Stand for Your Mission: Trusted Voices in Michigan

Direct from Donna with Headshot

Michigan nonprofits are on the front line of service and of need, so it is our obligation to identify issues that affect the people we serve and advocate for changes we would like to see on their behalf.

Michigan nonprofits have lived through the storm of a near-Depression economy. During that time we have served as a support and safety net for those we serve. And because nonprofits are on the front line, we are able to see and interpret what is happening at the grassroots level and at the local and state levels. We should therefore be working to inform policy through advocacy.

Yes, things have gotten better across the state, but there will always be a need for Michigan nonprofits to be a constant voice and advocate for those we serve. We are true change agents who have an unflinching responsibility to educate and advocate on issues. We cannot shy away from being that voice.

Our boards and staffs, as well as our networks and allies, are essential to bringing our voices to the forefront in sparking change and maintaining what is important to us. We also have the exciting opportunity to help give voice to those who have remained voiceless. Often the stories of those we serve can be extremely powerful in painting a picture of what is at stake. As we build advocacy strategies, we must reach out and bring diverse interests into our conversations.

While it is true that there are rules and regulations that define the parameters of lobbying for nonprofits, it doesn’t mean that we should shy away from having our say. What it does mean is that we must educate our board members, executive teams, staffs and volunteers about the rules of engagement. As nonprofits, we can and should lobby!

We should also use other advocacy strategies and tactics to inform policy. Skills such as organizing, nonpartisan voter engagement, briefing sessions with policymakers and legislators, research and public education are all important tools in the nonprofit advocacy toolbox.

In trying to bring about change, it is important to build and foster ongoing relationships with policymakers, legislators and stakeholders. This relationship building cannot be a one-shot effort. If you want to make an impact on policy, it is a lot easier if you and your organization create ongoing dialogues that are an exchange of ideas and positions.

In order to frame issues appropriately, we must listen carefully, not just talk. So often when nonprofits rally the troops, we are so passionate about what is at stake that we take little time to educate ourselves on what it takes to create a win-win situation. The best advocates know that policy change and system change take time and commitment. They understand that true change happens when we move beyond “either/or” to “both/and.”

It is always important to remember that our Michigan nonprofits have earned a seat at the table right along with the other sectors. We have an important opportunity through advocacy to bring about the changes we want to see.

Here are a few tips on building a strong nonprofit advocacy machine:

  • Get training on effective advocacy for staff and board members.
  • Understand the differences between advocacy and lobbying.
  • Get everybody on the same page.
  • Build and maintain ongoing relationships with policymakers, legislators and allies.
  • Read and listen carefully. You can’t fully advocate for change if you don’t understand all aspects of your issue.
  • Organize your allies and think outside of the box about who those allies might be. They aren’t always who you think.
  • Develop fact sheets, position papers and other presentations that clearly tell your story.
  • Empower other voices. Think grass tops and grassroots.

Looking for a guide to nonprofit advocacy? MNA’s Nonprofit Advocacy: A Michigan Primer can help your nonprofit stand for its mission.

Murray-Brown_9 2014 smallDonna Murray-Brown is the President & CEO of Michigan Nonprofit Association

MNA President & CEO Donna Murray-Brown on the Impact of the Government Shutdown on Nonprofits

Shutdown Image

When the federal government shut down last Tuesday, no one ever thought it would be shut down for more than a couple of days.  As we go into the second week of the shutdown, there has been great impact to the nonprofit sector’s ability to do their work.  Nonprofits are experiencing increased demand for services, stalled payments on government contracts, inability to conduct routine data inquiries, uncertainty of how to engage with their AmeriCorps members, and difficulty in their continued ability to employ staff.

With nearly 30% of nonprofits receiving revenues from government contracts, stalled payments from government contracts are placing a huge strain on nonprofits to meet the needs of their communities while keeping their doors open.  Additionally, the impact of sequestration, a fragile economy, and now thousands of government employees suddenly without income, nonprofits are becoming further strained in fulfilling their missions.

Simple daily activities such as internet searches for data and information on government websites are now impossible due to the shutdown rendering the websites inoperable. The U.S. Census Bureau, one of the “go to” websites, is no longer available to assist a nonprofit in gathering key demographic information to make decisions on every day work, future planning, and creating strategy.

Many nonprofits leverage national service programs to build capacity or provide direct service to those they serve.  Just last week, the Corporation for National and Community Service informed AmeriCorps members across the country they are required to serve during the shutdown, but without any compensation.  AmeriCorps members already receive a modest stipend for their service and, as a condition of their service commitment, are not able to hold a second job while serving.  This has become problematic for national service members because they find it increasingly difficult with each day of the shutdown to feed themselves and pay for housing.

As the days and weeks of the government shutdown continue, the aforementioned challenges will only become greater.  Nonprofits must brace themselves for additional trials and the reality of making painful decisions that may compromise the quality of their programs and services.  Decisions such as whether to buy much needed supplies and equipment, whether to forego important training and professional development, and ultimately, making decisions pertaining to staffing.

Making a decision regarding staff may become a reality for some nonprofits heavily reliant on government funding.  Understanding your legal options is key to making the best decision during this time of uncertainty.  Nonprofit HR, an organization providing guidance to nonprofits on Human Resources related topics and issues, is a great source for nonprofits faced with making decisions regarding staffing. Visit their website at http://www.nonprofithr.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Legal-Considerations-in-Layoffs_final_2013.pdf.

If you are experiencing challenges linked to the government shutdown either similar or dissimilar to that I have highlighted, I want to hear from you.  Please email me directly at dmurray-brown@mnaonline.org.

Donna Murray-Brown Submitted by Donna Murray-Brown, President & CEO, Michigan Nonprofit Association

8 Revelations from a SuperConference 2012 Participant

What a privilege to be able to attend the MNA CMF SuperConference!  I was inspired and energized, learned a great deal of information and met new people with whom we can build relationships.  That is everything you could ask and more from an intense two day experience.

Revelation 1 came from a workshop led by Kid’s Food Basket from Grand Rapids.  They call themselves a “porous” organization, one that someone can enter from any point and get involved.  Not only do they leverage volunteer time, they have involved their volunteers financially to use their myriad volunteers as an income source.  Arts & Scraps has many common elements in mechanics and volunteer involvement, but we have not to date formalized programs for financial as well as time contributions.

Revelation 2 came from the Prize Foundation session.  Remember to look for unlikely and unknown sources for ideas and expertise.  Don’t be afraid to tackle big issues and throw open the doors to seek help.

Revelation 3 came from the advocacy preconference session.  “Keep laser-like focus on long term goals”.  Involve people around their interests and look for commonalities.

Revelation 4 came from the Impact session.  Keep a “burning patience”, nurture the backbone of your organization with optimism and perseverance to reach the goal of a successful collective effort.  I’ve often thought the best attribute to have is just plain stubbornness.  This is a much more elegant statement.

Revelation 5 also came from the  Impact session.  There is no silver bullet, just silver buckshot.  Again, an elegant phrase.

Revelation 6 on a personal level, from the Investment session, I recognized that  I’m fortunate enough to have a savings account.  I could invest that in causes in which I believe and put that money to work for social good.

Revelation 7 from the Creativity session:  a couple of wonderful tidbits.  “Money never solved a money problem”—enough said.  Don’t save creativity for big problems, rely on group input and repeat priorities often.

Revelation 8 is back from Kid’s Food Basket.  Make your MISSION seem needy without making your ORGANIZATION seem needy.

Add to this list of big ideas 6 viable contacts for serious follow up and a list of 18 items in a to do list generated by ideas.

This was a very successful two days!  Thank you to the Ford Motor Company Fund for the sponsorship.  I was so excited about it that I probably told 20 people that’s how I was able to attend.  It was a good investment in our organization.  We’ve had the first staff meeting with another scheduled next week.

Submitted by Peg Upmeyer, Director of Arts & Scraps and Superconference 2012 Attendee

A Few Thoughts on Election History on Primary Election Day

This week marks the 47th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.  This act prohibits discriminatory voting practices that have been responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of millions of people over the course of U.S. history.

While our nation has made multiple strides in the area of voting rights, in recent months we have seen an increase in the number of laws that add barriers to voting.  These laws require specific forms of photo identification to be present to vote, reduce early voting in certain states, and make voter registration done by nonprofits and civic organizations more challenging.   In Michigan, Governor Snyder vetoed bills that would have made voting in our state more complicated and disenfranchised thousands. In an effort to eliminate voter fraud, we have haphazardly created more barriers to voting. This ultimately reinforces what Voting Rights Act was attempting to prevent.

Voting is a right.  Removing barriers to voting and to make it more accessible is important. Nonprofits in Michigan are aiding in this process by participating in MNA’s 2012 Track the Vote. Not only do nonprofits see accessibly as an important part of electoral engagement, but government agencies do as well.

Recently, the National Association of Secretaries of States declared September 25th as National Voter Registration Day .  This announcement falls in line with months of coordination by nonprofits and civic organizations across the country who are already mobilizing people to register to vote on this day.

It is important to remember the history of voting in our country and acknowledge  the struggle that it took to get here.  It is equally important for all organizations, including nonprofits, to encourage legislation and policies that erase barriers to voting and encourage 100% voter turnout.

Finally it is important to vote, and you can start today!

Vote in today’s Primary Election.

Not sure where your polling location is for today’s primary visit the Secretary of State website .

Have questions about who is running, view the candidates here.

Remember all of the people who fought long and hard to guarantee us these rights. And don’t forget to vote!

Submitted by Meredith Reynolds Assistant for Public Policy and Membership, Michigan Nonprofit Association 

Despite differences, education is central to both State and Federal Budgets

These past few weeks have demonstrated the challenges of creating sound, effective budgets at the state and national level. The Michigan and federal budgets, however, paint two very different pictures of the health of their constituents.

The recession over the past four years has not been kind, but there seems to be a glimmer of hope in Michigan. After several consecutive years of painful cuts, it appears the financial outlook is more optimistic with 2012’s budget surplus. Education funding increased by 0.2%, public safety funding is also set to increase, and the “Rainy Day” fund will grow by an additional $130 million, according to the State Budget Office. At the Federal level, by contrast, the deficit still weighs heavily on programs most Americans take for granted, but rely on – the President offered a 52% decrease in Education, a 35% decrease in Labor, and slight increases for Health and Human Services (3.7%) and the Corporation of National and Community Service (1.3%).

Still, there are some common commitments between the two budgets, such as improving performance and affordability of education. President Obama promotes a ‘Race to the Top’ and links financial aid to universities that keep their tuition under control. Governor Rick Snyder also wants to link increased spending in education to improved performance, best practices, and college tuition restraint. And they are politicians from two different parties.

Despite the other differing priorities of the two budgets, it is clear that superior education for future generations must be a priority for education beyond high school. Whether it is community college, traditional four-year, or vocational – higher education has become increasingly important to achieve personal financial security.

Submitted by Michelle Eichhorst, Public Policy Fellow for Michigan Nonprofit Association

New Year, New Language

Going through my Twitter timeline after Christmas and before New Year’s Day, I found every single list imaginable for “year-in-review” or “what-to-expect in the coming year.” One that I actually read was #nonprofitresolutions that the Chronicles of Philanthropy was running, here is the link ow.ly/8e3O4.

Two things struck me about this list: 1) the nonprofit resolution from the executive director of the The Evergreen Group, Howard Kucher. He believes that nonprofits should call themselves “social benefit organizations,” instead of by their tax status. 2) That out of the 20 nonprofit leaders that were quoted, only three called for more advocacy and organizing! I kind of feel like these two things are somehow related.

My professional background (nonprofit lobbying and advocacy, and electoral campaigns) really identified with what Mr. Kucher was getting at! A change of language can change perception, both by those who adopt the label and by those hearing it. Maybe if organizations start calling themselves “social benefit” orgs, then it will force us to think of the things we CAN and SHOULD do, i.e advocacy and lobbying, instead of the things we can’t do based on the regulations we have to follow.

By changing the labels, it also allows organizations to think beyond their charitable missions, to ones that include the economic value and contribution of the organization beyond the direct benefit to their constituents and clients. Nonprofts Social benefit organizations need to show more than how many people go through their programs; they need to also show their greater value to society. Yes, I know you fed 200K families last year, but what does that mean? How does that impact the community that I live in?

Maybe by changing the language we use, the sector will finally start advocating and lobbying. It is a new year, so a girl can dream…

Submitted by Christina Kuo, Senior Director of Public Policy and Public Affairs for Michigan Nonprofit Association

Small Steps

Many advocates wonder if their efforts are making a difference. Those of us in the engagement business often measure success by the number of individuals who take action or by the various laws or policies that are changed as a result of our mobilization efforts. Then there are times when success is measured by what doesn’t happen or by extremely small, but extremely important, steps.

Making changes to Michigan’s redistricting process is one of those difficult mobilization efforts for which successful actions may be difficult to realize. The Michigan Redistricting Collaborative has been working hard to ensure that lawmakers seek the input of the public as the lines for voting districts are redrawn. A decade ago, lawmakers were working in private conference rooms to cut deals and draw maps to secretly preserve incumbencies among both Republicans and Democrats. Once finished, the maps were hastily passed through both chambers of the Michigan Legislature, quickly signed into law, and even debated in court filings before the entire process and map formulas became public.

Ten years later the overall process remains the same. The Legislature gets to draw its own maps provided it remains within the general rules laid forth by the Michigan Constitution, Michigan Supreme Court cases and those requirements provided for by the Voting Rights Act. Within these boundaries, demographers are helping politicians privately pick their constituents. Members of both parties are working behind the scenes to ensure they are not drawn out of their own district or pitted against a challenger in their own party.

And yet, we know this prior to the final decisions on the district lines, albeit barely before the critical votes. Many of my colleagues involved in the Michigan Redistricting Collaborative are frustrated by the lack of change in the system, the haste with which the Legislature and the Governor are moving to dispense this “insider’s game,” and the general lack of interest by the public in the dysfunctional nature of our Redistricting process in Michigan. So you ask, what did all our work accomplish? We accomplished what we asked our lawmakers to do: we increased the transparency of one of the most covert, public processes in Michigan.

At www.DrawtheLineMichigan.org you can see the media traffic over the past two months as lawmakers were asked how the maps would be drawn, what input the public would have on the process, which lawmakers would be making the decisions, and what the impact would be on vulnerable populations. Read the quotes from the leadership in the House and Senate where Senate Majority Leader Richardville and House Speaker Bolger were asked to explain how public comment would be sought and how this time, the process would be different. Look at the work that individual citizens did to draw their own maps using the common electronic media and public information tools available to anyone.

This week we will see quick passage of the legislation that will define the voting boundaries for Michiganders for the next ten years. While many may not like either the outcome or the process used, we can take solace in knowing that we brought the process into the light and injected the important principles of transparency, citizen engagement, competitive districts, and fairness into the debate over redistricting. These small victories may not be what many had hoped for in helping to form our more perfect union, but it’s an important start.


Submitted by Kyle Caldwell, president and CEO, for the Michigan Nonprofit Association.

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