Speaking Up

Nov 14, 2014

This is my last commentary for Montana Public Radio. I know they need this time for news, but I’ll miss being one of the public voices on Montana Public Radio.

So what’s on my mind as I sing my radio swan song? The election is over, thank heavens. I’m moving on to focus on the upcoming legislative sessions, both in Helena and in DC.

I encourage my fellow nonprofit types to do the same. We have a great opportunity, especially at the state level, to make our voices heard; to try to shape public policy. Montana has one of the last citizen legislatures we see our elected representatives at the hardware store, in local restaurants, at football games. They’re our neighbors and often our friends. They need to know what’s on our mind, via testimony, education and advocacy.

Too often, nonprofits fear the legislative arena, convinced that all such efforts constitute lobbying, and that the law prohibits nonprofits from lobbying. Not so we actually have considerable leeway. There are rules and limits, but our voices are by no means stifled. Nonprofits can and should speak up in our capitals on issues that affect us and those we serve.

Our voice is powerful: we employ 45,000 people throughout Montana, more than the finance, insurance, real estate, and arts sectors combined. We contribute over $1.5 billion annually to Montana’s wage base. And we make visible, life changing differences in our communities that’s good for everybody and for our economy.

Unfortunately, due to crushing workloads, nonprofits tend to focus more on putting out fires than on preventing them through focused, coordinated, effective public-policy work. This is in part because the vast majority of Montana’s nonprofits  81 percent  have budgets of less than $100,000. We are mostly underfunded, fragile, and volunteer driven.

So we tend to get involved in advocacy only when we face an immediate threat. Instead, we ought to take a big picture view and work long term to build relationships and become trusted, credible resources for legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Not speaking up can give the impression that nonprofits are the sole solution to social problems. And we’re only part of the solution. We’re no substitute for a strong public sector. Yes, that’s right: our frequently scoffed at, regularly demonized government is also part of the solution to what ails us.

In part because we haven’t spoken up enough, human-service nonprofits have been stretched far beyond our original mission to help the people who fall through the holes in the social safety net. We’ve become the net itself.

We were designed to complement a strong government safety net, not to be the net.

“But our funders and our boards won’t like it if we speak up,” I hear you cry. Well, if their goal includes using limited dollars to maximum effect to prevent and ease things like hunger, homelessness and poverty, that goal leads inevitably to advocacy. We should reject advocacy only in favor of a principle more compelling than maximizing the amount of help provided to folks in trouble. It’s hard to think what that principle might be.

Advocacy can be frustrating. We don’t always win. Sometimes it feels like we never win. But even when legislative efforts fail, by speaking out we have prevailed because the interests of the people we help have been represented and debated in the public arena. In that regard, only silence can be considered failure.

And now I’m fading into public radio silence. I’m Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County. Thanks for listening.