The Future Of Nonprofit Influence

*Editor’s Note: During the next 10 days The NonProfit Times will publish commentaries looking to 2021 and beyond from some of the sector’s most accomplished leaders. All of the commentaries are available in The NonProfit Times’ digital edition on this website.

Power. Nonprofits don’t have the collective political power needed and can’t continue to survive as a viable sector without it.

The lack of power as a sector is evidenced by how nonprofits were generally ignored by candidates running for president during the past election cycles. In 2016, United Way staff invited surrogates from the presidential campaigns to sit down with representatives from the country’s largest human service providers. We came prepared to earnestly engage in a conversation about pressing issues such as the charitable deduction. One surrogate patted us on the head with platitudes and regaled us with stories. Another surrogate seemed rushed and somewhat distracted.

In 2019, Independent Sector hosted a Presidential Campaign Forum on the nonprofit sector during its national convening in Chicago. Representatives from all campaigns in the presidential primary field were invited. This was a much-anticipated session for the leaders of hundreds of nonprofit, foundation and corporate giving programs attending. With grace and aplomb, staff swiftly restructured the session. Only one surrogate, from Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s campaign, showed up.

Because we provide help to people in need, many of our policy priorities focus on social services. As a result, some Democrats unjustifiably take us for granted and some Republicans unfairly view us with suspicion.

The year 2021 is going to shepherd in an extended period of austerity. All states except Vermont have to balance budgets and that will mean cutting grants and contracts to nonprofits. The Wall Street Journal ran the following headline this past October 28: “U.S. States Face Biggest Cash Crisis Since the Great Depression.” The blue print for the 2021 federal budget proposed massive cuts in social service program funding.

 FrameWorks Institute produced a video featuring random people on the street answering the question: “What is a nonprofit?” The few who could provide an answer boiled it down to giving clothes or food to poor people. There is an obvious lack of basic understanding that underlines the need for nonprofits to coordinate a united awareness building effort. We have to pool resources to message and build an image of nonprofits as integral to the well-being and safety of communities across the country. We are a siloed sector. Facing the inconceivable, national nonprofit leaders have no choice but to put down their egos and work on a peace accord for the sector.

While the sector needs dedicated and impactful educational campaigns, they are too expensive for one organization to launch and sustain. None have the millions needed to create a massive national digital marketing and ad campaign. Many nonprofit executives are trying to keep the doors open and prevent staff layoffs. They do not have the time nor money to even think about the sector’s need for political power and bold media messages.

We need to invite a different caliber of speakers to our conferences and Zoom calls, such as Frank Lutz, George Lakoff, Donna Brazile, and other political language experts and strategists. Vague language and tepid messaging will not boost our political standing.

Working on public policy issues impacting nonprofits during 2020 has been like drinking out of a firehose. Despite the issues, the fear and apprehension of the pandemic brought unparalleled collaboration and congruity into the nonprofit sector. Cooperation, inclusion, indefatigable commitment to mission and hard work have been the scaffolding for building an effective and rapid response to the myriad of COVID-19 emergencies. The already formidable circumstances facing people and families on the edge were suddenly compounded.

Unity and collaboration are possible if we make them priorities. In mid-March, a national coalition of nonprofits organized three calls a day, including Sundays and thus #Relief4Charities was born. Nonprofits had been left out, forgotten and excluded from the proposed stimulus bills. The group grew from six of us to several dozen in a matter of days. Alarm kept staff laser focused on saving the lives of their organizations and the people who looked to them for survival.

We now have an infusion of new blood guiding our actions. Thousands of nonprofits support the coalition’s letters and calls to action. The arts, faith-based and conservation organizations joined the coalition. It was gratifying to watch Laura Walling, senior director of government relations at Goodwill Industries International and other women assume leadership roles. The focus and spirit of cooperation was unprecedented.

Recent public polling of registered voters revealed that a majority acknowledge and support Congress giving nonprofits relief to better serve communities. But in light of this public support, where were the candidates and their staff during campaign season when it came time to talk policy and appropriation details? Nonprofit executives who run complex organizations with brilliance and strength are eminently qualified to bring expertise and solutions to governors, members of Congress, and the president.

We must mobilize resources to fund strategies for political potency. We have to make elected officials understand the integral roles we play in the lives of their constituents. Politicians should recognize that they need us to win elections. Their voters trust and believe in the work of nonprofits.

Some nonprofits known not to play well with others should reconsider and join the collective. The myopia of nonprofits struggling to meet the exponential growth of people and families seeking help because of the pandemic, unemployment and the recession has to be blown open with a long-term strategy. We can approach this initiative in a nonpartisan, policy-focused path forward. It is time for us to talk with the think tanks who actually influence policy.

When is the last time nonprofits providing human services met with the thinkers at the Heritage or Brookings foundations? Their staff actually propose legislation and influence presidents and politicians about our programs, communities and clients.

One idea for building a unified front would be for foundations and major donors to fund a yearly summit aimed at building the political strength of nonprofits over the next four years. CEOs, not the government relations or communications staff, need to outline a plan in a facilitated, social environment and commit funding towards a joint project. Human Service, arts, conservation and other nonprofits that provide services can mobilize to ensure inclusion during appropriations and policy considerations at the local, state and federal levels of government. Of course, the major nonprofit advocacy groups such as NonProfit Vote, United Way, National Council of Nonprofits and Independent Sector should work on execution. This has to be an assertive public facing plan to build a voting bloc that actually has the gravitas to influence policy.

After working on nonprofit public policy issues at the local, state and federal levels for three decades, I had never experienced such integrated effort, intricate strategic moves and mission focused aggressiveness as I have witnessed during the past year. I choose to believe we are on a path toward the political voice and principled power base needed to achieve our missions. Nonprofits will never be left out of an economic stimulus bill again because the nonprofit sector is going to have power.

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Jatrice Martel Gaiter is executive vice president, external affairs at Volunteers of America in Alexandria, Va.