If You're Not at the Table, You're On the Menu

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In 2017, it’s more important than ever for nonprofit leaders to recognize that, “if you're not at the table, you're on the menu.”

The charitable community is only as strong as the public policies that support our missions. At the federal level, the nonprofit community is correctly expecting some major shifts. Some may be good, but many potential shifts are making leaders in the charitable sector nervous or even angry. Another healthcare overhaul will be in the works, funding for core social services looks threatened, and adjustments to the tax code, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, are sure to be on the short list.

Dan Billingsley, Vice President of External Affairs, Oklahoma Center for NonprofitsBut nonprofit leaders also must be vigilant and pay attention to what’s happening in their own state legislatures. Our state, Oklahoma, along with the majority of other states, is facing another massive budget shortfall. As one legislator put it – ‘there is nothing left to cut.’ It will be a very interesting session this spring.

Nonprofit leaders continue to be privately anxious about the fact that demands on nonprofits to provide services in communities continue to increase dramatically, along with the cost of doing business. Many organizations are seeing cuts ahead. In a recent survey we conducted, more than half of nonprofits responding felt uneasy about the legislative climate in Oklahoma and how it related to their specific nonprofit.

But more troubling from the results of our survey is the fact that more than half the respondents reported that they simply don't advocate. Most don't have an advocacy or public policy platform, and few saw the importance of engaging in this most important dialogue with policy makers. Perhaps they misunderstand IRS rules that permit issue advocacy and lobbying (while prohibiting 501c3 organizations from endorsing candidates for public office or political parties). But another issue is at play: simply put, it’s often a capacity issue. Frankly, most organizations can't hire lobbyists, political strategists, policy experts or the communication strategists needed to effectively engage constituents – although every nonprofit, and each board member, has a voice. And they need to use it.

A laissez-faire shrug of indifference deeply harms the charitable sector. It is becoming increasingly dangerous to do nothing while letting state government make decisions without input from our frontline knowledge. Instead, it is our economic and moral imperative to “be at the table” – to advocate. If we are unwilling to do so, we are in the wrong business.

The charitable community– whether nonprofits or grantmakers, or individual donors and volunteers – all must be willing to share suggestions and find solutions alongside policy makers. More importantly, we must partner with our policy makers to get the work done that the community needs. We must share data, best practices, tell our client stories, and show government our impact on the economy.

Here’s what we’re planning in Oklahoma. We are going to step up our advocacy game on behalf of the charitable nonprofits and individuals and communities they serve. We will gather with policy makers, funders, and nonprofit professionals to engage in a new dialogue to help shape a better government/charitable sector partnership that will focus on solving community problems – together. 

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