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School of Public & Environmental Affairs Podcast Series

Les Lenkowsky

Les Lenkowsky

on Voluntary Organizations and Membership - (3:17)

Les Lenkowsky

Should non-profit and charitable organizations be able to restrict who can join them? Les Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropic studies at SPEA, says the answer is yes.

“At the heart of a non-profit group is a sense of purpose,” he says. “It’s not simply we’re another way of delivering a social or human service. It’s that we stand for something. Part of the reason they ought to be able to choose their membership is because you want members to stand for those things too.”

The United States Constitution guarantees freedom of association, protecting a group’s right to restrict its membership. But a recent Supreme Court case, Hastings Christian Fellowship versus Martinez, called that right into question. In a close decision, the Court ruled that the Hastings College of Law was within its rights in refusing to recognize a local chapter of the Christian Legal Society--an organization requiring members to sign a statement of faith endorsing its religions beliefs. Unless the Society was willing to admit any and all members, Hastings declared, the College would not recognize the group.

The case could have broader ramifications for non-profits of all kinds. Even when a group’s goals and beliefs may not be broadly popular, Lenkowsky says, it’s important to protect an organization’s freedom to limit membership to those who share it’s views.

“I think it’s essential to our non profit and voluntary traditions. They are selective. They represent private visions of a public interest. And therefore the membership of an organization has to be supportive of those vision. Otherwise we have a whole bunch or organizations who meet criteria set by public authorities about what the public interest should be.”

In general, Lenkowsky says, non profits are able to limit membership. But in many cases, voluntary organizations are eager to accept any volunteers willing to donate their time--a lesson Lenkowsky learned when he met with a volunteer coordinator at a Franciscan Sister’s hospital in Wheaton, Illinois.

“I sat down with the volunteer coordinator and said, ‘OK, do you have to be a Catholic to volunteer here?’, and she gave me one of those looks that said, ‘boy, you people in Washington ask stupid questions.’ She explained that it gets very cold in the winter in Wheaton, Ill, and a lot of regular volunteers go down south to stay warmer, and yet her stroke victims are still there, so she’s eager to have anyone possible to volunteer, to comfort with, read to, wheel around, even pray with if the patient wants to do a prayer, those strokes victims, didn't have to be Catholic. Well, that’s a pragmatic adjustment. And I think by and large, and I saw this in a lot of other instances, people at the grass roots tends to make very pragmatic adjustments. There’s a kind of ingrained sense of fairness and legitimacy in the American people.”

Learn more about Les Lenkowsky's thoughts on civic organizations.