For the past 40 years, nonprofits have, by and large, abstained from local, state and national political dialogues. This is not to say that all nonprofits refrained from participating. Quite the contrary, as groups like MoveOn, NOW, the Rainbow Coalition, Greenpeace, the Heritage Foundation and America Forward illustrate, numerous nonprofit organizations utilized advocacy with great effect–hastening the enactment of laws and policies that assured equality in the workplace, protected our environment, created greater transparency of government and guaranteed the right to vote to all who are eligible.
But the majority of the sector remained focused on the simple day-to-day advocacy of earnest effort–they just worked hard to make their communities whole. Most refrained from advocacy due to the perceived illegality of nonprofits voicing a political preference. Others venture in, but worried that stepping too close to choosing one candidate or party over the other publicly (as singular voters) would lead to their organization being excluded when grants or contracts were doled out by the victor. Many were just poorly led—often by organization or association leaders who were either risk adverse by training or temperament or who grew comfortable over time with the status quo of day to day leadership, quarterly meetings or annual conferences (all of which is, quite frankly, quite normal).
But all that has changed now, as both the Supreme Court and a Federal Court heard arguments or handed down decisions that remove historic regulations that governed how campaigns are financed.
On September 9th, the Supreme Court heard arguments suggesting that corporate limits on political contributions were an infringement of their first amendment rights. (FYI—corporations are viewed under law as having rights similar to the individual, hence the tact that campaign-finance laws infringe upon their rights of free speech.)
Then on Friday, September 18th, a federal court, siding with the nonprofit advocacy group, Emily’s List, removed barriers for similar campaign finance efforts by nonprofits.
This means that now, for better or worse, the Pandora’s Box of Political Engagement is wide open….and with it comes the predictable good news and bad news.
First the bad news.
Those who express grave concern over the unregulated flow of funds from corporate treasuries into political campaigns are correct. There are 36 governor’s races in 2010, and we will soon see a tsunami of money POUR into an already polluted political process. EVERY citizen in America should be concerned over the ability of corporations to influence, or BUY political offices outright.
Which brings me to the good news.
These rulingss all but remove archaic barriers to nonprofits political involvement, and give us virtually unlimited ability to speak truth to power….and we must.
There are few forces that can stand up to the economic power of corporate America….but…and this is one mighty big but….we may have it.
Simplistic (and naive) as it may sound….it is the collective social/economic/moral compass of America’s nonprofit sector. Laugh if you will, but do not underestimate our collective social, political and economic strength. There are 100 million people who work for, volunteer at or contribute to nonprofits in America. If WE can gather around larger issues, just as Boards of Trade have over the last decades, and then act in unity during elections, then we can get candidates to move beyond slogans and force them to fully develop and articulate detailed plans for how they would partner with us to lead communities forward.
New media outlets (that are effective and FREE) allow us to use our VOICES to organize and rally VOTES to our causes. Sure—corporations can flood outlets like Fox or MSNBC with outrageous ads…but NOW, unlike anytime before, we can overtly counter them without fear of loosing our status as nonprofits. In short…our voice can be mightier than their cash. It must.
This is a moment of sudden, immediate evolution. These two legal opinions come out of the blue for most of us, and propel all nonprofits, even those with the most ardent aversion to the political process, into an era in which we have little choice but to become engaged—to fight together to keep the process of choosing our leaders from being hijacked.
NOW we must work together to rededicate the process of choosing our leaders. We can either submit, and allow by our silence for our work and ideas to be further marginalized, or we can hone our collective compass and help guide our communities to campaigns and candidates who will utilize all our assets for the greater, common good.
Gone now are the days of academic discussions, or studies, or the perceived safety of being a saint on the sidelines. We cannot afford to invest precious time in 10 year plans. A new era is upon us–and it begins today.