This column was first published in October 2019 in The NonProfit Times and was the core of an address at The National Press Club a few weeks earlier.
Two seemingly unrelated events occurred on the evening of Sept. 12 (2019). Ten candidates seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party for President of the United States met on a stage in Houston to “debate” the issues. Meanwhile, roughly 1,400 miles to the northeast in Washington, D.C., honorees also discussed the nation’s issues during the annual NPT Power & Influence Top 50 Gala.
A joke told from the podium in greeting the honorees was feigned disappointment that none of them could get 130,000 people to give the $1 to qualify for the debate in Texas because surely also getting 2 percent in the polls would not be a problem for someone with deep roots in the nation’s soil.
Sometimes humor veils an important idea. Why wasn’t there a nonprofit executive on the stage in Houston? Nobody on that stage in Houston has successfully run a billion-dollar business, as many of the sector executives in the room at The National Press Club have done. None of those on the stage have been direct service providers.
Why wasn’t an executive with nonprofit experience on that stage?
All nonprofit leaders make payrolls and some work with multi-billion dollar budgets. They work with clients from every element of society. Nonprofit executives are on the ground when storms hit, so they have disaster operational experience. Nonprofit leaders pick up the pieces when a crazed gunman decides to empty multiple clips of a semi-automatic weapon into a crowded store or entertainment venue. They are there when preventive and lifesaving healthcare is otherwise unavailable. Nonprofit leaders and their staffs feed the hungry and care for those who society has forgotten.
Nonprofit leaders preserve, protect and defend a civil society every day. Why wasn’t an executive with nonprofit experience on that stage?
Nonprofit executives have roots in every community of this nation and a track record of delivery. The Y network impacts 10,000 communities with its 2,700 Ys and branches. There’s a United Way in roughly 1,000 neighborhoods. The American Heart Association has roughly100 local divisions. Catholic Charities operates 167 agencies in 2,987 sites across the 50 states and U.S. territories. There’s a state association of nonprofits in almost every state, with a couple of them covering multiple states.
Why wasn’t a nonprofit executive on that stage in Houston?
Most of the national nonprofits have separate political affiliates and lobbying arms. One executive in the room at the National Press Club said that she had just the day before discussed with her board establishing a separate political arm.
While it is a little late in the game at this point, blink and it will be time to position for 2024. That doesn’t mean the sector should stay quiet for the next few years. There have been many presidents who were elected when not yet on the radar for the Iowa Caucuses.
There are nonprofit executives who created movements out of an idea and thin air. There are funders who can prop-up issues vital to the sector and a potential candidate. Imagine a president who comes from the nonprofit sector who establishes a cabinet of other successful nonprofit executives. How different might the nation look after those four years?
Perhaps it is time to flip that switch. Capitol Hill Days are nice but much too polite. Pick a date, probably close to the Iowa Caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. Mobilize in every community to let both parties know the sector is now flexing its muscles. There are issues that need to be addressed and if they won’t do it the sector find someone who will.
Let elected officials know that this is the nonprofit sector and we are tired of cleaning up after you.