Monday, June 9, 2014

Thank You, Government

Foundation and public charity leaders want government to be a good partner to their efforts, but fail to question if they’ve been a good partner to government.

An important tactic to creating positive social change is to participate in advocacy. Government—at municipal, state, or federal levels of the U.S.—has more money than the private philanthropic sector and, with the single stroke of a pen, can enact policies that would significantly advance nonprofits' missions. It’s no wonder then that conferences of nonprofit or foundation professionals often include a session on how to approach and influence elected officials. Designed to help nonprofits pitch their causes, these sessions are about convincing elected officials to see the world from a nonprofit perspective.

But do we ever, as nonprofit workers, ever sympathize with government? Do we ever ask ourselves what we can do to help strengthen government, particularly when it comes to advocating for expanding government services to redress inequities, reduce income inequality, redistribute opportunities, and enact social changes that would benefit all? Now, THAT would make for an interesting conference session. The nonprofit sector has been too uninterested in the welfare and well-being of government, which is actually to the detriment of the entirety of nonprofits’ efforts.

Advocacy, by and large, has been about influencing elected officials; it’s about how government can help me, my nonprofit cause, my social change agenda. In this way, nonprofits’ advocacy activities reflect a fragmented, special-interest driven nonprofit sector. Your elected official is sitting down with an education reformer one day and an environmental advocate the next. Moreover, how we are being taught to conduct advocacy enacts an adversarial dynamic in the nonprofit-government relationship. Government representatives are perceived as gate-keepers to much-needed resources and policies who need to be convinced of the merits of your nonprofit’s interests.

In our single-minded focus on advancing our own sector-specific causes, we have forgotten the importance of government’s own social welfare mission and role. Among nonprofits, there are many special interests spanning all sorts of issues, but where’s the group devoted to advocating on behalf of government? For instance, there's no national foundation collaborative raising a furor to ensure that civics and U.S. government classes remain a core high school education instruction. Yet doesn’t educating young minds on government's role in the functioning of a democracy help the entirety of the third sector, which depends on voluntary democratic action? It's like we're fighting too many battles and losing the war. Of all people, why haven't those in the nonprofit sector been able to appreciate the need for a strong government in fighting poverty, advancing education opportunities, and fighting climate change? Successful foundation initiatives and nonprofit programs cannot be taken to scale when the role of government is diminished in the eyes of the public.

When foundation and public charity leaders approach elected officials for support, they should also be asking what they can do to help strengthen government in meeting larger social welfare needs. After all, government is not an adversary to nonprofits' interests: Rather, government is the nonprofit sector's complement (for theories of the government-nonprofit relationship, cf. Frumkin, 2006; Sandfort, 2008; Young, 2006).

But, the nonprofit sector has been strangely and alarmingly silent in defending the role of government in improving lives. Why wasn't there a unified and loud nonprofit voice defending the Affordable Care Act--the most important progressive social welfare act of this generation? The ACA singlehandedly will help all nonprofits and foundations come closer to realizing their missions by helping clients of grantees live healthier lives as well as by improving the capacity of grantee organizations by protecting the well-being of their volunteers and staffs. More recently, why didn’t the nonprofit sector stand up together to defend the importance of the IRS in regulating (and protecting the reputation of) the nonprofit industry when the IRS was attacked for scrutinizing far-left and far-right groups? You may, too, have bought into the criticism that this was a government overreach but by being silent and not rising to government’s defense, the nonprofit sector has been complicit in effectively weakening government. And a weakened government at any level is not only bad for those who stand to benefit from taxpayer-enabled social welfare programs and efforts—the poor, the uneducated, the mentally ill, the immigrants—but it’s also bad for the nonprofit sector at large. Government’s programs, funding, and policies comprise the national infrastructure of social welfare and is what foundations and public charities depend upon to leverage their contributions and activities.

I'm happy to go against the general sentiment of government unpopularity by expressing my appreciation to government for:
  • my ESL class when I first came to this country. (Admittedly, it was a bit confusing as a Korean to be put in Spanish ESL to learn English but, hey, I managed OK.)
  •  my public education. (Albeit not the source of happy memories, this education effectively taught me to read, write, think, and express myself.)
  • my government-subsidized college loans. (I’m still paying this off and not entirely happy about it, but I'm eternally grateful for the opportunities it afforded.)
  • my food stamps which was the only way I was able to feed myself in college.
  • an environment back in the 1990s (which is no longer the case today) that made affirmative action OK, thus opening doors to education and work that would have been closed to me in a culture of homogeneity.
  • making financial institutions write to me in plain English. (I actually now read my Bank of America “Notice of Changes” letters, relishing how clearly they are articulating what they’re up to.)
  • government grants to nonprofits for creating a robust independent sector that has allowed me to work in ways that satisfy both my mind and my heart.
In the clip below of a 2013 South Park episode, Butters (yes, that’s his name) concludes his day with “Dear Government, Thank you for watching over me.” At least when it comes to the U.S. government, I couldn’t agree more. What do you thank government for?

Works Cited

Frumkin, P. (2006a). Accountability and legitimacy in American foundation philanthropy. In K. Prewitt, M. Dogan, S. Heydemann, S. Toepler (Eds.), The legitimacy of philanthropic foundations: United States and European perspectives (pp. 99-122). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Sandfort, J. (2008). Using lessons from public affairs to inform strategic philanthropy. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 37(3), 537–552. doi:10.1177/0899764008320270

South Park. (2013). Let go, let gov [television series episode]. Los Angeles, CA: Comedy Central.

Young, D. R. (2006). Complementary, supplementary, or adversarial? Nonprofit-government relations. In E. T. Boris & C. E. Steuerle (Eds.), Nonprofits and government: Collaboration and conflict (2nd ed., pp. 37-79). Washington, DC: Urban Institute.