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The national elections are less than a month away. But regardless of who occupies the White House and Congress come January, the big issues for the nonprofit sector will be looming, requiring nonprofits to speak out, to mobilize, and to make sure that their broad range of diverse voices are not drowned out by a small coterie of large organizations that claim that they speak for the entire sector. This writer was to have made the case that follows at this week’s Illinois Nonprofit Conference, but a United Airlines plane with mechanical problems didn’t stick to the plan. However, due to the magic of Twitter, we can see what National Council of Nonprofits President and CEO Tim Delaney and CForward President Robert Egger had to say, in short form.
Based on the tweets we’ve seen, Delaney told those in attendance: that nonprofits to stop demonizing government and speak up in support of our government partners; that the $56.4 billion in impending sequestration cuts will deeply impact domestic spending and the programs that nonprofits use to serve their communities and constituents; that government doesn’t see nonprofits as employers or businesses, but as volunteers; and that nonprofits must speak up and agitate on public policy issues, including budget issues. As for Egger, our Twitter-based take is that he said: that nonprofits have to put aside their “petty differences” and stand together; that public discourse ignores the nonprofit sector; that social enterprise can “liberate” nonprofits; that nonprofits should free themselves from the government grant cycle; that the hybrid organization is the future; and that nonprofits should be aggressive not just politically, but as capitalists.
Both Egger and Delaney deliver inspirational stemwinders, and this author regrets that he was unable to offer in-person reactions to their ideas on the nonprofit sector’s future policy challenges. While our travel may be restricted by airlines, however, our thoughts are not, so here is our take on the nonprofit policy agenda looking ahead to the lame duck session of Congress after November 6th and the White House and 113th Congress’ work in 2013.
The Nonprofit Sector’s Visibility
Delaney and Egger are both completely on point about how invisible the nonprofit sector is in many public policy debates. We’ve written about the nonprofit sector missing in action in the presidential and vice presidential debates, in which you wouldn’t know that there’s a nonprofit sector—a charitable sector—in the U.S. despite its employing as many as 15 million people, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; Independent Sector uses a figure of 13.5 million nonprofit employees. Regardless of the estimate, that’s millions of workers not visible on the national scene, as we noted some time ago when the National Council of Nonprofits pointed out to the Obama White House that its proposed program of health insurance incentives for small businesses entirely omitted the category of small employers that happen to be nonprofit.
Add the 60.25 million people who volunteer with or through organizations—that is, more than a quarter of the U.S. population aged 16 or over—and it is hard to imagine how the nation’s public policy leaders consistently fail to speak to the needs, programs, and sustainability of the nation’s nonprofit sector. A reasonable substitute for “nonprofit” in political debates might be poverty, since it is the nonprofit sector that is on the front lines of addressing the needs of the 46.2 million people living on incomes of less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level ($23,050 for a family of four) and the additional 30 million people with household incomes between 100 and 150 percent of the poverty level, but most candidates aren’t discussing poverty, either.
Political visibility for the nonprofit sector doesn’t mean getting politicians to mouth “I (heart) nonprofits” or to tout how much they’ve reduced their effective tax rate by making charitable donations. Rather, what do the nation’s leaders have to say to the nonprofit sector concerning the policies and priorities that mean something to the role of nonprofits in tending to the needs of the communities they serve and represent? Are politicians afraid to talk about nonprofits serving the poor and working class for fear that they might be labeled as pro-union or as socialists?
Although this discussion is largely absent on the national stage, let’s temper the concept of nonprofit invisibility somewhat and acknowledge that, particularly through many state associations, nonprofits have made a policy mark and been visible on state-level policy debates. In New York State, for example, Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli issued a report on the seriously negative impacts delayed state contracts and late payments cause for nonprofit service providers, featuring language that virtually sounds like it was written by a nonprofit state association. In Connecticut, there is now an assumption that the state will always have a cabinet-level nonprofit liaison, with Gov. Dannel Molloy appointing Terry Edelstein to the position this past August.
But to some extent, the states are at the mercy of some federal budget and policy issues, as many state programs depend on federal pass-through funds and larger federal policies. The relative absence of nonprofit discussion at the national level regarding major policy issues unfortunately trickles down through the federal system to the states and localities.
The Impact of Budget Sequestration
Delaney is right on target with his assessment of the impending impact of sequestration, the massive, almost across-the-board budget cuts that will automatically take effect in January unless Congress does something. Maybe Congress will get its act together in the post-election lame duck session, but who can tell? Some Democratic lawmakers, such as Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen and