When politics and nonprofits collide: Lessons from Congreso - Generocity Philly

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May 24, 2017 10:06 am

When politics and nonprofits collide: Lessons from Congreso

Here's why leaders of Philly's nonprofit sector should pay attention to the controversy of Congreso CEO Carolina Cabrera DiGiorgio attending a Trump rally.

The American flag flies near the Free Library of Philadelphia.

(Photo by Clever Girl Photography)

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from Carolina Cabrera DiGiorgio and more details about her board service. (5/24, 11 a.m.)
By now you’ve surely heard: Eighteen activist groups are calling for the resignation of Congreso de Latinos Unidos CEO Carolina Cabrera DiGiorgio from the Latinx social services organization after she was spotted cheering at a Trump rally for President Donald Trump earlier this month.

It’s illegal for nonprofits registered as 501(c)(3)s to participate in political campaigning related to specific candidates. But how nonprofit leaders engage in political speech outside of the office? That’s a different story.

“You don’t stop being a private citizen when you become a board member or an executive director,” said Julian Johannesen, director of research and training at Boston’s Nonprofit VOTE, which instructs nonprofit leaders in civic engagement. “And as long as your political activities are entirely separate, I think that that’s appropriate.”

Perhaps the real question, then, is this: Should nonprofit leaders’ personal views align with those of their organizations’ mission?

According to the coalition, absolutely. And according to Cabrera DiGiorgio, hers do.

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At the rally, the Congreso CEO could be seen in the front row (the bottom-left in the first frame of of the below video) “clapping and smiling as the president delivered his trademark jeremiads about ‘the wall,’ ‘fake news’ and ‘the Democrats.'” Her husband is Val DiGiorgio, chair of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, who spoke at the event.

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The coalition’s letter, signed by 18 local and national organizations including Juntos, Black and Brown Workers Collective (BBWC) and VietLead, calls the CEO’s actions “a slap in the face to our communities, to those who support immigrants, religious minorities and to those whose lives depend on access to health care.”

According to Pew Research Center, Philadelphia is home to about 50,000 undocumented Latinx immigrants, and of those, 55 percent have “serious concerns about their place in the country after Trump’s election.” Trump has called for a crackdown on illegal immigration and supports a health care plan that would reduce the amount of people eligible for government-subsidized health care by an estimated 24 million.

The letter also says that while the undersigned support free speech, “the public actions of Ms. Cabrera-DiGiorgio can be interpreted as siding with racist policies and makes us wonder if she herself can lead an organization like Congreso.”

An online petition supporting the letter has been signed 477 times as of this writing.

On Tuesday afternoon, Congreso’s board issues a statement offering its full support of the CEO.

“While we do not support any administration’s policies that could negatively impact the Latino community we serve, we do remain supportive of and confident in Carolina’s leadership and vision for Congreso,” Board Chair Esperanza Martinez Neu wrote.

Read the full statement

Cabrera DiGiorgio initially could not be reached for comment but contacted Generocity on Wednesday morning to share her thoughts on the matter.

“Every individual, including CEOs, have to support the mission of the agency that they work for, and if I didn’t  believe in the mission, I wouldn’t have been on the board for eight years, and I wouldn’t have accepted this role,” she said.

And to members of the coalition who claim she’s not fit to serve: “I would welcome these folks to get to know me and the plans the leadership team has to offer the Latino community,” which she said included the expansion of Congeso’s health care services and a diversification of funding streams. “Until that vision is shared, it’s probably unfair to make the assessment.”

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The scenario reminds us of another recent Philly nonprofit shakeup: that of the Mazzoni Center, the LGBTQ heathcare provider that saw its CEO, Nurit Shein, step down amid claims of racial bias and ineffective leadership, as well as pressure from activist group BBWC and Mazzoni Center employees.

Though this isn’t about a claim of ineffective leadership, the lesson is the same: Leadership should reflect the values of the community it serves. According to the coalition, Trump doesn’t support Latinos — and therefore, as someone meant to represent Philadelphia’s Latinx population, Cabrera DiGiorgia shouldn’t support him.

“It’s much broader than having a political position,” said Miguel Andrade, Juntos’ communications manager. “Obviously, people are allowed to have whatever political position they want, but this is an issue of morality.”

Congreso’s mission is “to strengthen Latino communities through social, economic, education and health services, leadership development and advocacy.”

"The first step in rebuilding that trust is accountability."
Nikki López

“How can a community who has been directly affected by the oppression of Trump’s administration trust a leader who is supporting the oppression our Latinx community is facing?” wrote GALAEI Executive Director Nikki López in a statement. “The first step in rebuilding that trust is accountability.”

What should community-based organizations consider when hiring its leadership?

As Juntos’ Andrade sees it — and as we’ve heard many times before — those served by an organization must have a seat at the table when organizational decisions are being made.

“Community involvement is the biggest key piece coming out of this. Our nonprofits are meant to serve the community, and whatever vision and work happens, the community they serve should be included in that,” he said. “Congreso needs to ensure there is community input in selecting their leaders. Our nonprofit leaders are representing us.”

That said, Cabrera DiGiorgio is fully within her legal right to exercise political speech by attending a rally. But other nonprofit professionals should note the potential consequences of her decision to do so.

When an individual’s identity is “closely associated” with the organization they represent, said Johannesen of Nonprofit VOTE, “it behooves them to consider how their behavior might reflect on their organization.”

Cabrera DiGiorgio agrees.

 “Transparency and communication are important,” she said, adding that when she was serving on Congreso’s board, other board members were aware of her family ties, and that she hosted two town halls with Congreso employees when she accepted the CEO position.

“If an individual has a strong political position that is not aligned with the [organization’s] mission, that should be vocalized — and I don’t,” she said. “My personal political views do not misalign with Congreso’s.”

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