Merging Nonprofit Voices into a Political Force

Robert Egger is mad [and so are we!] about the Supreme Court decision allowing corporations and unions -- but not nonprofits -- to spend unlimited monies on political campaigns. In this Reader OpEd he tells us his ideas about what to do about it:

For the last four years, I've been wondering what it would take to unite the nonprofit sector in America.

In 2007, at the start of the first Presidential election in almost 80 years in which there was no incumbent in the race, nonprofits could have used this competitive climate to develop a strategy that compelled all candidates to earn our collective votes. By pushing for a plan for America that included a defined role for our 1.4 million nonprofits, we could have repositioned the sector as a deep well of previously untapped, economic energy. We did not.

In 2008, when 29 states posted over $45 billion in deficits and legislators began to make deep budget cuts, the opportunity was again present. As funding for once sacrosanct programs -- from senior healthcare to education -- was slashed, nonprofits could have joined forces to ensure that vital services and critical needs were met. We remained divided.

And in 2009, when state budget deficits exploded by over 300% and lawmakers began to explore taxing nonprofit property or imposing other cash generating fees, I eagerly awaited the moment when enlightened self-interest would spur a sorely-needed, strategic dialogue among organizations in every community. It never came.

And now this: two weeks ago, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, which granted political free-speech rights to corporations and unions, but excluded groups granted 501 (c)(3) status by the Internal Revenue Service.A This means that the 14 million employees of organizations who train the unemployed, shelter homeless vets, sustain the arts, protect our environment, care for the sick, feed the poor, channel the energy and ideals of 60 million volunteers annually must sit on the sidelines and bear witness to a process that relies on our work, yet excludes our voice.

Does that make you mad? It should. Does that make you want to do something? It must.

Does it make you want to be part of real change? It can - and here's how.

A once-in-a-generation opportunity

This year -- 2010 -- is the once-in-a-generation opportunity to shift the political calculus. Of the 50 states of our Union, 36 will elect governors. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for re-election. One-third of the Senate seats are in play. All this is happening at a unique moment in American history: when every candidate, no matter their past political success or outside contributions must detail their plan to resurrect the America economy.

We nonprofits generate almost 10% of the GNP and pay billions in taxes.A This is our opening.A We must reframe our role on the national, state and city level by organizing around one simple axiom: no plan for economic recovery can be considered viable unless it incorporates the economic power and potential of the nonprofit sector.

And it all starts with you.

Make no mistake--our collective fate is in the balance, which is why we must now channel our collective power. As individual citizens, you have the power to speak with candidates who would ask for your vote.

In every city and state, nonprofits must use every means to communicate this commitment. Our entire country needs to understand how deeply our work is woven into the fabric of our national history and how imperative we are to ensuring our country's future.

A national media campaign -- led by you

To accomplish this, we must all participate in an ambitious national media campaign. Write editorials. Submit letters to the editor. Redesign your organizational materials so that every aspect of your work reflects on our combined accomplishments. Use new media outlets with audacity. If a candidate says something visionary about how they would partner with you--spread the word and urge other candidates to compete.

Many have talked about nonprofit mergers this year. Well, now is the time for us to merge our voices. If you do not belong to a state association, then join. If you belong to a state association, ask its leadership to stop speaking about you, and tell them to start speaking for you. Every association you belong to -- whether on affordable housing or museums -- must take up this call. When advocates call for your help, put everything else down and answer that call.

But you can also be part of a national movement. Beginning this month, the V3 Campaign is launching campaigns in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Michigan and is working to establish efforts in two more states.

In each case, we are partnering with local organizations to launch statewide movements so that voters will know how candidates have pledged (or not) to utilize the energy and entrepreneurial sprit of the nonprofit sector.

  • If you work or volunteer in a nonprofit in one of these states, join the effort and make sure your colleagues have signed up to receive alerts from the V3 Campaign. If you are a nonprofit leader in one of these states, contact us.
  • If you do not live in one of these states, the V3 Campaign website will be providing updates on political campaigns in every state. We're launching a Twitter wire service, so that V3 will get constant updates on what candidates are saying in every community. Through this strategy, we hope to accomplish one thing: toA knock down the first domino.

All it takes is for one candidate to pledge to have a Lieutenant Governor or Deputy Mayor for Philanthropy, and others will follow. All it takes is for two candidates to openly compete for our votes, and others will follow. All it will take is for the votes of nonprofits to swing a race, and others will follow.

In a year in which elections could be swayed by those who would place dividends before citizens, we must come to realize that the combined voices of the nonprofit sector could be the only force in America that can offset this imbalance and ensure open, fair and compelling campaigns.

If you believe, as I do, that America's future is at stake, and that nonprofits have a stake in that future, then stand up, stand together and make this the year that all of America's assets are included in the fight.

Robert Egger founded the DC Central Kitchen and the V3 Campaign, a coalition dedicated to the Voice, Value and Votes of the nonprofit sector. He does not like broccoli. He loves avocados: "In Louisville, where my folks retrired, there's a famous restaurant -- Lynn's Paradise Cafe -- where they make an insane, 100% local, Bacon & Avocado Sandwich. Just thinking about makes me drool."

See also: How to Take a Nonprofit Policy Stand, with sample criteria

Comments (14)

  • Thanks for the call to get involved. Even though your cry for action is strategically targeted at non-profits (which we work to support -, every citizen needs to be more proactive in knowing who is running for public office and where they stand on issues. We can't make something better by just standing idile. Get involved!

    Feb 02, 2010
  • Thank you Robert for the united call to action for those of us who have been involved in the nonprofit sector for more years than we would care to admit! Yet, reading the news this morning, perhaps we might expand our concerns regarding supporting those politicians who understand our passion and our accomplishments to actively "suggest" that they re-think the government's proposal to "limit the itemized tax deducations hight earners can claim for charitable donations...." (AP article by Stephen Ohmemacher, Tuesday, February 2)

    Feb 02, 2010
  • I second that!

    Nov 15, 2010
  • Why not unite the nonprofit sector to bring our case to the Supreme Court to prove that because we share our roots with the corporations, all restrictions on lobbying and campaign contributions for nonprofits must be removed? Now that would be a timely rallying cry that would result in a significant shift for our level of influence! Just look back at the knee-jerk reactions that led to these restrictions and it seems quite plausible.
    Sue Knaup
    Executive Director

    Feb 02, 2010
  • The trade-off is nonprofit donations are tax free to the nonprofit and give a deduction to the donor. Perhaps you would allow the same status to corporations that they not pay tax on their income and offer a tax break to the purchaser of the corporation's product of service.
    Jay McCall

    Feb 02, 2010
  • If ever I saw a threat to democracy, this is it. The decision by the Supreme Court is the final step in the complete takeover of the government by business and corporate interests and the final death warrant for the true participation in government by individuals.
    If we, as organizations dedicated to helping and benefiting others do not band together to protect those who need us most -- in this case by supporting issues and policies that benefit us -- then we have failed not only ourselves but the millions of people who depend on us for help.

    Philip Greene,
    Volunteer and Community Outreach Coordinator, Media Relations
    Americorps member
    Dayton Christian Center
    Dayton, OH

    Feb 03, 2010

  • Go to Wikipedia and search on Santa Clara County decision. That's the 1886 Supreme Court case that started corporations on the road to personhood. PLEASE NOTE that there is no "holding" to that effect! As noted there, the note about personhood was written by the clerk, in what's called "obiter dicta." That means that the Supreme Court has NOT held, as a matter of constitutional law, that corporations are people! And that means that the Congress COULD pass laws invalidating corporate personhood!

    Now, as Senator Dick Durban, (D, IL) has said, "The banks own this place!" So we're not about to get those laws easily. AND, perhaps more important, we don't want Scalia, Roberts, et al to have the opportunity to MAKE it a holding! Therefore, organizing should be accompanied by (a) the understanding above, and (b) a plan to take an appropriate case to a more liberal Supreme Court, whenever one should appear. I'm a member of the DC Bar, and have been since 1973, I blog on government reform at Happy to respond there. Bob Knisely

    Feb 03, 2010
  • Sue,
    I appreciate your comment. Will you be in DC in March? Robert, will you? The National Bicycle Summit is the 9-11 and I would relish the opportunity to talk V3 with you both.
    Kathryn Moore
    Miami Bicycle Coalition

    Feb 03, 2010
  • Bob, oh Bob. You start out great but all the roads lead to you.

    Feb 06, 2010
  • I can see why you might feel that way, but at this juncture, and given the HUGE stakes, I've opted to move beyond fiery (yet noncommittal) talk and taken the risk of giving interested colleagues clear steps they can take. The V3 Campaign is but one...but one that isn't sitting still. If you've got another, then chime in, Anonymous

    Feb 09, 2010
  • Hi Robert ---
    It may be chilly here but your firey rhetoric always warms things up!
    Northeast Florida nonprofits are flexing their public policy muscles more often lately. In fact, a recent report found nonprofits described a 59% increase in their advocacy activities over the last year. Four successive years of local and state funding inspired the uptick; however, their increased advocacy is matched by an increased unity and effectiveness. Working and speaking as a significant sector of the economy, nonprofits were a real force to be reckoned with during budget deliberations in 2009.

    Another indicator of engagement: one of the leading candidates in the 2011 Jacksonville Mayor's race is also the president/CEO of a large local nonprofit, the I.M. Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless. I'd be interested to learn if there's an increase in the number of candidates from the nonprofit community running for office.
    We figure 2010 could be very interesting and don't intend to sit on the sidelines.
    Rena Coughlin
    Nonprofit Center Northeast FL

    Feb 08, 2010
  • Thanks to all for your comments. In communities big and small, the number of groups that are forging a unified voice is growing day by day. This is clearly the year we step forward.

    Keep your eyes on CO, where Denver Mayor Frank Hickenlooper announced his bid for the Governor's office. He launched an Office of Strategic Partnerships in 2004 to coordinate the efforts of local nonprofits, businesses and government. Will he pledge to take that same idea to the state house? If he does, will other candidates match it? If they do, will other candidates in other states step up? Will other np's ask? Stay tuned...and step UP.

    Feb 09, 2010
  • I agree with this call to activism ... and I wonder about the wisdom of say a 501c3 organization becoming a part of what you propose. It seems to me that the prohibition against lobbying and getting involvred in legislative issues is a signifivant obstacle ...

    Feb 23, 2010
  • Late to the party, but here's my $.02. Other than pleading for access to the process, how can nonprofits present a "unified" voice? Nonprofits represent many different and competing views on political, religious, social, and economic issues. For example, not every nonprofit agrees that, because "funding for once sacrosanct programs -- from senior healthcare to education -- was slashed, nonprofits could have joined forces to ensure that vital services and critical needs were met." We remained divided because we represent a variety of views on the growth of the welfare state.
    Over the past thirty years the "unite" theme has been used to essentially make many professional associations into campaign arms of the Democratic Party. I'm a librarian, and the American Library Association has "united" to freeze out any views other than the DNC's. Take a look at ALA's annual conferences and the lists of invited speakers, if you doubt my assessment.
    Robert Egger's call to egt involved in the political process as a single bloc takes us in the same direction.

    May 13, 2010

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