Last week in this space I posted a link to Richard Clerkin’s opinion piece about the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, ”Keeping politics out of the pews.” This week I want to share my thoughts. The Amendment focuses only on the engagement of nonprofits in electoral politics, not on the broader participation of nonprofits in the public policy arena. While I think it is an important wall to maintain, I hope the chatter about the Johnson Amendment doesn’t have the opposite effect, creating reluctance on behalf of nonprofits to step into the public policy arena at all. We need nonprofit leaders to pursue their missions and serve as role models for their workforce and clients.
Nonpartisanship within the nonprofit community is critical. As the Nonprofit Quarterly noted this week it “shields the entire 501©(3) community against the rancor of partisan politics so the charitable community can be a safe haven where individuals of all beliefs come together to solve community problems free from partisan divisions.” I agree and hope that safe havens become more intentional and widespread.
I hope, like many Americans, that this Presidency increases the dialogue and participation of Americans about a host of public policy topics and decisions. Nonprofits should be leaders in these discussions. Nonprofits may not always serve as the leading voice on matters of public policy because:
- they are focused on the delivery of services to their clients and consumers
- they misinterpret what they are allowed to do under the Internal Revenue Service rules that grant them tax-exempt, charitable status
- they are intimidated by the prospect of complex rules, regulations, and laws
- they are demoralized and pessimistic about the prospect for change
Here’s what I would like to see from nonprofits in the Trump era:
A strong focus on the systemic issues that relate to their missions. There is an old adverb about people gathering at the edge of a stream rescuing babies from the moving waters. The babies come more frequently, more people gather for the rescue and finally, one of them says, “let’s go to the top of the river to see how the babies are getting into the water.” Hungry people need to be fed but examining the structural issues and systemic issues such as food deserts and other economic manifestations of oppression and inequality that lead to their hunger –is what will lead to the ultimate solutions. This requires a solid understanding of the issue, an appreciation for the feasibility/cost of change, and the ability to express the economic and human impact of policy change. It has nothing to do with running afoul of the Johnson Amendment. In fact, nonprofit leaders should be getting the ear of as many public officials as possible through, for example, education, testimony, and opinion pieces.
A strong focus on the civic engagement of staff, volunteers and consumers. Voting is more important than who you are voting for. And approaching solutions to social problems using data, quality research, and a values-informed lens (not a party affiliation lens) ought to be modeled by nonprofit leaders for their workforces and the people effected by their mission.
Energetic, fearless, voices. The Presidency has energized a huge segment of people heretofore “apolitical” and relatively civically disengaged. They are newly glued to the television and the Internet. They are becoming dues-paying members of public policy organizations. Regardless of party affiliation, they are paying close attention and are experiencing very personal calls to action. I suspect that some of these newly energized people will make a leap professionally into the nonprofit sector and bring a fresh, fearless perspective on how rules get made in our country.
I can’t wait.