Blog from the Big Chair
By Rob Meiksins, CEO
Last week I blogged about the scary unknowns the Trump Presidency represents for nonprofits in Milwaukee. I asked some agency execs to join me in a conversation about that topic on December 14, at a session titled The Nonprofit Sector under a Trump Presidency.
About 17 agencies took part in the conversation. They ranged in size from under $100,000 in annual budget to several million. There were arts, social service, animal rights, and a professional association. Most were from Milwaukee, but two people came from Madison (thanks!).
The focus of the session changed somewhat when Marcus White came to speak. Although speaking for himself at this session, in his day job Marcus is Vice President for Civic Engagement at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. He shared things he had learned and heard at a conference held by Independent Sector last month. (Thanks to Marcus for coming so early in the morning and for helping the group move their thinking to a higher and more encompassing level!)
Setting the Context: What Are the Scary Unknowns?
We started by asking what was on the minds of the people in the room regarding the new administration. Mainly, people shared the scary unknown as it relates to the mission of their particular organization. People in animal rights were afraid of what this might mean to the safety of animals. People in ecological causes were afraid of cuts to EPA. A few other notes/questions included:
- What might be the changes proposed to the tax code, and will that change the dynamic of donations to the sector?
Some participants noted that there are reliable studies showing that donors are likely to continue giving even if the deductibility of that gift is reduced or removed. On the other hand, this may only be true of people who give smaller amounts; larger gifts are often driven by the desire for a deduction.
- The explosion of bigotry.
The conversation really ended in a call for the nonprofit sector to work on the dignity approach, not just for boys and men of color, where that approach is often the basis for plans to improve quality of life, but in all aspects of our work. We need to extend that approach of dignity to all of our clients and to each other within our organizations, setting the tone of respect.
- What will fear do?
If we have the fear of the scary unknown, what will be the reaction of nonprofits? The impulse to crawl into our little holes, do our work as diligently as possible and not make any waves? Will we get even more territorial about our limited funds and refuse to work together to address the larger issues? Our only fear is of fear itself.
Some other questions rose that were unanswered — and very compelling:
- Can we look at the power dynamic that we as service providers automatically have in place? What are the hoops we make people jump through? Do we need that?
- Do we as a sector have a role in shaping the nation’s culture? Can we play a greater role going forward by setting a good example?
- How do we affect the issue of fake news and the development of preconceived notions people have of the “other”?
- If people become involved in something by invitation, how do we make sure we are reaching across the divide and inviting people to help us build what the nonprofit sector can do?
What's Next For Milwaukee Nonprofits
Everyone in the room was coming from their own viewpoint, their own world within the sector, and I’m sure took very different things from what we talked about. So what follows is my opinion.
The changes we see might involve the states having greater freedom to implement policies. For example, it might now be okay for states to require drug testing in order for people to receive food stamps or other such support. If that’s the case, then it is likely that people will not apply for that benefit, knowing they will fail the drug test. This, in turn, means there will be greater demand on food pantries and meal programs. So, it will behoove us to watch for what the Wisconsin legislature might want to do as states are given more control.
Whether or not our President-elect actually intended it, now people feel they can rip off the mask and be bigoted. There seems to be a flood of events and incidents demonstrating that people are feeling the freedom to be as ugly as they want with the “other.” That other may be a difference of religion or color of skin, or even political belief. If that’s true, then the nonprofit sector may have to move beyond being the social safety net, a role we’re pretty comfortable with. Now we’re potentially going to have to be more active and be the protector.
To that end, the third thing I see as a take-away from our meeting is that we’ve got to be the voice. Previous administrations have worked hard to protect and provide for those who are disadvantaged in some way. It is likely that we’re going to have to take that on, in our sector. So we’ve got to be the ones who go to legislators and to regional administrators of federal programs and tell the story of the people we serve. It’s going to be up to us to find ways to bridge the gaps between people by humanizing them through the stories we can tell because of the work that we do.
So what’s next? That’s going to be up to you. Let the fear of the scary unknown send you scurrying into a hole to work as diligently as possible? Or will you take the challenge and become the voice of the people and communities you serve in Milwaukee? I hope it’s the latter. And I hope you’ll let us know how we can help you. We have some ideas that we’ll be rolling out, but if you have a great idea for NPC, let me know by commenting here.