State of the Union and Nonprofits: What about Us?

Print Share on LinkedIn More


whatatravisty /

February 12, 2013; Source:New York Times

What did President Barack Obama say to the nonprofit sector last night? We listened hard and then we read the full text. Somehow, in addressing the economic revitalization of the U.S., the sector that employs 14 million people didn’t get a nod. In proposing specific economic development and job creating initiatives, the president proposed new tax credits for businesses and tax code simplifications for small businesses, but we missed the incentives for nonprofits to expand, hire, and develop their communities.

Maybe we could infer the central importance of nonprofits in the president’s vaguely stated plan “to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet.” Nonprofits would almost certainly be central players in the revitalization of places like Camden, N. J., Monroe, La., Valdosta, Calif., Reading, Pa., and Flint, Mich., not to mention Detroit, Mich.? You know it’s true, but nonprofits were MIA in the president’s speech.

Still, nonprofits probably found much in the State of the Union that they liked. Obama suggested that he would fight against a sequestration solution that protected military expenditures at the expense of domestic programs. He called for a raise of the minimum wage to $9 an hour. He called for immigration reform, gun control, and voting rights. Perhaps disappointing nonprofits, however, he skipped over any reforms related to the Citizens Union vortex, in which billions are sucked into a corrupting dynamic of campaign finance. He probably scared others who imagined an attack on the charitable deduction when the president said that “we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested, and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected.”

But key programs that directly address nonprofits simply weren’t there. The president talked about the revitalization of the housing market and called for refinancing mortgages, but didn’t address the more multi-faceted community development in which housing is only a part. He talked about addressing poverty through a higher federal minimum wage, but didn’t address what the nation has to do to help people who are currently mired in poverty, policies that typically depend on the capacities and expertise of poverty-fighting nonprofits. He talked about supporting Israel and supporting the Syrian opposition to Assad, he talked about keeping the American military the strongest in the world despite the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, but there was no talk about helping the hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees in the Middle East and there was no talk about foreign aid, both typical programmatic venues for NGOs.

Okay, it’s only one 6,400 word speech. How much can any speaker, even the president of the United States, touch on every issue that every constituency might want to hear? But for nonprofits, which are used to this president and past presidents talking about volunteerism, touting AmeriCorps, and sometimes even referencing the human service delivery capacity of the nonprofit sector, last night’s State of the Union is something of a step backwards, especially in light of recent efforts to put nonprofits on politicians’ radar screens. Looking at the State of the Union speech for evidence that the president has nonprofits framed in a way that is commensurate with their important role in the U.S. economy and society won’t yield much.—Rick Cohen



  • Douglas Knight

    Most people agree that money talks in the game that is politics. But there’s another door into the party that gets left out of the current discussions about the frustration with political “leaders” – voices and votes. Nonprofits were not mentioned during a State of the Union because our collective interest and “voice” (this 14 million strong employment sector, the country’s THIRD largest) isn’t seen as something to speak to. And why? Because there are no perceived votes to worry about. Without a sense of votes to be had or lost, this group doesn’t merit the need to speak to, about, massage, reference.. or even partner with. We must change that. But it has to happen from the INSIDE – here in the sector – not waiting for politicians to “get us.” We need to find those who do, and elect them into office. We’ve waited a very long time to witness a politician who values our sector as an ASSET and not EXTRA. But sadly, what we often see is just the same old, same old. Politician come around went needing a good backdrop or a soft story about the candidate’s “caring” or “compassion.” We need to be seen as business, a valued partner in public policy… as a sector looked at like “manufacturing” or “retail.” We can. We will. We just need the sector to support this effort to build our voice and votes into what they actually are: a force to be heard. That’s what we believe at CForward. That’s what we must do to bring our sector to the table as part of the economic rebuild of America. Let’s do this, nonprofiteers. “No Profits Without Nonprofits.”

  • Burroughs Mack

    I think you mean Citizens United, not Citizens Union.

  • Linda S

    Great points Rick. I think that if any administration is capable of seeing and valuing nonprofits as real agents of change, it is this administration. Especially smaller community nonprofits increasingly have to choose between continuing to EXIST and keeping PROGRAMS going — the choices could not be starker for these nonprofits. And yet, I agree with you, these are precisely the programs that get the work done that will revitalize the hardest-hit towns and communities. I hope we find that some in the Cabinet are thinking about this.