The Worst Thing We Can Do for the Obama Administration: Be Quiet

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No, there’s even something worse: We can transform into an uncritical handmaiden of the handful of insiders who have grabbed the “nonprofit expert” roles in the new administration rather than doing what the nonprofit sector should always do, which is to stand apart, critique, mobilize the communities we represent, and demand social justice. But we nonprofits can be so solipsistic that we miss the bigger picture of the policy challenges facing our nation’s decision-makers. We’ve already seen lots of nonprofits pitching “feed me” agendas at the Obama Administration, but don’t expect to see this column in the stampede of nonprofits’ offering competing, unctuous obsequities. Here’s why:Once someone is elected to office, there’s always some backsliding, some distancing from campaign positions or values. All elected officials, President Obama and every member of Congress to be sure, need to be reminded of what they campaigned for, what their voters voted for. That isn’t a knock on Obama in the slightest, just a reality that this columnist learned so well years and years ago. President Obama does not need nonprofit suck-ups, but nonprofits that remind everyone about the kind of change that the public thought it got and hopefully will get with the selection of Barack Obama over John McCain.  If any President is going to appreciate this crucial nonprofit function, it is going to be President Obama, with his background in organizing and advocacy knowing that it’s important to remind even your elected friends and allies about what they promised to deliver–and how.

President Obama faces a most daunting challenge, with issues ranging from an unyielding economic meltdown to longstanding social policy concerns (try universal healthcare, for example), most of which resist easy answers. As opposed to simplistic campaign ploys of submitting pet ideas to the transition team’s websites, nonprofit leaders have to weigh in with detailed, substantive analyses to move the Obama administration on these critical issues. Slogans won’t do the trick. Nonprofits need to think, to push well-reasoned ideas and plan, not dumb themselves down into PR-crafted slogans.

Regardless of the political party, we know how special interests contribute big campaign dollars to most major candidates with the expectation that their campaign dollars will translate into hearings for their concerns. It’s no different for President Obama. Some of his major campaign bundlers included Wall Street execs and other corporate leaders and some campaign staff worked at lobbyists for the likes of Lockheed-Martin, British Petroleum, and Wal-Mart while on the Obama payroll.

Some of his top campaign staff will be quickly gobbled up by K Street lobbying firms and corporate special interests like Wal-Mart to curry favor. They know how the game is played, and so should we. And that means the nonprofit sector, or at least the socially minded part of the nonprofit sector, has to be geared up to counter the special interests inserting themselves into the Obama Administration’s political dynamics, even if during the campaign they were the allies of many in favor of Barack Obama’s election.

David Sirota of the Campaign for America’s Future, quite the opposite of the conservative opposition to the Obama Administration, has taken pains to describe the pre-election lobbying activities of Rahm Emanuel on behalf of the banking industry and Lawrence Summers in service to the hedge fund industry. The National Football League, described in a past CR column as an unusual nonprofit looking for exemption from certain nonprofit disclosure requirements such as executive salaries, grabbed a top aide of Democratic Senator Herb Kohl’s as its new in-house lobbyist this year. More directly connected to Obama are Matthew Nugen (the Obama campaign’s political director) at Ogilvy Government Relations (as a “strategic advisor”), Jeff Berman (in charge of Obama’s national delegate operations) hired by Brian Cave’s shop, and one former senator, Tom Daschle, who has returned to Alston & Bird.

None of this should mean that Obama is controlled in any way by aides with lobbying connections, witness Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s scuttling of defense expenditures that would have benefitted, among others, Lockheed-Martin. In many instances, these lobbyists might be advocating policies and programs beneficial to our nation and to the nonprofit sector. Lobbying isn’t a bad thing, even as registered lobbyists scurry to quickly deregister in order to qualify for jobs in the Obama Administration which has announced something of a no-lobbyist-on-staff posture for government hires. But the lobbying game, from the perspective of lobbyists serving well-heeled corporate clients, depends on connections to the sitting decision-makers, no matter how progressive or conservative their pedigree. Prior campaign involvement is no impediment to successful K Street careers, as Ted Quinn of Venable LLP attests:

“I can remember my finest hour was taking two months’ leave in 1964 to help the Johnson campaign…It puts you on the checklist as having been part of the team. You get to know the players, the people who get to run the government…Often the people you meet on the campaign wind up running the government later on. “That makes a big difference – it gives you a feel of what they can do.”

Nonprofits have to lobby too, but remember that as a sector nonprofits have a lobbying and public education role in the public interest, not for special interests. That role needs to apply to administrations they like as well as dislike. The historic role of the nonprofit sector is not to be the government’s community outpost with a “human face”. At their best, nonprofits have been truly a “third sector” (they’ve never been an “independent sector”) scrutinizing government and business, advocating for policy change, giving voice to communities in need — few of which will have the resources to get as much attention from Venable, Alston, the Podesta Group, Patton Boggs, and other K Street powerhouses as corporate clients will garner.

While the Obama Administration is so far displaying all the right signals on transparency and accountability, we have sharp memories of disappointments on that score with the Clinton Administration, not to mention the closed shop operations of the Bush Administration. One of Barack Obama’s strongest selling points was his stance on government transparency. Be assured, however, that transparency is often one of the first casualties of shifting from outside critic to inside government administrator. Although the nonprofit sector is often loathe to follow its own advice on transparency, witness the nonprofit sector’s leadership’s continuing, sycophantic protection of corporate charitable donors from disclosure, nonprofit watchdogs are needed as much as ever when a “friend” or a less-than-friend is in the White House.

It’s not hard to find volumes of treacle being published about the nonprofit sector’s role during a time when Obama’s inauguration opens a window for societal change and reinvention. The soft-soap being peddled often masquerades and camouflages what the nonprofit sector might more usefully do to push the administration. But there are huge differences among the 1.2 million 501(c)(3) charities, not to mention the 1.8 million tax exempt organizations counted by the IRS. Those advocating for the nonprofit sector don’t always advocate positions that benefit the broad range of nonprofit organizations. As Nonprofit Quarterly‘s forthcoming study on the national “nonprofit infrastructure” demonstrates, some of the best funded and most effective infrastructure organizations tend to promote the interests of the larger players in the nonprofit sector, leaving small nonprofits with a limited voice and impact on national policies affecting nonprofits. (Note: For that reason, the NPQ study calls for more foundation support for the national networks that link and give platforms to smaller, community-based nonprofits).

There are big challenges for the nonprofit sector even within ostensibly pro-nonprofit initiatives. Will the Social Innovation Fund built into the SERVE America Act support a wide range of groups or only some large, self-defined socially entrepreneurial groups? Will the nonprofit-appropriate economic stimulus programs in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act reach nonprofits or be diverted to state and municipal delivery mechanisms, as has happened with some of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds for the redevelopment of foreclosed homes? Will nonprofits effectively mobilize to monitor the expenditures in the stimulus to ensure that they really create jobs and protect households most severely impacted by the recession? For government and the nonprofit sector, the devil is in the details of the programs and their implementation, and that requires a critical, analytical posture.

As much as it is crucial that nonprofits remember their need to keep a critical eye on government, even if it is a government headed by the nonprofit-experienced and -savvy Barack Obama, at the same time, nonprofits should remember to do their research and do things that make sense. A good example was the recent advocacy around the SERVE America Act and the potential of renegade amendments that would have restricted nonprofit lobbying, voter registration, and other activities if they wanted to tap the expanded AmeriCorps and technical assistance programs and funds. Organizations such as the National Council of Nonprofits (NCN) and the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest (CLPI) mobilized the nonprofit sector effectively when the gag amendments popped up to be attached in the House version of the bill and won the issue. Sometimes the best thing some nonprofits that don’t do national nonprofit advocacy on a daily basis can do is to follow the lead of organizations like NCN and CLPI that monitor and advocate for a living. It is very easy to get tripped up reading and misreading the arcane dynamics of Capitol Hill (or state capitol) legislative processes. To avoid those well-intentioned advocacy faux-pas, we at NPQ also frequently check in with the NCN and CLPI types just to avoid causing unnecessary confusion and misdirection.

A Republican senator made a pathetic effort to attach a gag amendment to the Senate version, with no support even from the Republican co-sponsor of SERVE America (Utah’s Orrin Hatch). But a number of nonprofits decided to issue emergency e-alerts nonetheless, reproducing language about the defeated House language even though the Senate amendment, though restrictive, was different and more limited. Undoubtedly some of these alerts were well intended, motivated by the notion that members of Congress needed to be reminded and reminded again to be sure that they do the right thing. But in some other cases, it wasn’t hard to see that the alerts were the public policy version of nonprofit “branding”, less about mobilizing constituents and more about putting down “we are here” markers. The sense that some of these emergency alerts were more PR than policy advocacy was palpable.

Also surprising were the alerts that called on readers to flood the SERVE America Act’s sponsors and floor managers (and the most vigorous opponents of the restrictive amendments) with reminders to oppose the gag efforts. This columnist’s favorite was the alert from a nonprofit association of good repute calling on its members to contact Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski to oppose the gag amendments. Mikulski? She was leading — and effectively — the opposition to the Senate amendment that in the end got two milliseconds of consideration before being relegated to the scrapheap of stupid legislation. Barbara Mikulski didn’t need any reminders about what she was already doing so well that at the time of the alerts, the Senate amendment was already dead.

Again, these efforts to bug the cosponsors and floor managers of the legislation who were working assiduously to get the legislation passed, were undoubtedly well-intentioned, meant to protect the SERVE America Act against attachments that might slide into the bill without anyone’s noticing until too late. If the Senate amendment had any life at all (which it didn’t, by the way), it might have been worthwhile to target fence-sitters or Senators without much of a track record on this issue. But their aiming constituent calls at Mikulski had to have been seen by her staff, if not by the senator herself, as time-consuming, perhaps silly, perhaps distracting, perhaps irritating. There are probably lots of instances where Mikulski (and cosponsors of the SERVE legislation, Democrat Ted Kennedy and Republican Orrin Hatch) need to be lobbied or goaded into action. With this bill, they had pretty much already done the right thing and solved the problem that was of concern to the nonprofit sector, and if the gag amendment still had a scintilla of life, it would have been other legislators, not Mikulski and Kennedy, who needed to be reminded to vote no on a gag amendment.

So let’s spare members of Congress, in the worst instances, nonprofit branding and PR masquerading as public policy advocacy. Let’s spare President Obama and his aides from having to read treacly materials whose subtexts read, “I (heart) Obama”, “notice me”, “fund me”, and “give me an earmark”. Let’s keep the heat on Congress and the administration when they need it not on behalf of individual nonprofit organizations or even narrow nonprofit subsectors, but on behalf of the communities our organizations purport to represent. Else the big time interests in society, even within our sector, will gorge themselves at the Obama Administration’s table, and we’ll see less delivered from Obama than what he himself wants to see happen.