Advocacy Lessons Learned | Don’t Panic, Do Something Meaningful

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The White House released a stark budget blueprint that proposes the elimination of 66 programs, many of which support the work of nonprofits in communities. If enacted by Congress, the fiscal year 2018 budget proposal would also set in motion a series of targeted and arbitrary spending cuts affecting thousands of policy decisions by state and local governments, which themselves rely on the work of charitable nonprofits, and dramatically alter the relationship citizens have with their government.

The key to all of this, of course, is the phrase, “if enacted by Congress.” Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said it best when he observed: “I hope that people don’t panic over the president’s — any president’s — budget. They’re just suggestions.” He was stating the constitutional and practical reality that Congress makes the spending decisions.

But the President’s proposal is a blueprint for those decisions, one set of suggestions that many of his supporters look to for guidance. In this case, the White House budget plan is the hard edge of the debate, making all subsequent decisions look softer (perhaps “kinder and gentler”). Nonprofits performing work on behalf of governments won’t find solace in observations that “it could be worse,” and need to advocate in the spending debates as a way of advancing their missions. Any pundit in DC this season will say that “This is unacceptable” is not an effective advocacy message; more targeted and impact-focused messaging is needed. Here are some areas of concern and action worth considering.

  • Anti-Arbitrary: Everyone should be willing to denounce the use of the “two-penny plan” in the proposed budget – the across-the-board spending reductions to nondefense discretionary programs that imposes arbitrary cuts of two percent per year for 10 years (shrinking those programs by a fifth over a decade). The National Council of Nonprofits opposes arbitrary and across-the-board budget cuts at any level of government and has pledged to work to inform policymakers of the impact of budget proposals on communities. As we see it, arbitrary formulas for cuts are a lazy politician’s answer to complicated math problems. It is incumbent upon those organizations working on the front lines to give voice to the people directly affected by auto-pilot gimmicks.
  • Pro-Impact: When many programs are under attack or review, simply saying “no” by itself rarely garners the attention or respect needed to carry the day. If nonprofits believe proposed spending levels are inadequate or policy changes are detrimental – based on their personal and professional experience – then they need to tell the story, present the data, and tell the story again. Loudly and immediately.
  • Non-Traditional Allies: Spending cuts don’t occur in a vacuum and it is always best to recognize “it’s not about you.” Looking around, it is almost easy to identify the many other groups that care, and that will be ready to coalesce in support of common goals. The news in March that the Administration hoped to do away with the National Endowment for the Arts led former Governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to speak out against the plan. Proposed elimination of the Community Development Block Grant program doesn’t just target services provided by nonprofits; local governments are equally concerned about the proposed cuts. And private funders have a stake in the outcome of the spending debates: Tim Delaney of the National Council of Nonprofits explains persuasively that “the White House budget blueprint silently, yet effectively, targets private philanthropy as the fallback subsidy for government programs that would be downsized or eliminated.” Each of these interests, and many more, should be willing to engage on the merits with nonprofit advocates.

Although no time to panic, there is a great deal on the line for nonprofits … and governments, funders, and the people we all serve. Careful attention to the lessons learned from past advocacy challenges and successful campaigns should engender hope and confidence that the best interests of America can prevail.

Read more Advocacy in Action lessons, a regular feature of Nonprofit Advocacy Matters.

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