As the days tick off between the election and Inauguration Day, nonprofit organizations find themselves experiencing the same uncertainty as everyone else. Nonprofits often are the backbone of communities, providing services and opportunities that make communities good places to visit, live and work. Nonprofits employ members of the community. They provide training and education that helps people find and keep jobs. And nonprofits often are the first, last, or only source of help for people in distress.
One thing that seems very clear is that the work nonprofits do will be more important than ever. There are many areas where it appears the federal government will do less, not more. Given New Jersey’s tight financial situation, there is no reason to think that state government will pick up the slack, and private philanthropy cannot possibly fill any of these gaps.
And the action will still be (mostly) in the states. To be sure, a lot can and will happen when the new administration takes office in Washington, and it’s vital to stay on top of it. But as we and our friends at the National Council of Nonprofits have noted before, much more legislation and policies are enacted at the state level than in D.C. If you run a nonprofit, work there, or serve on the board, keep your eyes on state and local developments, and partner with other organizations active on the issues that are important to you.
As much as people will need the services we provide, they also will need something else from nonprofit organizations: our voices. The advocacy we engage in and the protection we offer were important before November 8, and that is just as true now. This is not a time for non-profits to become paralyzed, numb, or complacent.
Whatever anyone thinks of the election results, society needs a strong nonprofit community.
Unfortunately, regardless of which candidate won November 8, New Jersey’s nonprofits already were facing challenges to their ability to generate the resources it takes to meet growing public needs. As nonprofits, we need to continue to work together as the problem-solvers we are. And for 501(c)(3) nonprofits, we need to be nonpartisan.
Of course, in New Jersey the end of the presidential campaign means the race for governor has just begun. In less than a year, we’ll elect a new governor, and all 120 state legislative seats will also be contested. There’s a lot at stake — arguably even more than in the federal elections. So get involved.
That means being aware of what you and your organization can and can’t do.
Understand your rights to advocate and lobby — and use them. To be as effective as possible, know the legal differences between advocacy (or public-policy education) and lobbying. Advocacy and public-policy education are broadly allowed. For organizations recognized by the IRS as 501(c)(3) public charities — which is the largest portion of non-profits — lobbying is permissible within certain (fairly generous) limits; partisan politics or electioneering are prohibited.
With so much at stake, if you lead a nonprofit it’s important that you get your board to champion advocacy as a core part of your organization’s mission. That isn’t always comfortable — but it can be essential to fulfilling the mission your organization was created for. It’s important, too, to understand that what you can do personally and what your organization can do (or what you can do under its auspices) are not the same thing. Know the boundaries and be sure to keep them clear and separate.
And whenever you feel you need more information about any of this, the Center for Non-Profits can provide you or connect you to the help you need to navigate these rules.
Nonprofits have been at the forefront of some of the most important social advances in our nation’s history. I don’t expect that to change. Whichever way the political winds blow, there is a critical role for us doing things to further a just, prosperous, and equitable society. It takes courage, work, stamina and perseverance — attributes that the nonprofit community has never found to be in short supply.