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Getting Off the Sidelines and Into the Game

In anticipation of President Obama’s announcement of his 2012 budget proposal on Monday, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published an article on Friday speculating about the impact that proposed budget cuts will have on the nonprofit sector. See http://philanthropy.com/article/Nonprofits-Brace-for-Obamas/126325/?sid=&utm_source=&utm_medium=en

The White House has already signaled that it wants to cut Community Service Block Grants and Community Development Block Grants which fund many nonprofits and anti-poverty programs – and House Republicans have said they want to reduce spending on community health programs, family planning, and maternal and child health programs, as well as arts and legal services.

Nonprofits and community organizations can be expected of course to oppose such cuts, but that’s tantamount to opposing the results of the last election. The real question is whether nonprofits will have the vision and courage to go beyond merely opposing, and to proposing policy alternatives instead, while also diversifying their own revenues to reduce their dependence on such politically fragile funding.

One of the oldest strategic lessons in the book is that you can’t fight something with nothing. We saw this in 2010 when the anti-hunger community found itself powerless to prevent cuts in future SNAP (food stamp) benefits because we confined our role to shouting objections from the sidelines, rather than joining the fray by proposing alternative offsets to federal spending. The rationale at the time: “proposing offsets is not our responsibility … that’s the job of Congress and the White House.” The result: a vacuum of leadership filled instead by those willing to take advantage of the most vulnerable and voiceless SNAP recipients.

The lives of too many Americans are so dependent on the health of the nonprofit sector that we can no longer allow budgets and the policies they represent to be something that just happen to us. We need to build capacity to influence policy as surely as we need to build capacity to deliver the highest quality human services. This means making investments in research, staff, and advocacy that may not pay off until the long-term.

And as the many clients of Community Wealth Ventures can attest, nonprofits need to do more than wait for wealth to be redistributed in their direction, they need to create their own wealth, community wealth, that will go directly back into the communities they serve. This too requires specific actions: auditing assets, recasting the culture of an organization to embrace market forces, a more expansive of vision of what’s possible, including nonprofits making profit. It’s more than coincidence that Share Our Strength, which has long embraced such actions, has grown dramatically even in the face of the national economic downturn that has created challenges for so many of our colleagues.

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