Lessons of the Wisconsin Recall for Nonprofits

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The failed recall of Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) wasn’t about nonprofits per se but about labor unions and the governor’s strategy of stripping collective bargaining rights from public sector unions. However, do remember that the corporate form of labor unions is also in the 501(c) list—unions are 501(c)(5)s. It is all but impossible to imagine that the Wisconsin recall election was bereft of implications for the nonprofit sector, broadly in terms of strategies for social change and more narrowly for nonprofits. Here are some possible arenas for lessons learned.

Another Victory for Citizens United

While it would be too easy to ascribe the Walker victory simply to money, there is no question that Walker and his allies—check writers such as Rick Santorum’s backer, Foster Friess, and Newt Gingrich’s money man, Sheldon Adelson—outraised or outspent their opposition by a large number, somewhere between three to one and seven to one, depending on the source (the Center for Public Integrity has Walker outraising his opponent eight to one. The bulk of Walker’s money came from out-of-state sources. Remember that the mechanisms for this money to reach Wisconsin included a bevy of 501(c)(4) organizations. Maybe they will be a bit constrained due to the recent district court decision ruling that the Federal Election Commission had overreached its mandate in nixing part of the McCain-Feingold Act. But the alternative lesson might also be that Democrats step up their “independent” spending to counteract what they see as the power of money in the Wisconsin election—especially since the 50,000 volunteers mobilized by organized labor to knock on the doors of 1.5 million Wisconsinites possibly demonstrated that at least in this case, grassroots organizing could not overcome the power of money. That’s the continuing bad legacy of Citizens United.

The Waning Local Dimension of Politics

The New York Times analysis implied that the recall results were local or state-specific—an issue of union rights in Wisconsin. It seems to us that the lesson is just the opposite. The national attention focused on Wisconsin was not just about turning back Walker’s policies but also about the implications for other states that might be emboldened to follow Walker’s anti-union path, or about the strength or weakness of organized labor within the Democratic Party coalition, or, perhaps even more broadly, about the self-identification of voters with different political or social movements (e.g., the fact that nearly one-third of union voters voted for Walker and against the recall. Maybe this is too broad a point, but, unlike Tip O’Neill’s admonition that all politics is local, increasingly local politics is national—not just with the deluge of out-of-state moneys flowing into state and local elections but also with the national issues that are affecting all localities. Note that the Wisconsin recall election followed—by less than a week—the depressing job creation and employment numbers for May, the third successive month of bad job-news and possible indications of a double-dip recession. The political narrative wrought by the Occupy Wall Street movement, no matter what one might think of its strategies and future, is a return to a version of the Clinton reelection trope: “It’s economic inequality, stupid!” Add in the scores of workers who have dropped out of the labor force, and the many more who are involuntarily part-timers or well underemployed, and you’ll see an economic situation that is far from corrected—making votes about Walker’s policies in some ways referenda about voters’ fears and concerns about their economic future, even if the policies themselves might not be the panaceas that their proponents suggest.

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Picking the Appropriate Venue for Action

Only one-fourth of the voters who showed up at the polls in Wisconsin actually thought the recall was legitimate. The remainder, including people who voted against Walker, thought that recalls should result from the office holder’s engaging in some sort of ethical or legal violation of his or her oath, not from holding opinions that others oppose. According to the Washington Post’s Jamelle Bouie, “For 60 percent of last night’s voters, a recall is only acceptable in cases of official misconduct. For 10 percent, a recall is never acceptable. It’s not that these voters are pro-Walker, pro-Obama as much as they are pro-Obama, anti-recall.” Even though the Republican Walker won by a healthy proportion, polls show that the voters favor Obama over Romney comfortably in the general election—actually by a larger margin than the vote in favor of Walker over his recall opponent. Voters didn’t vote for Walker’s plan—they voted tepidly against a process seen as inappropriate. That might have dampened some of the potential opposition of the anti-Walker voters. Nonprofits have to remember too that the way something is done is just as important as the why. As John Avlon wrote in the Daily Beast, “Recall should have a high bar—an outright crime or indictment for example—but overuse of this extraordinary recourse ignores the fact that elections have consequences.”

Nonprofits and Race

501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and 501(c)(6) business leagues that served as conduits for some of the unprecedented money flowing into the Wisconsin recall election are nonprofits, except that unlike 501(c)(3) public charities, donations to them are not tax deductible. Nonetheless, there is plenty in the Wisconsin recall dynamic that touches on issues well discussed within the nonprofit sector, particularly for communities of color. Colorlines, for example, reports that Walker carried every age cohort of voters except for those between the ages of 18 and 29. The Colorlines article suggests that young people, particularly college students, found themselves on occasion blocked at the polls or even asked for photo IDs, an eligibility requirement that has been rejected in Wisconsin. A Tea Party–affiliated group called “True the Vote” apparently showed up in Wisconsin with loads of poll watchers, which Colorlines and others hinted was aimed at suppressing the turnout of young and black voters. Other nonprofit-related issues emerged in the election—not big ones, but intriguing nevertheless—such as critics of Walker’s opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who pointed out Barrett’s opposition to school vouchers for pupils to attend nonprofit private schools, even though his own children attend the same schools that would have benefited from vouchers. While winning the vote in Milwaukee, Barrett lost the city’s inner-ring suburbs and overall lost the vote in its metropolitan area, which notably ranks at the top (along with Detroit and New York City) in terms of metropolitan racial segregation. Are nonprofits recognizing and dealing with the pernicious effects of racial segregation and the racially disparate outcomes of otherwise race-neutral policies? Are they noting within the Wisconsin results an increasing polarization of Americans in our supposed post-racial society?

The mainstream press is debating whether the Walker victory means that President Obama is in trouble in Wisconsin or not, whether the political clout of organized labor will wane more than it already has, and if the Obama campaign will now attract new donors to match the open Friess and Adelson wallets. Nonprofits should be asking what the Wisconsin recall means for the future of American democracy and what they should do in that context to weigh in.—Rick Cohen

  • Mark Fuller

    This recall vote was quite simply about the “fact”, now well documented, that in many cities and states, pension benefits, automatic increases to wages, etc. are simply out of touch with the reality of funding future liabilities.
    Voters made their decision on the recognition that the cuts made had to happen.
    Take a look at San Diego and San Jose in California.
    Answers to large problems are never simple but we as a nation must have the fortitude to tackle these issues.
    Since bi-partisan support for solving difficult issues is practically non-existent, the party in control, whether Democratic or Republican must accept the responsibility to take action. Wisconsin is traditionally

  • Glenn

    As much as we like to believe otherwise, elections are about ideas, beliefs and values rather than personalities. Personalities only impact the way that ideas, beliefs and values are expressed and received. The majority of people in this country are still pragmatists with a great deal of common sense. If something isn’t working financially or producing desired outcomes, they believe it is time to make a change and do things differently.

    This is the point to be understood by non profits and all businesses. We need to engage individually and corporately in a serious in depth self examination and then honestly ask if we are producing the outcomes that clients, payers and donors expect and deserve. Our first and only question should be “what can we do differently to produce the outcomes that prove our value and worth.”

    I would recommend that you go to ted.com and listen to the presentations by Simon Sinek and Brene Brown.

  • Steve Zimmerman

    As someone who lives on Wisconsin I appreciate your summary and the implications for nonprofits. There could be substantial implications for government funding of nonprofits in the future as a result of this victory. I think, however, that the two points that stick out most to me are yours about the appropriate venue and leadership.

    Many people do not agree with Scott Walkers move on collective bargaining and some, even if they do agree, wonder why he didn’t pull it from police and fire. (We know the answer is because they support him.). However, most people oppose the polarizing nature and shutdown of government that has gone on because of the result. Hopefully the recall will re-energize to once again participate in our democracy at the appropriate time and cast informed votes.

    What was truly lacking among Tom Barrett and the unions, however, was leadership. They never made the case for the recall, but rather took it for granted. Their message was all over the place from an investigation into Walker’s county administration to his out of state fundraising to jobs and, oh yes, finally, to collective bargaining. With Wisconsin’s economy looking slightly better (which is truly a silly statement – but add one job and it looks better) and people being fed up about the nature of politics, they rewarded Walker for leadership absent any from the unions or democrats.

  • Tom Atlee

    It is clear to me that the focus on candidates – and even on most issues – is no longer as productive as it was. The system has become profoundly unresponsive to life and to vitally needed changes. To me the message is clear: We need to focus on changing the system – the rules of the game – the way things are set up – the institutions through which our society makes its collective decisions and takes its collective actions: specifically our political and economic systems.

    No matter what our values or our issues, the chances of them being wisely dealt with by existing systems are becoming slimmer by the year, even by the month.

    Hopefully, there is a groundswell of innovation happening from the bottom up, on both political and economic matters. I believe the most important political innovations focus on how to overcome political divides and use diversity creatively to generate legitimate, inclusive, wise collective voice and power – at community, state and national levels. The most important economic innovations make money (and its dominant measure, GDP) subsidiary to self-reliance, collaboration, sharing, quality of life and a healthy commons – again, at community, state, and national levels. Online peer-to-peer, crowdsourcing, deliberative, and collaborative websites are playing increasing roles in both emerging political and economic systems. All these innovations could use support from the nonprofit sector.

    With much reluctance, I would also add that the widespread nonprofit focus on ameliorating human suffering and preventing the degradation and destruction of communities and ecosystems is doomed to failure unless more focus is given to changing the systems that generate that suffering, degradation and destruction. Those systems are growing more powerful and having greater impact and, as economic, ecological and social disruptions multiply, we will find ourselves with fewer and fewer resources to ameliorate or prevent more and more of the life-damage we see around us. We need to be more strategic, to seek deeper causes, to increase the capacity of people, communities, and social systems to deal well with their pieces of the challenges we face. We need to change the very systems within which we are embedded.

    Thinking of the billions spent – and volunteer energies invested – in the 2008 and 2010 elections and looking at what we got out of them, it pains me to think how much further along we would be had we invested that money and energy in redesigning and changing the systems that are making it so hard to effectively care. 2012 will likely be no different. 2014 and 2016 could be dramatically different.

    Tom Atlee
    Co-Intelligence Institute


    Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
    site: http://www.co-intelligence.org / blog: http://tom-atlee.posterous.com
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  • rick cohen

    Several people have sent me personal anonymous comments. Here’s one:

    “Recall option is an escape valve procedure to remove a public official accused of
    misconduct – not simply a second chance to refight a previous policy disagreement.

    The Wisconsin recall was a mistake of strategy (better to have waited for the next
    regular election) and actually may not say a whole lot about public views of taxes,
    budgets, public employees or unions.”

  • rick cohen

    Here’s another anonymous comment i received:

    “While I definitely wanted Walker to lose and paid more attention
    because of my affection for the state due to my living there for four years as a
    child, I think it does have significant meaning for non-profits.

    In general, people are hurting financially out there. With WI unions being
    unwilling to negotiate with the government even people sharing homes with union
    members disagreed with them. It didn’t matter that the situation was wrong. It
    doesn’t matter that some of these people losing benefits have important skills to
    help the public or if they are firemen who risk their lives for people. These
    non-union members didn’t care because, honestly, union members didn’t seem to care
    enough to make a change and help out their own family members when the average
    person is in pain. The song cry me a river comes to mind.

    Non-profits are in a similar boat I think. Their employees and members care deeply
    however many people see the same tone deafness, a disconnect from the public to whom
    they want to ask for money. The public sees people disconnected from the
    marketplace and organizations poorly run. The name “non-profit” needs to be
    retired. Public Benefit organizations need to be run well & efficiently.
    Organizations such as GiveWell.org need to have a larger impact. People need the
    ability to clearly see benefit & not see wasteful spending or the perception of
    wasteful spending. Public Benefit organizations need to be critical of their peers
    and their methods. Employees must be valued the same as in businesses. The
    organizations must be aggressive in their goals and create partnerships to achieve
    them. Don’t take the American public and the IRS 501c3 law for granted or others
    may perceive it and believe that the things you once thought were sacred are not so
    at all. “

  • Salli Martyniak

    As the president of a robust WI nonprofit, i am most frustrated at the lack of nonprofit sector interest in political campaigns – whether it was the WI recall, a local race for mayor or a national campaign for president. While nonprofits are not allowed to choose one candidate over another (thanks to Citizens United, only for-profit corporations are considered “persons” and have the unlimited authority to contribute to and support political campaigns and candidates), nonprofits do have the right – and, I would argue, responsibility – to question candidates about their platforms on issues related to nonprofits. For example, how do they feel about taxing real estate owned by nonprofits? Or, what is their social contract to promoting the common good? Or, how do they feel about government support of the safety net for the most vulnerable in our society? There are so many questions to ask, yet the nonprofit sector remains silent and disengaged from what impacts them the most – politicians who control funding and policy. Because nonprofits fail to get a seat at the table, they are on the chopping block with no one to blame but themselves.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Salli: great thoughts, but my issue even when nonprofits get involved is that they look to politicians to mouth “I heart Nonprofits” instead of answering the tougher questions you’ve posed. Nonprofits have to not only be involved, but be involved on issues of substance and asking politicians to address them. Thanks for your comment.

  • tom desimone

    Wisconsin is an example of a different have/have not dynamic than is usually publicized. It is about the municipal/government employee who has reached a level of benefits for pension, medical and salary far beyond the private sector and completely out of touch in the pension area with the actuarial reality. For anyone, regardless of employer, to be able to collect a pension benefit prior to age 70 is an actuarial fallacy that needs focus. To pay someone a pension for a period two times the length of service in unconscionable. We need to restructure our work environment so that those in physical-related positions can move into other areas when it is no longer reasonable for them to do the physical part of their job. For example, we can’t expect a fireman to be climbing ladders in their late 50’s and 60’s, but there are administrative, supervisory and inspectional functions that those with tremendous experience in their field can do well beyond their ages. All of this takes leadership and originality, something sorely lacking by both parties and most of our elected officials who are too concerned with getting elected next year instead of simply doing the right thing.

  • Tom King

    How does a “system” make it “so hard to effectively care”. You care or you don’t! You do something about what you care about or you don’t. Are you talking about creating a system that forces everyone to care? What new system could possibly make your “caring” more effective?

    I’ve spent three decades “caring”. I’ve worked for a pittance or nothing at all. I have no retirement plan to show for it. No savings. No health insurance even. I did something about my “caring”. I started 5 nonprofits or educational organizations. I did unpaid community organizaing to help address senior, transportation, homelessness, youth and disability issues in my community. I did something about my “caring”. I sacrificed to do it.

    There are a lot of people that don’t care. As a fund-raiser I took money from these people because they didn’t want to care, but they didn’t want anyone to know they don’t care. Their names are on buildings all over town and are considered great philanthropists, but they do not want to actually see any of the ugliness. So I take their money so they don’t have to.

    There’s no “more effective caring” there. They’re paying off the devil, like it’s protection money or something.

    Then there are those who do care. Deeply! They look for ways to help. They don’t wait for a “system” to make their caring more effective or to relieve them of the responsibility for caring. They serve on boards, raise money, volunteer to help where they can be most effective.

    No “system” will work any more effectively. In fact, we’ve seen systems fail miserably at government-organized caring. I’ve personally worked at youth programs where for $60 a day, we did the same job the government was doing for $165 per day and doing the job a far sight better. Eventually, they were sending us kids their $165 a day programs were unable to do anything with.

    They had a “system” of caring all right, but it didn’t hold a candle to the same resources that were created by people who actually do care and are willing to make the sacrifice to act on that caring. And we didn’t need a “system” to make our caring more effective. We use what we’ve got, even though that “system” is woefully inadequate, rife with political corruption, waste and fraud. The best thing we could do is get the system out of the way of the people who really do care. We’re pretty efficient all on our own, thank you very much.

    Tom King

  • Donna Dziak

    I think that for any non-profit or government, that currently is unionized, it is important to realize the new paradigm that exists since the recession started in 2007. With fewer dollars and higher production expectations, the structure of most unionized shops will adversely affect morale worse than ever before. I have witnessed too many examples of good staff leaving non-profit and government agencies simply because their competancy is not rewarded, i.e. valued. Poorly performing peers remain in their jobs (never held accountable or bear the consequences of their lackluster work and/or negative attitudes).

    First hired, last fired plays into this backward system that protects the poor performing employee and sacrifices the best employees. As programs are held to collect more data and report distinctive outcomes, the protections in place thru unions must be re-examined in order to meet the demands of less funding coupled with high performance expectations from funders.

    Governments cannot rely on the public to increase taxes to cover service needs when the public is struggling and the perception is that government is ineffectual and inefficient. Government has to show–SHOW–that they are good stewards of public funds and that the outcome of that stewardship is competent government employees and well run services.

    As a peer noted over an exchange, even FDR did not agree with collective bargaining for government employees:

    [I][I][I] “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management.

    The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.”

    Workers need to be protected from abuses in the work place, but they also need to uphold their end of the bargain and that is going to demand new rules and understanding– compromises, by the unions and their due payers.