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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Change: The New Normal for Nonprofits


The radical shifts in policy positions that have accompanied the new administration, along with the constant drumbeat of calls to cut federal funding, have caused significant anxiety and concern among nonprofits. In response, many organizations are taking action.

“In this transition period, nonprofits are worried and at the same time ready to move forward, whether by looking at new ways to do their work or by being involved in advocacy,” said Nancy Berlin, policy director for the California Association of Nonprofits (CalNonprofits).

During her presentation at the 2017 Armanino Nonprofit Symposium, Berlin shared insights from a CalNonprofits survey of over 800 nonprofits, conducted in March, which asked California organizations how they are adjusting their funding and priorities in response to the new administration. The results were encouraging.

“We saw the usual kind of resiliency of the nonprofit community,” Berlin said. “People were already beginning to think about what to do next.”

The challenges weighing on nonprofit executives’ minds range from expectations of government funding cuts to concerns about how new federal laws and enforcement priorities will affect their constituents. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of respondents anticipated a decrease in government funding. Even though those cuts haven’t happened yet, they are still on the horizon.

Private donations aren’t likely to fill the gap that cuts would create. “If you were to add up all the charitable giving, it by no means comes close to matching the amount that is proposed to be taken out of federal budget,” said Berlin.

A Fresh Take on Mission
In response to these potentially dramatic changes, some nonprofits are re-examining how they fulfill their missions.

For example, one survey respondent reported that their museum is starting to position itself as a safe space in the community. Another arts organization expressed worry—not over the proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, but over the threat of deportation of the many young undocumented artists in their community.

“I find that very encouraging,” Berlin said. “We are thinking about how we can be most responsive to what is happening at this particular moment in history.”

Keep Calm and Advocate On
One of the ways that nonprofits are becoming more responsive to today’s needs is by becoming even stronger advocates. Berlin was pleasantly surprised that 42% of survey respondents said they had increased public policy advocacy since the election, and 10% said they had engaged in advocacy for the first time.

It’s not an easy time to move in that direction. For one thing, said Berlin, there is not a lot of money out there to fund advocacy efforts. Even if a nonprofit does have a pool of unrestricted funds, convincing the board to direct those funds toward public policy issues can be a hard sell in the face of more immediately pressing issues.

“I worked for almost 20 years in homeless shelters,” Berlin said. “I know how hard it is, when you’re faced with immediate problems standing in front of you, to decide that you’re going to register people to vote or analyze a public policy issue.”

Berlin urged philanthropic groups to step up and fund advocacy initiatives. “You have to dedicate money, time and staff people to that effort,” she said. “Otherwise, you are asking frontline service providers to do that, and they can’t.”

Despite the current hurdles, Berlin believes that overall, the nonprofit community is well-prepared to find new ways to continue to do their good work. “Nonprofits are facing really challenging times, but they are resilient,” she said.

How to Get Started With Advocacy
For nonprofits looking to dip a toe into public policy advocacy, Berlin has the following tips:

  • Build a coalition. Look to others in your community who are already doing that work, and amplify what they are doing. Being supportive and collaborative gets to a core value of who nonprofits are. For a list of national organizations already advocating on a range of issues, check out CalNonprofit’s National Advocacy Resource List.
  • Know the rules regarding lobbying vs. advocacy. If you are planning to engage in lobbying, consider taking advantage of the safe harbor that is available through the Section 501 (h) election. Most nonprofits can do more lobbying than they may realize. You shouldn’t be afraid of it, but it’s always best to know what the limits are before you test them.
  • Educate. Nonpartisan education is typically a safe bet. With the 2018 mid-term elections coming up, there will be plenty of opportunities to create a more informed electorate. For example, you can register your constituents to vote, educate them about the offices that are up for election, or provide Election Day transportation.

 

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