Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld
In my first few weeks at the Building Movement Project, I’ve been doing a lot of travel to get up to speed on the work that BMP’s nonprofit partners are doing around the country. Just last week, I was in Washington and spoke with many of our sector’s advocates about the “sequestration” – the mandatory across-the-board federal budget cuts that went into effect on March 1st. For months, advocacy groups and nonprofit associations have been warning nonprofit groups about the impact these harsh cuts will have on low-income people and organizations they go to for support. It’s true that the sign-on letters, human-interest stories, and op-eds were not enough to change the sequester policy and avoid the budget cuts and maybe it is unreasonable to expect the nonprofit sector can suddenly wield enough power to overcome the austerity framework that is limiting the policy discussion in the halls of Congress. The power imbalance that stacks the deck in favor of policies benefiting the rich is hard to overcome. But that is why social movements are so important, and why I believe in our sector’s potential as an engine for social change.
There are over one million nonprofit organizations, and human service organizations constitute the largest part of the sector (a third of nonprofits). While there’s a wide range of services that these organizations provide, there’s probably an even wider range of people who come to them for services and supports. So just imagine the potential if those organizations could be galvanized around the survival of the safety net.
There are two concrete things our sector can do to start to realize its movement building potential.
First, nonprofits can lift up a vision for the communities they work with. I’m not so naïve as to think that everyone in the sector will agree about what public policies will fix the systemic problems of economic inequality, lack of opportunity and decades of disinvestment. But if there’s any opportunity in the midst of the crisis created by sequestration, it’s the potential to contrast the human costs (importantly noted by the National Council of Nonprofits stories of the impact of sequestration) with a hopeful vision. Fortunately, nonprofits are telling stories that move hearts and minds. For instance, Half in Ten and the Coalition on Human Needs created the Road to Shared Prosperity website, where people post personal stories about the positive impact of many of the very federal programs that are facing budget cuts. It’s a smart way to shift notions about the American Dream; instead of it being a mystery where each of us somehow makes it on our own it becomes a vision where we can support programs that help turn the dream into a reality.
The other thing for organizations to do is prepare their constituents to tell their own stories and work together to demand the changes that move communities closer to the vision. Nonprofits that are woven into the fabric of the safety net are a lifeline for people struggling to survive in the wake of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. These organizations therefore have unparalleled, direct access to many people whose voices are critical but missing from the debate on poverty and sequestration. By converting service recipients into movement participants, nonprofit service agencies can become sites for building a strong base that can mobilize to generate public pressure that Congress has to respond to.
The nonprofit sector’s lobbyists are certainly critical voices for organizations and communities being stretched to the breaking point by the economic pressures of dwindling resources and mounting demands. But without a movement of organized people directly impacted by the budget cuts, our sector’s advocates won’t be able to effectively challenge the organized money that is limiting the terms of our nation’s economic debate to more and more cuts to programs and services that so many depend on.