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November 3, 2009

Today in Detroit, Independent Sector is once again assembling an impressive assembly of grantmakers, nonprofit leaders, business executives and public officials at its annual conference. This gathering will confront the most pressing issues facing the nonprofit sector, our nation, and in particular our most troubled cities, like the Motor City itself.
This year’s conference is organized around an innovative set of collaborative dialogue formats that are designed to engage the broadest range of participation. This new format builds on the organization’s Envisioning Our Future initiative, which is intended to help set a course for the most effective nonprofit sector in the year 2020. Envisioning Our Future began with StrategyLab, a gathering of dozens of nonprofit sector leaders in Colorado Springs this past July, and continues with an ongoing virtual exercise known as FutureLab, in which all are invited to comment on the issues identified in the StrategyLab process. No strategy exercise will satisfy all stakeholders, and this initiative has naturally attracted the usual complaints that it was not sufficiently representative of the sector. But it has been a good faith effort.
What has not changed this year is the long-standing No Solicitation policy, a rule that instructs conference participants to refrain from soliciting funds from grantmakers. The No Solicitation policy is a clanging false note in the harmonious chorus of inclusive dialogue, and it ought to be ended.
Independent Sector is not alone in maintaining a No Solicitation policy. The Council on Foundations has one for its annual conclave, as do most regional associations of grantmakers and grantmaker affinity groups. There are several reasons why No Solicitation policies need to be shelved.
They harken back to a genteel time when philanthropy was conducted at arm’s length in quiet isolation from nonprofit practitioners and other stakeholders. But in reality philanthropy is—and ought to be—a more collaborative and inclusive field today.
As philanthropy is seeking to be more transparent and accountable, maintaining a No Solicitation policy attempts to build a wall that limits access. Such policies suggest that grantmakers are somehow delicate flowers that will wither under the intense heat of human contact. Who else gets such protected treatment? Imagine a politician going to a town hall with voters, operating under a no-complaining-about-potholes policy.
Besides which, No solicitation policies rarely hold any weight in practice. When nonprofits and grantmakers get together, solicitation is about as rare as gambling in a casino.
What they do maintain, however, is a sense of class and power, where grantmakers get to set the terms of discussion and grant seekers are required to wait politely for the signal that it’s okay for them to talk about money. As a field, we need to move to a point where grantmakers and grantseekers operate on an even playing field without special rules designed to protect the delicate constitution of grantmakers.
Monday’s post: Get Out and Vote!

Vince Stehle