The leader of the National Council of Nonprofits recently visited Oklahoma to rally nonprofit organizations to unite as they face government budget cuts and sequestration, a struggling economy and other challenges.
Tim Delaney, the national council's president and CEO, urged nonprofits to get involved with public policy as he tossed out statistics involving nonprofits, such as these:
Nonprofits saw an 85 percent increase in demand for services in 2011 and expect a bigger jump this year. Nationally, 300 million people were served by nonprofits and 63 million people volunteered.
16 percent of Oklahomans live in poverty, but resources to care for them are decreasing.
Congress passed 239 laws in the last two years, but state legislatures passed 69,000 bills.
“The demand for services for nonprofits is going up at the same time as the resources are going down, and we're doing it for so much longer,” Delaney said. “We just cannot continue to be stretched this way. ... We've got to help make policymakers understand.”
Delaney spoke to groups at St. Luke's United Methodist Church and the Rotary Clubs of Oklahoma City and Tulsa with similar rallying cries for charities to unite and speak up about their needs and frustrations.
“We're big. We're strong. We're an economic driver in the United States, but for some reason we've often been not invited to the table,” said Marnie Taylor, executive director of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits, in introducing Delaney and his nonprofit expertise that has been acknowledged from the White House to state politics. There are nearly 19,000 nonprofits operating in Oklahoma, Taylor has said, and Delaney spoke of the 25,000 nonprofit members nationwide that the Council on Nonprofits represents through 42 state organizations like the Center for Nonprofits.
The center hosted Delaney along with Howard Barnett, president of Oklahoma State University-Tulsa and the OSU Center for Health Sciences and the national nonprofit council board chairman.
For too long, Delaney said, the nonprofit sector has been divided into “silos” of focus areas — arts and culture, health care, education, poverty, etc. — without realizing they need to unite and make their voices heard as a sector that employs 10 percent of the nation's workforce and fills huge social services needs in this country. The council is working to change that by mobilizing its members to spot trends affecting nonprofits at all levels, local and federal, and in all mission focus areas.
The “silos” analogy resonated with the Oklahoma nonprofit representatives in the audience. A week after Delaney's presentation, several said they had begun to incorporate some of his public policy push into their own strategic planning.
“We'll definitely begin to start looking,” said Stacey Ninness, president and CEO of the Neighborhood Services Organization. The NSO deals with issues related to homelessness and people at risk from poverty and will use Delaney's information to stay prepared and informed.
Torri Christian, state advocacy and public policy manager for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, said after hearing Delaney, the food banks plan to try to do a better job of connecting with nonprofit agencies as a whole.
The food banks' biggest concern is to make sure they keep the programs in place to feed the hungry, but Christian said they also realize the importance of “being problem solvers in our community” beyond their mission.
“Because we (nonprofits) often operate as single private entities, we don't realize that we do represent a major voice in government,” she said.
Other threats, sequestration
Delaney said while federal, state and local nonprofits provide about $100 billion worth of government services each year through contracts, the government agencies at all levels often fail to pay full costs, change agreements midstream or pay late — 63 percent of Oklahoma nonprofits reported such problems in a recent survey, he said.
The nonprofit sector is fragmented, fragile and frustrated, he said, as government at all levels seeks to remove tax incentives for donors to support them and tinkers with agencies' independence to do their work. At the same time, the government is asking nonprofits to do more work with fewer resources.
“You're dealing with society's most critical, taxing, challenging problems, and you all are closest to the solutions,” Delaney said. “Yet you all are not invited to the policy table to help form what those solutions can be.”
Delaney said cutting funding for senior meals, mental health services, housing assistance, aid to Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programs, etc., has a ripple effect: As people face more cuts, they need more services.
Delaney compared the effects of the forced budget cuts from sequestration, which went into effect March 1, to a tsunami. “The earthquake has already hit underground. It happened March 1. ... Those thundering waves are coming our way.”
In the middle of his PowerPoint presentation, Delaney inserted a slide depicting a peaceful, sunshiny nature scene to break up the bad news.
“I feel bad when I go out and speak and share, and I wish that I could go out and have an entire show about sunshine and how wonderful things are,” he said.
But the sunshine will only come after a “long slog” by nonprofit groups to stay on top of the overall issues affecting them and not just their own silos, Delaney said.
He also urged nonprofits and lawmakers to focus on meeting community needs instead of whether the nation should punish or protect the wealthy and their ability to give under charitable giving incentives.
“For every dollar given, that's a dollar into the community,” he said.