Join us on Monday, August 22nd for a live webcast on this topic.
By Brigid O’Leary
There are three things you’re not supposed to discuss at the dinner table or in polite company: politics, religion and money. But this isn’t the dinner table and it’s a presidential election year, so let’s talk politics. Specifically, let’s talk about what politics can mean for nonprofit organizations and the potential of this year’s presidential election.
Before we get to the big picture, let’s take a minute to remember that nonprofit organizations often have to maneuver politics on the most local level before anything else.
“In general, [politics] does certainly [play] into almost every aspect of what you do; from where you’re doing it to the particular, who’s district, not only laws, but statutes that they might have in one place versus the other,” explained Marc Boyd, co-founder of HEY! Helping Empower Youth in Atlanta, Ga. “With HEY!, we do so much that’s not just sitting in a room, there’s a lot of tangible, hands on things: bike rides, go karts. There are ordinances [where] you can’t ride on this trail or that area.”
For Boyd, who has an avid interest in politics, cultivating a relationship with those in office has gone a long way to getting things done for HEY!, and it isn’t necessarily as hard as it would seem, even if Boyd didn’t vote for that person.
“You have to be privy to who’s in office and also what their sensitivities are even though we’re working on a local level, and local level [politics] tends to have more traditions that are nonpartisan,” he said, explaining that with city counsel members might have particular positions on issues that don’t necessarily follow strict partisan guidelines. And while Boyd has to manage politics both inside and outside the Atlanta perimeter, he finds one commonality no matter where he’s trying to make things happen for HEY!
“On the most basic level, when you want to do anything, you have to go through all the levels of bureaucracy,” he said. “Just to have a race, it would behoove you to be privy to whomever your local politicians are, to know how to get what you want, otherwise you’re going through email after email after email after email. Politicians are surprised when you know where their office is and for you to come up and ask for something. Right off the bat you’re a bug if you’ve sent an email.”
The election cycle – any election cycle – provides the earliest opportunity to learn about the future politicians whose actions may affect a nonprofit and it happens at every level of government.
“At the state level, there [can be] hot races. A lot of regulation and enforcement is falling to the states, so the governor might have some influence in terms of what they might do with charities, if they appoint an attorney general or if the attorney general is an elected position and is running that year; they’re usually the ones that regulate it on the state level instead of the IRS or other government organizations – so there might be issues on the state level,” explained Mark Hrywna, senior editor of The Non Profit Times.
On the national level, presidential elections aren’t significantly different for nonprofits than they are for anyone else: everyone is watching to see where candidates stand on what matters most to them.
“Generally, in the presidential elections it’s a matter of what nonprofit issues might be addressed by the new administration, or by grant funding or regulation, and how [the candidates] would work with Congress,” Hrywna said.
Irv Katz, president emeritus of the National Human Services Assembly, expanded on that thought.
“I’d say there are two kinds of concerns for nonprofits. One is the extent to which presidential candidates and their parties understand and appreciate the issues surrounding the particular field of the organization, whether it is health, education, mental health, human services or any of a host of other fields, along with the issues that nonprofit organization addresses. Are the candidates well-informed on the issue? Do they have knowledgeable advisers on the subject? Do they understand the challenges and have solutions they articulate?” he said in an email interview.
“The other issue of concern for nonprofit leaders is the extent to which candidates understand the critical roles nonprofit organizations play in addressing the needs of communities. Again, similar questions apply—do they know the roles of NPOs in systems of care and civic functioning? Are they well advised, do they have solutions that effectively engage nonprofit organizations?”
To that end, David Walker, president and chief executive officer of the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, has found his nonprofit to be in a good situation with the impending presidential election.
“It is what it is for us. Whoever wins, it will not adversely impact our position from the vantage point of how we serve our combat wounded veterans. This may be unique to the fact that we’re a veterans’ service organization. Given the tone of the Republicans toward the Veterans Administration (VA), particularly Donald Trump — his tone is more aggressive than Clinton’s – one would think the Republicans alone seek change. But a lot is being done by both parties to resolve some of the problems associated with the VA and how the country serves [veterans] better. They’re not in opposition; their approaches vary. I suppose if you have a 501 and there’s a distinct opposition on an issue between the two parties, you could find yourself with a different outcome,” Walker said.
Prepare for the Worst
Walker isn’t wrong in his supposition, either. When asked what he thought the worst-case scenario for a nonprofit would be during a presidential election, Katz said, “The platform and policies of a candidate and/or party that either neglect the particular issues that matter for a nonprofit to perform its civic function or that are hostile to those issues.”
Though Hrywna hasn’t heard much specific worrying from his readers during this election cycle, with more than a decade of experience writing about nonprofits, he knows what could happen and he, too, pointed to civic functions being curtailed.
“I imagine it would be going back to funding, for social services, for instance. The SNAP program was scaled back a few years ago and food bank organizations were pressing for reorganization a few years ago. With the federal budget deficit, there’s always talk about cutting back. We had an administration that invoked automatic cuts and the government shut down affected nonprofits,” he said. “Any number of nonprofits that receive some form of government funding have been threatened over the years with cutting purse strings, such as NPR, Planned Parenthood, that usually rears its head every so often. It’s just a matter of how far it gets.”
This year marks the first presidential election cycle for HEY!, but Boyd is no greenhorn to politics and he, too, hopes not to see funding become even more onerous than it currently is. He described his worst-case scenario: “Someone who would add more bureaucracy to the process, who would make it harder [to receive] grants and whatnot or someone who would cut grant money.”
With four presidential election cycles under its belt, the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes is also wary when an election campaign includes talk that would alter nonprofit financials.
“When a candidate threatens to eliminate the tax deductions for charitable contributions it raises our dander. That was the case with President Obama’s platform, which included such a proposal when he ran. We’ve not see this on the Democrat or Republican platforms this year, so that’s good,” Walker said.
Show Me the Money
Who gets elected has the biggest influence on nonprofits, fiscally, but just getting someone in office can impinge a nonprofit’s purse strings.
“An election cycle heightens the competition for donor money, especially among high donors. We find many donors cut their annual support because of their support for candidates for public office. When you have as many candidates as we did during this election cycle it was particularly acute. We experienced about a 15 percent drop [in funding],” Walker said. “Any time you’re in this game, thinking donations, 90 percent of our money comes from individual donors. What happens during the presidential election cycles – it does happen every two years, but more every four with the presidents – it gets really competitive for individual, high-end donors. They will donate to either a republican or democratic candidate and they do it sizably. This particular election cycle, given the number of candidates, there was a lot more pressure downward as a result of this. Not as much this year, as the numbers have held steady, but 2015 was rough. That’s one of the key things in an election cycle. It’s not unique to any organization out there, but particularly acute among those who rely on high donors.”
All presidential election cycles have three things in common: a field rife with candidates, and the campaign fundraising and political rhetoric aimed at getting those candidates elected. This year, it appears each of those is more – more candidates, more fundraising and more rhetoric. More doesn’t necessarily mean better.
“The issues are so polarizing that they block the sunlight human and community issues need and deserve in order to build and sustain a society where the well-being of every resident is both a goal and reality,” said Katz, comparing this year’s election cycle to previous elections.
Though the 2016 election cycle has shown us all a clear dichotomy in political and social thinking, when it comes to the political parties themselves, the only thing that may have changed is the rhetoric.
“It’s not that different in terms of philosophies of the candidates, generally speaking,” explained Hrywna. “Democrats tend to talk about providing more funding for social services, food stamps, those sort of things. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) was a big deal a few year ago. The GOP tends to talk about less government, i.e., they’re usually the ones behind the talk about cutting funding to NPR, PBS, Planned Parenthood, etc., as well as food stamps and such. This year, not as much jumps out but with the supreme court at 4-4, a new appointment will make a difference.”
“The Affordable Care Act might be an issue with some of the religious charities, if they will be required by the Affordable Care Act to not only offer but pay for birth control. Some churches and religious organizations have objected to it. Issues like that might make it to the supreme court. Donor disclosures [have] been challenged in New York and California and it might make it to the Supreme Court and the new appointment will be a factor. California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who has been sued by some organizations about Schedule B donor disclosure requirements, is running for U.S. Senate to replace Barbara Boxer. That would mean a new AG for California – one of the big states for nonprofits, so anything that happens in California can sometimes have ripple effects to other states.”
Hope for the Best
Even without a seat on the Supreme Court on the line, there’s no question about the importance of a presidential election. On it we all hang our hopes for the next four years and for those who run or work at a nonprofit, the best outcome might be different from what any of us wants individually.
“A president elected who appreciates the unique contributions of NPOs and has a well-informed vision of how the government can advance the collective good in an agency’s particular area of concerns. Also, a president and leadership circle that actively engages civic organizations in decision making,” is, to Katz, the best case scenario.
Boyd would like to see “someone who would cooperate with grass-root level nonprofits” be elected.
“That would be the most important distinction; someone who would understand that [large, popular] nonprofits aren’t exactly always the best,” he explained.
Sometimes, one of the best byproducts of an election is less about who gets elected and more about individuals getting involved – in their communities or civic duties more than previously or becoming more active in the political scene, but even that is not a guarantee.
“When Obama was elected in 2008, there was one school of thought that it would usher in a renewed era of volunteerism and activism since he was a community organizer and attracted so many new, and young, voters to the process,” said Hrywna. “[That] didn’t seem to happen. In fact, volunteer rates have dropped to historic lows after a slight bump in 2009 and 2012. [It] might have more to do with the economy, people having less time, more jobs, part-time jobs, etc. Same line of thinking could very well apply to Bernie Sanders at this point, in that so many people became involved in the political process. Whether that translates to those people become more active in their community through organizations remains to be seen.”
Despite the drop in individual donations, this election year has been otherwise beneficial to the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.
“This particular presidential campaign has helped. The continued debate on the war issue has kept veteran services top of mind with individual donors. It plays into our hands. The unique nature of who we serve, in a time of war, and when both parties are forced to recognize the need to improve services to our nation’s war time veterans, raises our stock,” Walker said. That doesn’t stop him from wanting what many of us want.
“The best case is we get a President that unifies the nation,” he added.
Rock the Vote
The 2016 presidential election is less than 100 days away. Electing a president that will unify the nation or fulfill any best-case scenario may not happen in this stretch but that doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable for nonprofit agencies to get an elected official to understand them. It does require more than hope; it requires additional effort, or possibly a redirection of efforts.
“We must prepare long before an election, long before. It is incumbent on us to develop close relationships with issue-relevant public officials (and business interests, for that matter) all along the way, so that when election time comes along those officials are equipped to address the issues that matter and know who to call upon for advice,” said Katz, bringing us back to Boyd’s point that getting to know and working with politicians – even just at the local level at first – can benefit a nonprofit both in the short and long term.
Elections can be divisive but that doesn’t mean nonprofits have to just sit on the sidelines and wait.
“The issues that we represent are bigger than any brand or individual agency, or even community. As is the case with industries, the greatest potential for building understanding and support is in coalition with like organizations,” said Katz.
Join Irv Katz and Mark Hrwyna, along with Geoffrey Plague, Vice President of Public Policy Independent Sector, for their August 22nd webinar, Future Politics and Nonprofits.