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Sounds of Silence: Are Nonprofits Too Passive About Public Policy?

Last week the House of Representatives passed the budget proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan on a party line vote. In one of the greatest legislative assaults on low income Americans in decades, the legislation would cut more than $5 trillion dollars in spending over ten years. 62% of these savings would come from the low income programs we think of as the essential safety net for vulnerable fellow citizens. Yet most of those in the nonprofit and philanthropic community, who work closely with the families and children sure to be impacted if not devastated, have been all but silent on the issue.

Ironically most nonprofits working in human services, health care, education, hunger and poverty will be expected, but unable to pick up the slack if cutbacks in SNAP, housing assistance, Pell grants for tuition assistance, and Medicaid go into effect.

The Ryan budget represents a radical restructuring of government and the responsibilities we share as a society. If philanthropic leaders aren’t speaking out on this, what are they speaking out on? In fairness, they make themselves heard often by releasing reports, conducting research, and sharing best practices. But they tend not to weigh in on, or intersect with, the on-going national conversation, thus self-marginalizing at just the time they most need to be heard.

While the House considered the Ryan bill, most nonprofits large and small went about business as usual, focusing on the “trees” – writing grants, holding fundraising events, preparing for board meetings – and utterly failing to see the forest. Because the House passed budget, though unlikely to go very far in the Senate, is anything but business as usual. For antiquated reasons this is just what the public wants and expects. We like our nonprofits to be seen but not heard.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t take specific steps to better prepare themselves. Every organization has both a right and an obligation to let its stakeholders know how their work will be affected by changes in public policy.

There is an alternative to silence, neither partisan nor political. It begins with four questions every nonprofit should ask:

 Have we prepared and shared an analysis of the impact of such budget cuts on the issues on which our mission is focused?

 Have we prepared contingencies for generating alternative revenues sufficient to enable us to meet increased demand?

 Have we built a capacity to inform and/or shape public policy to the extent consistent with our mission and permitted by law?

 Have we sought to collaborate with others to ensure the collective impact necessary to mitigate impact?

Speaking in a very different context recently, about the impact of SuperPacs, the President’s strategist David Axelrod said “you can’t play touch if they play tackle.” The same could be said for nonprofits today when it comes to potentially radical shifts in public policy. It’s not too late to speak out. But when will they?

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