November 03, 2011

New Group to Endorse Politicians Who Pledge to Strengthen Nonprofits

A new organization is set to debut tomorrow with a mission that is unusual in the nonprofit world—to endorse political candidates who have solid plans for strengthening nonprofits in their communities. Next year, it will set up a political-action committee to start funneling money to their campaigns.

CForward—the brainchild of Robert Egger, president of D.C. Central Kitchen—seeks to turn the tens of millions of people who work or volunteer at nonprofits into a "powerful political force" that can reward politicians who include nonprofits in their economic strategies.

"It will allow candidates to see there's an army being activated" that gives priority to that issue, Mr. Egger says.

For now, CForward is focusing on local elections, not the presidential campaign. It is asking supporters to identify candidates for governor or mayor who agree to appoint a person to work directly with nonprofits—for example, conducting economic analyses, making it easier for them to work with government, and promoting loan programs that can help them or their constituents open businesses so they can develop reliable sources of income.

CForward stands out in a field that has traditionally eschewed partisan politics on behalf of the nonprofit world as a whole.

Charities that are organized under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code may not endorse or oppose political candidates. Advocacy groups organized under section 501(c)(4) may do so but generally reserve their endorsements for politicians who support their specific missions rather than those who have a strong nonprofit agenda.

CForward has incorporated as a 501(c)(4) group (hence the name)—but as such, it also faces some limitations. For example, it cannot make supporting or opposing candidates its primary activity.

Mr. Egger says the group will give priority to educating political candidates about how nonprofits contribute to the economy by creating jobs, generating payroll taxes, and bringing money into their communities in the form of grants and contracts.

In addition to endorsing candidates, it will prepare educational materials, support and publicize candidate forums, and develop get-out-the-vote campaigns.

CForward is asking supporters to nominate on its Web site people the organization can endorse and to highlight both good and bad candidates on Twitter (@CForwardUS). It plans to create the political-action committee in early 2012 to get money to its favored candidates—something it can't do as a 501(c)(4) group.

Mr. Egger is now paying for CForward with his own money, but the group has started a fund-raising effort, drawing on contacts from Mr. Egger's earlier campaign, V3 (Voice, Values, Votes), which sought to persuade candidates to say how they would work with nonprofits if elected. That effort floundered, inspiring only a few scattered efforts. Mr. Egger says the charities he tried to mobilize lacked money and time to devote to the project.

Others speculated that some charities may have also feared getting involved in partisan politics, even though asking candidates questions about their positions is legal.  Mr. Egger now has his sights on individuals who can work on election projects on their own time without worrying about crossing the legal line

Mr. Egger has recruited four people for his board: Raj Aggarwal, president of Provoc, a brand-strategy group;  Alan J. Cohen, the former mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., and executive director of the Philanthropic Collaborative, a group that highlights the economic contributions of foundations; Geoff Livingston, a consultant and author of the book Welcome to the Fifth Estate; and Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, a Washington-area bookstore and restaurant group.

See The Chronicle's story about how CForward evolved from the V3 campaign.