As nonprofit leaders we live by the old farmer’s adage of, “Fix it up, use it up, wear it out, or do without.” Our adoption of this philosophy is what empowers nonprofits to gain trust and develop partnerships that further our mission. It works well, except in one area—expressing our voice.
Nonprofit voice is shorthand for our sector’s role in sharing what it knows, speaking for those unable to express their needs, and informing and influencing decision makers so that they do the right thing. In short, our voice is our right and responsibility to exercise our political capital for the common good. Yet it is often too hard to express our voice with so many pressures bearing down on our organizations, our work and our constituents.
Given all these pressures, we have to examine how we use our voice. Some might argue that like elected officials, we need to look at our voice as political capital—a resource we spend thriftily and only when absolutely necessary. In this case we might look at the Governor’s proposal to eliminate charitable giving incentives as $50 million that we could offer up as sacrifice to gain government goodwill. In other words, we shouldn’t expend our capital on this matter when so many other larger issues could come up later. Several sector leaders have come to me with this very concern. They worry that if they shout now, they won’t be heard later. Or they worry that they could jeopardize their friendly relationship with their elected officials.
These concerns are certainly understandable, but extremely dangerous. Here’s why.
First, nonprofit voice, unlike our own vocal chords, is a muscle that only works if exercised. Granted you want to be sure that you pick your battles. However, in my 15 plus years of experience in government/nonprofit interactions, I have never witnessed an elected or unelected government official respect and support an organization that stayed quiet during a hard political decision. Granted, some have been burned when they have handled their advocacy improperly and did not follow the rules, but there are none that I can think of that are respected for their complete silence. I know that some will dispute my conclusion on this, so I’ll explain why in my next point.
Second, the depth and length of the memory of goodwill in our political system is directly proportional to our term limits. No elected official today in Michigan has to worry about the long-term (15-20 years) consequences of their actions. Term limits guarantee that they will not be in office when the day of reckoning comes for their decisions. In addition, our state political bodies are largely controlled by the leadership rather than the caucuses. Large decisions are made by roughly six leaders in the House and Senate and the Governor. All the rest are waiting for direction and support.
Third, nonprofits have the privilege and responsibility to advocate for those unable to speak for themselves. This characteristic cuts across all 501(c)(3) nonprofits—we are charted with a charitable purpose to serve the common good. We are also constrained to be nonpartisan in our expression of voice. This makes for a power combination of benevolence and neutrality as we address Michigan’s most challenging issues. We all have to hold up these powerful characteristics whether a community foundation or a college, whether a food pantry or a hospital, whether a museum or a child daycare center, whether a senior living center or a land conservancy, we all have the responsibility and privilege to exercise our voice and advocate for the issues important to our constituents and the sector.
MNA recognizes that this is hard work and that little support exists to underwrite the time, talent and treasure it takes to advocate appropriately and effectively. That is why we give you the tools you need to make it easier and integrate it into your daily activities. Be sure to check out our website for our public policy & advocacy tools as well as our nonprofit resources that help you stay legal and ensure that your organization can effectively and legally share its voice. MNA has a platform you can use for your own organization to give a framework to your advocacy. You can also participate in our events including the Nonprofit SuperConference where we will be joined by Governor Rick Snyder. Finally, be sure to sign up for our Advocacy Alerts. These will give you the most current information on how you can exercise your voice.
Nonprofit leaders must advocate for their missions and the people they serve. Our organizations have to exercise our voice to be heard, understood and respected. I hope you will exercise your voice as a nonprofit leader and help elected officials make the right choices in these challenging and transformative times
Submitted by Kyle Caldwell, president and CEO, for the Michigan Nonprofit Association.
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