More Than Just Lip Service: Real Respect

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In the first half of 2015, the nonprofit community encountered innumerable public policy challenges across the country. Some good ideas became law, making it easier for charitable nonprofits to advance their missions. Most bad ideas were rejected (but see “Worst Bills of the Year (so far)” in the June 29 edition of Nonprofit Advocacy Matters). Throughout the many advocacy engagements, nonprofits have earned respect from policy makers and opinion leaders.

Before turning to the next policy challenge, it is worth pausing to celebrate that many of our partners in governments and the news media are recognizing the positive impact that charitable organizations have on local communities and that governments cannot be successful without the work of nonprofits every day. Here is a sampling of great quotes in 2015 demonstrating respect for nonprofits:

Kentucky’s Governor Steve Beshear proudly signed a bill promoting government-nonprofit collaboration, observing: “Life is better in Kentucky because of nonprofits — thousands of agencies and organizations that perform myriad vital functions, from raising money for those in need to creating recreation for our children.”

Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin expressed similar respect as he opposed legislation to undermine charitable giving incentives, stating, “[W]e can all think of a charity, whether Vermont-based or not, that has made a difference in our lives or the life of someone we know…. We want people to donate to charities because they do the often thankless work that no one else will.”

In Beaufort, South Carolina, a proposal to apply a new “public safety fee” on some nonprofits motivated  the local newspaper, the Beaufort Gazette, to express its strong support for nonprofits: “The nonprofits give to the city in many ways other than direct taxation. They make the city vital in terms of attracting residents and businesses. They improve the city socially and morally. Also, they provide a number of costly community services that might otherwise fall to taxpayers.”

Similarly, the Winston-Salem (NC) Journal chastised policymakers seeking to tax tax-exempt nonprofits, when it wrote this month: “These worthy nonprofit organizations deliver needed services much less expensively than other methods -- like through the big government mechanisms that conservatives abhor.”

Staying in North Carolina, efforts to cap charitable giving incentives and curb sales-tax exemptions prompted State Representative Jason Saine to remind his colleagues in the State Senate of the economic benefits of nonprofits: “North Carolina’s nonprofits play an essential role in reducing the size of state government, growing our economy, and improving our quality of life. Their valuable charitable work provides 1 out of every 9 jobs in the state and injects $37 billion directly into our economy.”

And the word is out that nonprofits are not just good for the community, social, cultural and economic impacts they achieve; nonprofits are also respected for the quality of their ideas. That certainly is the gist of what Fran Barrett, New York State InterAgency Coordinator for Not-for-Profit Services, was saying when she explained: “nonprofits are the best possible source of information on good policy, because they are sort of the troops on the ground, if you will — they really know what would make a difference in terms of cutting down on homelessness or helping people find jobs.”

Government Dependence on Nonprofits

In addition to several of the quotable notables above, many others have observed and acknowledged  the fact that governments depend on charitable nonprofits to do the work of government in serving the public.

In May, the New York State Comptroller issued a report on the failure of government agencies to comply with state statutory deadlines for completing contracts with charitable nonprofits. Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli  stressed the true consequences to the state and its nonprofit partners when the law isn’t followed: “The state needs to show much more progress in executing its contracts with its service providers. We can’t continue to ask [nonprofits] to help care for our children, look after the elderly and provide so many other important services without holding up our end of the bargain.” 

A recurring theme in recent months has been recognition that policies that hurt the work of nonprofits hurt the state itself. In a widely-read editorial, “Taxing nonprofits ‘neither feasible nor desirable’,” the Bangor, Maine Daily News explained why a proposal to tax charitable nonprofits was such a bad idea: “Many nonprofits provide needed community services that the government does not. Shelters for those seeking to escape domestic violence provide a safe place to go. Programs at the local YMCA might keep kids in school and away from crime and seniors active and out of the hospital. Land trusts preserve and maintain open space for recreation, wildlife and aesthetics. Many nonprofits, especially museums, theaters and musical groups, are touted to visitors and potential residents as cultural draws to communities.”

New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo feels so strongly that it makes good business sense for the state to rely on the services provided by nonprofits that he put it in writing in his Opportunity Agenda 2015 (page 179): “The nonprofit sector provides services to many New Yorkers on behalf of the state and its local governments. Using nonprofits to provide these services results in a cost-effective delivery system that helps meet the needs of New Yorkers, including many of the state’s most vulnerable populations. Many of the services that nonprofits provide on behalf of the state result in long-term cost avoidance and savings by intervening to help avoid crisis situations. Nonprofits also provide services and education to help at-risk populations make better choices; again, resulting in long-term cost avoidance and savings to the state.”                                                                    

We’ll close with this observation by Mayor Jon Pike of St. George, Utah, who was asked how local governments rely on charitable nonprofits to serve the community: “These nonprofits make all the difference. We cannot do it without them and without each other and without believing in whatever individual cause each organization has. That’s how we’ll make the ends meet.”

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