History of the Council of Nonprofits and the State Association Network

Although some state associations are decades old, most have emerged in the last 20 years.  Leading the pack for the “modern” state association movement was the Washington Council of Agencies in 1979, followed by New Jersey’s Center for Non-profit Corporations in 1982, and the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York City in 1983. The California Association of Nonprofits established the west coast beachhead for the movement in 1984.

State associations came from the ground up, built by grassroots nonprofits struggling to meet the needs of their communities. Three decades ago, the notion that nonprofits were a vital part of the economy was an entirely new idea. At that time most people associated the United Way “thermometer” as representative of all charities, while state legislators alternated between ignoring them and accusing them of unfair competition with real businesses. And yet, government itself was in large part responsible for the huge growth of the nonprofit sector throughout the 1960s and ‘70s as it developed an ever-expanding network of social programs and then looked to nonprofits to carry them out. By the early 1980s, the government/nonprofit collaboration forged in the enthusiasm of President Johnson’s “Great Society” had deteriorated into antagonism over the maze of government regulations and inadequate funding to carry out the job.

At the same time the Internet was an undiscovered resource. The simplest task—finding out about sales tax regulations or workers compensation—could involve hours on the phone being passed from one government official to another, none of whom had any clear understanding of what nonprofits did or how the laws might apply to them. For small organizations, employee health insurance was unobtainable—even the few who could afford it were routinely turned down by insurers for having too few employees or simply because they weren’t a “business.” At state capitals, large subsector groups like hospitals and universities had professional lobbyists to look after their interests, but small nonprofits had no one to speak on their behalf.

Meanwhile, an interesting phenomenon was occurring. Almost simultaneously, in California, Colorado, Delaware, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., among other places, groups of nonprofit leaders began to meet around issues in their state that affected nonprofits. In New York and New Jersey, nonprofits joined together in advocacy coalitions. In other parts of the country, groups of nonprofit leaders who were tired of seeing nonprofits’ needs ignored by politicians and businesses alike, looked to for-profit chambers of commerce and wondered why nonprofits couldn’t benefit from the same model.

The Council of Nonprofits’ founding board members wanted legislators to see that nonprofits were every bit as important as businesses. “Small business is a code phrase,” they emphasized. “It means the American dream, local vitality, investment on a small scale in our communities. They wanted that same sort of awareness when we say ‘nonprofit’ to a legislator.

Throughout the ‘80s, each state association worked away at its mission of supporting and invigorating local nonprofits. The practical needs came first—it may not sound that impressive, but a telephone hotline to legal information, group purchasing, access to the developing technology, health insurance for employees, and a staunch advocate for their concerns at the state capital, revolutionized life for thousands of nonprofits. It enabled them to do what they do best—care for their communities.

Until the emergence of the state associations, most businesses saw nonprofits as recipients of charitable donations, rather than prospective customers. Suddenly, insurers, bankers, travel agents and office product suppliers were lining up to offer discount programs to nonprofit organizations.

Although each state association has a particular strength, most of them offer a full range of services to their members— information and referral, training and networking events, group purchasing programs, and advocacy. The associations respond to the needs of their members, so those that started life as advocacy groups generally find they need to add health insurance and other benefits. The groups that began by providing practical benefits for their members—health insurance and education programs—find that when battle lines are being drawn at the statehouse, members look to them to lead the legislative charge.

Launching the National Council of Nonprofit Associations (NCNA)

As the state associations began to learn about the work of their colleagues in other parts of the country, it seemed only natural to bring the leaders of the associations together in one place. In 1989, with funding from the Ford and Hewlett Foundations, association leaders held their first meeting in San Francisco. It was hosted by the California Association of Nonprofits (CAN), and Bob Kardon remembers it this way: “Here were all of these state associations who had never been together before. It was one-time conference, but it was such a great idea that we wanted to keep doing it. By the end of the third day, we decided to create the National Council of Nonprofit Associations on the spot.”

From working on behalf of their members at the state level, leaders of the National Council of Nonprofit Associations (NCNA) began to look at how much more effective state associations could be if they could secure a voice for local nonprofits at the national table. In its first year of existence, NCNA operated out of CAN’s offices and launched the National Nonprofit Unemployment Insurance Trust (NNUIT), which lowered unemployment insurance costs dramatically for member nonprofits. The following year, NCNA formed the Nonprofit Risk Management and Insurance Institute (NRMII). In addition to providing nonprofits with much needed information about liability, insurance, and managing risk, NRMII also worked to educate the insurance industry about nonprofits and their potential as a market. Both NNUIT and NRMII were later spun off into independent nonprofit organizations.

Developing a National Policy Agenda

In December 1991, NCNA opened an office in Washington, DC. NCNA had arrived on the national scene. While continuing to focus on providing group purchasing programs, information services, and technical assistance to their members, state associations increasingly saw the need to demonstrate on a national scale the important role nonprofits play in American society.

In the summer of 1992, at its annual meeting in Arkansas, NCNA released its first major public policy statement to the presidential candidates, George Bush and Bill Clinton. The statement’s core requests were for a White House conference to “forge a stronger partnership between nonprofits and government,” for a complete re-examination of government funding and contracting practices, for tax policies to encourage private giving, and for the protection of nonprofits’ right to lobby.
One of President Clinton’s first acts in office was to set up a team of White House liaisons to the nonprofit sector. This was followed in 1997 with the website www.nonprofit.gov, and later, NCNA worked with the White House to obtain federal funding for state-level Nonprofit Development Centers, similar to those that small businesses have enjoyed for decades.

Launching New State Associations

After its founding in 1989, NCNA grew from 12 to 35 or more state and regional associations of nonprofits throughout the country. Many of the new and successful associations were developed under the auspices of NCNA’s six-year State Assistance Project, to establish new and build the capacity of existing associations. The project, funded by the Ford and Charles Stewart Mott Foundations and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, offered seed grants, peer assistance, and technical support from NCNA staff to nascent and fledging associations. By the project’s conclusion in 1999, NCNA and its members had gathered in-depth knowledge of the factors for success and failure of state associations—a valuable basis for developing NCNA’s future capacity building services to members.

Our success was based on a continued emphasis on members sharing what they learn—established state associations have found that they also learn from newcomers to the field—and so the movement continues to be invigorated and grow in strength.

Building Momentum

The turn of the millennium saw NCNA piloting several programs that allowed the state association network to gain crucial ground for future victories. In 2005, NCNA began developing the Nonprofit Capacity Building Initiative (NCBI), a government-funded curriculum to improve the capacity, accountability, and effectiveness of small and midsize nonprofits. Early support from Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont), helped introduce NCBI to other members of Congress, and by 2006 NCNA staff had drafted legislative language for a bill to fund this effort. However, it would take until 2009 for nonprofit capacity building funding to find its way into national service legislation—and even then, its funding would not be assured.

2006 also marked the debut of the Nonprofit Congress, a nationwide grassroots effort to unite the nonprofit sector and elevate the ideal of “Many Missions – One Voice.” During a signature campaign, a round of 117 Nonprofit Congress Town Hall Meetings, and a watershed national meeting in Washington, D.C., nonprofit leaders from across the country deliberated and voted on the top priorities of the sector and gathered input on the challenges and opportunities facing frontline nonprofits.

Celebrating New Leadership and Opportunities

In 2008 the NCNA board voted to adopt the name "National Council of Nonprofits" to reflect a new federated membership model. Under this model, local community-based nonprofits are members of the Council of Nonprofits network by virtue of being members of their state associations. As a result, the Council of Nonprofits now represents 37 State Association Members, as well as a network of more than 24,000 member local community-based nonprofits across the country.

Now in its second decade, the Council of Nonprofits' Network is the largest network of charitable nonprofits in the US. As the Council of Nonprofits moves through is second decade, the Network is well recognized as a champion for nonprofit advocacy, the voice for nonprofits in the Statehouses, and a leading provider of nonprofit capacity building.