Finding our Voices

I was talking with a group of nonprofit CEOs the other day, about advocacy (of course) and our collective responsibility to stand up and speak out on the issues that affect those we serve. I pointed out that there are some systemic issues that affect nonprofits as a sector and that, sometimes, starting to come together around those issues–foremost in my mind, of course, is the revenue foundation–can help to overcome our silos and bridge the divisions that often keep us quiet.

And then one of the executives said, with more dismay than disdain, “that sounds like nonprofits would become just another special interest.”

That reminded me of some of my conversation with Robert Egger last fall, when he talked about the kinds of advocacy, and the kinds of sector organizing, that it will take for nonprofits to find their voices without (seriously in quotes) “becoming just another special interest.”

Does he think of everything, or what?

At the time, that statement mostly rolled right off me, in part because I don’t see anything that wrong with special interests, per se–I’m only concerned when the interests that are being represented are not aligned with my values of social work justice.

But hearing the worry echoed by this executive made me think about how, from a strategic perspective, bringing something qualitatively different to the table, beyond what an industry or trade group might do, is really essential.

Those of us working to exhort nonprofits to make a bolder play for political power have a responsibility not to screw this up big-time.

Because our greatest assets in the advocacy arena–the stories of those we serve, our reputations and public trust, and the perception that we are, in fact, somewhat above the fray–can easily be sullied the moment we enter the struggle.

That’s often used as an excuse, and it shouldn’t be. What good, after all, is having some really good ammunition if we never fire our collective weapon? Why do we care how much latent political power we potentially hold, if we never even test it?

What good is it doing anyone on the shelf?

But it is right for us to be sure, as we consider the kinds of coalitions we build and the types of battles we choose, that we’re spending our capital wisely.

We should be clear about what we want to say, as we begin to find our voices.

On the one hand, that’s pretty easy; if we’re fixated on our vision of the world as it should be and solidly rooted in our values, we should not be tempted to go for the low-hanging fruit or to seize what we can on our way out the door.

The goods for which we aim can only be secured with long and principled and careful engagement.

But it’s obviously not always so clear, what’s right and what’s best. The recent debate over tax reforms makes that clear, with most nonprofits alarmed by proposals to somewhat limit charitable deductions, as part of an overall effort to ensure that higher earners pay a greater share of a growing revenue “pie”. (It’s clear where I come out on this.) The nonprofits rushing to decry this change in the structure as a direct assault on their existence aren’t bad. Or even necessarily wrong.

They’re just operating in much the same way that other special interests do, by looking out for their own.

And, so, as we seek to have a greater impact on policymaking, and to raise our voices on the greatest issues of our day, we must do so with a constant humility, an awareness that, in many ways, we are not so different from the other contenders, and that our difference can only be preserved by a distinguishing vigilance.

Because our interests really are special, and they deserve allies equal to their task.

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