Is the world more divided or does it just seem like it? Most importantly, how does political polarization impact your nonprofit?
Research shows that the ideology of our country’s two major parties is further apart than it has ever been, and animosity between them has also grown. Even though a large portion of the population pays little attention to politics, as the voices on each side become louder and louder, they may get more involved in the political conversation, including making decisions about where to spend charitable donation dollars. Whether you are personally political or apolitical, you and your organization are affected by these conversations.
Amidst all of this division and polarization in the world around us, how should your nonprofit react? On a practical level, there are several steps you can take: know your constituents, your donors, and the laws regarding nonprofit status. Let’s explore how these can help you navigate these troubled waters:
Know Your Constituents
Any nonprofit’s first obligation must be to the people it helps. Political affiliations tend to fall away when people are truly in need. By knowing who you serve and staying focused on your mission, you can filter out the noise and do what is best for your people. As Tim Delaney wrote for Nonprofit Quarterly, nonprofits “Operate as safe places where people can come together to actually solve community problems rather than just posture and remain torn apart.” Compassion is not partisan.
Know Your Donors
We all know that nonprofits need money to keep performing their good work. Nonpartisan organizations don’t run the risk of alienating any donors. Perhaps an argument can be made that they may not inspire the same passion in donors as a clearly ideological group may, so you’ll have to find other ways of demonstrating effectiveness. The best approach is to direct potential donors to the actual results of past work. Remember: actions speak louder than words. Pointing to real-world successes can be more powerful than just talk.
Keith Timko, Executive Director at the Support Center, which helps build nonprofit capacity, suggests that nonprofits can avoid political language by making an appeal to shared values in their marketing campaigns: “I have seen more open letters and calls to action around our values as a sector and what we stand for collectively on issues ranging from race to immigration to environmental policy. And you are seeing more of a collective voice rather than organizations only commenting on issues that they address directly.” While a statement of values may strike some readers and potential donors as political, it is not making a direct political statement. The onus of interpretation is on the potential donor.
But not all donors are created equal. In some situations, it may be in your best interest to turn down funding from specific donors, especially if they bring too much unfavorable scrutiny to your organization.
Know the Laws
Make sure you review the lobbying and advocacy statutes pertaining to your particular nonprofit status. If donors try to pressure you to take a political stance, you can point to actual legislation to defend against getting too political. By knowing the laws, you can also protect your organization from accidentally overstepping any rules.
The majority of US nonprofits are classified as 501(c)(3) under the tax code, which are subject to a provision known as the Johnson Amendment. The idea is to keep nonprofits from undertaking political campaigns and from endorsing or opposing political candidates. The Amendment is now under attack, despite the fact that the majority of nonprofits and religious leaders support it. While the present law is in force, there are certainly arguments on both sides of the issue, covered in this previous Blue Avocado article.
Politics may seem unavoidable, whether on the news or even just talk around the water cooler. But your organization must find a way of staying focused on the mission for which it was formed. For the time-being, there are laws are in place to help you maintain this focus. Know them and follow them.
Ties That Bind
In the current discourse, there must be a winner. But this idea goes against the entire idea of philanthropy, which helps those in need so that they can enjoy successful and happy lives. There are no “winners” in social justice; it is supposed to elevate us all.
Most nonprofits have enough to worry about without outside forces working to upend their funding. It can be difficult enough to focus on your mission, even with the support of your community. But when that community gets torn apart, with voices on opposite sides yelling at each other, your resolve will be tested.
Institutional attacks have a way of filtering down into both public and private discourse. In today’s increasingly polarized political landscape, nonprofits often feel pressure not just from the government, but also from some of their donors and constituents.
In the face of all this, it can be difficult to stay strong and focused. But there are some common values shared by almost all nonprofits, and much of the country. Most are driven by a desire to improve the world for current and future generations.
This desire to do what is right is what binds us to each other. We are all in this together. We must remember that good works are the bedrock of our organizations, and we must resolve to stay focused on that principle of philanthropy. Togetherness, altruistic action, and advocacy for civil justice for all—not divisiveness and finger pointing—are how we stay true to our missions and our constituents, and the ideals upon which our country was founded.
Kevin Peters is a senior researcher for GrantStation, a company that provides grantseeking services to the nonprofit sector. He has an MFA in English from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and taught in Alaska, Spain, Indonesia, and Thailand before settling back in the mainland U.S. He now lives by the Oregon coast with his partner, Kerry, and their chinchilla, Princess Priscilla Chewchilla Fluffybottoms (Chewie). They enjoy long walks on the beach (without the chinchilla) and watching the sunsets, when the Oregon weather permits.