda, where we think it belongs. We need people to begin thinking about not only the power of association but the power each one of us has to help our neighbors and fellow citizens and, through our support of and engagement with nonprofit organizations, how we can make this a better, more just society for everybody.

PND: What can organizations and individuals do right now to ensure the success of the Congress?

MW: For starters, individuals can track the buildup to the Congress through our Web site, www.nonprofitcongress.org. Once there, they can sign the Declaration for America's Nonprofits. They can also look at the Values Survey we've posted to the site. We really want people to weigh in with their thoughts about what the core principles of the sector are or ought to be. We'd also love to have them attend a town hall meeting or come to Washington and attend the National Meeting. If they can't do any of these things, they can certainly e-mail us their thoughts and suggestions, and they can register on the site for regular updates from and about the Congress.

PND: Any plans to do this again in the future?

MW: Well, I certainly hope that the people in the room feel a need to convene on a regular basis, and that our nation's leaders also look to the Nonprofit Congress as something that helps them to stay informed about the policies and funding decisions that affect the nonprofit sector. You know, it's my dream that, one day, a president of the United States, in his or her State of the Union address, will spend a few minutes talking about nonprofits and what they mean to America and American society. That will be a signal that the sector is on its way to getting the type of recognition it deserves, and that is so important if we — all charitable nonprofits — hope to continue to be a vital component of our pluralistic, multi-ethnic democracy. With a lot of hard work and a little luck, we think the Nonprofit Congress might just become the cornerstone upon which that kind of recognition and appreciation for the sector is built.

— Mitch Nauffts