Connecting Taxes to the Common Good


Written by Kim Klein

This post originally appeared on the Bolder Advocacy Blog

For at least the past 15 years, almost all nonprofits have experienced the effects of government funding cutbacks. Those organizations who were directly funded suffered immediately, but those who had no government funding found themselves competing with previously publicly supported institutions for the much smaller pot of funding available from foundations, corporations and individuals. Public schools, public parks, public universities, public libraries now all raise money privately.

Nonprofits have responded to government cutbacks primarily in three ways:

  1. Doing more and more with less and less;
  2. Attempting to raise money from the private sector;  and
  3. Creating earned income such as charging fees for service and selling products.

What we haven’t done—with some notable exceptions—is advocate for restoration or increases in government funding through changes in tax policy. Of course individual organizations or even associations of a particular kind of organization (arts, human services, seniors) have sometimes advocated at their state capitals for their issues, but even that voice has been somewhat muted.

The fact is that legislators never have to look at their windows and say “Oh my heavens, the nonprofit lobby is here.” In their back rooms, they don’t wonder what the nonprofit lobby will do or think or say. This is odd given that nonprofits are 10% of the workforce, 5.5% of the GDP and a $1.6 trillion a year industry.

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.

By and large, nonprofit staff do 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, have been developing, testing, and presenting a curriculum designed for nonprofit staff called “Nonprofits Talking Taxes.”  Our goal was to create something that anyone could use with co-workers and colleagues, something that could be used with 2 or 3 people or 50 people.

At our website you’ll find:

  • A training curriculum that is fun, informative, and easy to use.
  • A trainer “manual” (very short)
  • Videos
  • Sample webinars

We rolled out this curriculum at the annual meeting of the California Association of Nonprofits last November. We piloted the final PowerPoint 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. The feedback we received was very positive and we hope all the participants in that workshop will, in turn, conduct their own workshops.

Always relevant

Talking about taxes is important whether or not we are in an election year and whether or not a tax-related issue is on the ballot. Tax policy is constantly informing decisions that are being made or explaining how existing conditions came about. For example, in Washington State, legislators are set to debate (once again) whether the state should have an income tax, but this year the debate might actually amount to something as Washington has the dubious distinction of having the most regressive tax structure in the nation, in large part because of its lack of an income tax.

And just this week in Washington, D.C., a new tax reform proposal from Rep. Dave Camp is provoking reaction across the political spectrum. Which nonprofits will speak out about a plan that cuts taxes for business income but eliminates programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps low-income workers?

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.  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 a tax structure that provides the revenue required to insure the quality of life one would reasonably expect in the world’s richest country.

We will continue to monitor the website and add information as it seems necessary. All the material is copyrighted under Creative Commons, which means everyone is free to use it. All we ask for is attribution.

The website is For questions or comments, please feel free to e-mail me:  As one of the founders of this project, I would love to hear from you.

Related from AFJ: Tips for Talking About Taxes

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