Friday, December 6, 2013

Reflecting on a Long-Term Trend in Nonprofit Funding, and What You Can Do About It

Posted by Kim Klein

“I would love to give to the Film Festival, but I really have to devote all my giving to my children’s public school.” This sentence, said by a long-time donor in response to a request for funding renewal from a board member at a local Film Festival, helped to start a project called “Nonprofits Talking Taxes." Starting about 10 years ago, many of us started to hear things like this from our donors. At the same time, many of us in the fundraising profession began to notice that organizations with very diverse and dynamic fundraising programs were having a hard time raising money.  This didn’t make sense:  what were we doing wrong?  As it turned, we were doing nothing wrong, but the landscape for fundraising was changing rapidly and the nonprofits most affected by the changes were doing little to address this.

The root of the change was simple: government cutbacks, some of which had begun years earlier, were taking a huge toll on the ability of nonprofits to serve our various constituencies. As government funding was cut, nonprofits funded by government grants sought to raise money from foundations, corporations, and individuals. But the math simply couldn’t work: there is not enough money in the foundation and corporate community, or even from the vast number of individuals who make annual donations, to pay for all that they always paid for AND pick up all that the government no longer paid for.

As most readers of this blog have experienced, this is completely unsustainable: more work and more competition for fewer dollars does not give us healthy, happy communities or dynamic and creative nonprofits.

For the most part, nonprofit organizations did not fight these government cuts, or, if they did, they fought for their own funding but not for the principle that government has a role to play in providing funding. There are many reasons why this is true:
  • individual staff people have little or no time to advocate for funding in addition to their work,
  • sometimes organizations mistakenly worry that advocating for government funding is illegal, and
  • many nonprofits don’t know how to mount an effective advocacy campaign.
There are dozens of excellent organizations working to address these problems, such as the Alliance for Justice, the California Coalition for Civil Rights, CA CALLS, the League of Women Voters, just to name a few. But we also saw a more fundamental problem, which was that, by and large, nonprofit staff did not really have any opinions about the role of taxes and government funding. You can’t express an opinion you haven’t formed. Some staff felt that tax policy was too complicated to understand, or too difficult to change. Some staff felt that there were no good solutions, but most were too busy trying to keep up with their increasing workloads to think much of anything.
 
We set out to change that.

For the past three years, CompassPoint and the Building Movement Project, along with a number of other partners, has been developing, testing and presenting a curriculum designed for nonprofit staff called “Nonprofits Talking Taxes.” Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the workshops which were presented in a wide variety of settings such as staff meetings, professional association gatherings, training events, and webinars. Our goal was to create something that anyone could use with co-workers and colleagues, something that could be used with three people or fifty people.

We evaluated our workshop and changed it many times. We refined the information and now we are pleased to say that we have developed a training curriculum that is fun, informative, and easy to use. We have uploaded it, along with a  (very brief) trainer “manual,” some videos, and some sample webinars onto a website called nonprofitstalkingtaxes.org.

At the CalNonprofits Annual Convention in November, the new toolkit made its debut. In honor of our work and of the role that taxes play for all of us, we gave everyone a sticker that said, “_____ is the reason that I (heart) taxes.” Conference attendees filled in the blank with a wide variety of reasons ranging from public parks, schools, and safety to more esoteric things that taxes support such as health and elevator inspectors, the FAA, the CDC, or the most unusual, volcano research. We created flashdrives with the curriculum loaded on them, and people took those eagerly (signing a form which obligates them to use the information on the flashdrive and not just download their own stuff).

We piloted the final workshop to a room full of people interested in learning more about how to talk about taxes, and how taxes are integral to the common good. We had a fun, collaborative, and positive conversation about taxes, the role they play for nonprofits, and the role they play for all of us by promoting the common good.

Please consider having your own conversation about the common good and the role of taxes in creating a society that works for all of us. As you’ll see when you look at the materials, you don’t need to be an expert to share these ideas. We believe, as the late Sen. Paul Wellstone often said, "We all do better when we all do better." We also know that this is easier said than done, and that it will take the combined brain power and creativity of ALL of us to really move our state and our country to an economy that insures a safety net for everyone, a high quality public school education for our children, a clean environment, an accessible and excellent health care system, a vibrant arts and culture scene, and a quality of life that one would expect in the world’s richest country.

There are a variety of resources to support you as you plan your workshop. We will also continue to monitor the website and add information as it seems necessary. All the material is copyrighted into the Creative Commons, which means everyone is free to use it. All we ask for is attribution.

We are very grateful to our funders and to the 4,000 people who participated in the various iterations of the workshops over the past three years, as well as the 30 people who used the material in trainings.

For questions or comments, please feel free to email me at kim@kleinandroth.com. As one of the founders of this project, I would love to hear from you.