A Seneca Falls Moment for Nonprofits

Over 150 years ago, in the small, upstate NY town of Seneca Falls, 300 women and a handful of men (including Frederick Douglas) met to discuss the role of women in American society. Over the course of 6 days, they debated, listened to lectures and, ultimately, developed the Declaration of Sentiments….the centerpiece of which was the idea of women’s suffrage—the right to vote.

I bring this up because I am once again in Tompkins County, the home of Cornell University and Ithaca College, where I have been honored to speak on numerous occasions over the last 20 years. During that time, I have driven over to Seneca Falls on a few occasions, and ruminated over the similarities between women then, and nonprofits today.

That was brought back into focus at a regional meeting of nonprofit leaders, where two women from Seneca Falls were speaking about a grant application they were in the middle of. They lamented the laborious nature of the process and how much they had to do in order to get a grant that, in the end, would only add further weight to the already heavy work load they carried.

They said “If we get it, we’ll probably cry tears of joy, and sadness…we need the money, but it’s not nearly enough to do the job.”

This reality, faced by so many nonprofits, who have little or no source of income outside of grants, only amplifies the 3rd class, subservient station we hold in the American political and economic system.

But taken one step further, these two women represent a group that make up 17% of the NY workforce—nonprofits. Yet, in last years gubernatorial race, not one candidate mentioned how they would partner with, strengthen or channel the energy of the nonprofit sector. Voters had to choose a candidate who would have to lead them out of a $9 billion dollar deficit…yet none articulated a vision that included almost ¼ of their workforce. But this wasn’t limited to NY. Thirty-six states (each facing mountainous deficits) elected governors in 2010…and only a handful of candidates mentioned the sector in their vision for the future.

Stunning…hell yes. But even more so because nonprofits, like women before the 19th Amendment, cannot fully participate in the process.

I spoke with them later in the day, and we talked about holding another convention in Seneca Falls…and launching a new suffrage movement in America….for nonprofits.

Do nonprofits merit the right to be fully engaged in the political process? Should we have first amendment right akin to the individual, like the Supreme Court just affirmed for corporations? Would we loose our “independence” if we took sides and endorsed candidates?

Would you join in the debate? I’m already there.