When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton told a crowd at a campaign rally in New Hampshire that she wanted to answer as many questions as possible, Joan Goshgarian, head of the New Hampshire Business Committee for the Arts, decided to seize the opportunity.
Her hand flew up, along with dozens of others across the crowded high-school gymnasium in Penacook. Senator Clinton responded to question after question about familiar national issues — the war in Iraq, Iran, health care, education, global warming.
She finally called on Ms. Goshgarian, who was sitting in the front row, and got a much less predictable question: What would Mrs. Clinton do to promote the nonprofit sector as a whole, which makes up a big segment of the economy?
‘Bird Dog’ the Candidates
Score a home run for the Nonprofit Primary Project. Run by the New Hampshire Center for Nonprofits, in Concord, the project has been working for months to get the presidential candidates who have been swarming their small state to discuss the contribution that nonprofit groups make to the nation’s economy.
Their strategy: getting nonprofit leaders to “bird dog” the candidates as they attend forums, town-hall meetings, and other events and ask them questions about their experiences with nonprofit groups and what they would do as president to strengthen them.
Ms. Goshgarian’s encounter with Senator Clinton was a coup for the group of about a dozen people who have been tailing the candidates. Not only was she selected from a big crowd to pose her question, but the New York senator gave a lengthy response. “The whole nonprofit sector in America not only delivers essential services, but is a huge employer,” she said. “The number is close to 10 percent of people who work for the nonprofit sector.”
Senator Clinton, who began her career at the Children’s Defense Fund, praised what she called the “third leg of the stool” of the American economy (along with business and government). “It is essential that I as president do everything I can to expand the nonprofit sector.”
She promised to work to allow people who don’t itemize their taxes to get deductions for charitable donations, to help nonprofit groups compete for government contracts, and to highlight the work nonprofit groups do — for example, through White House conferences — and said she was looking for other ideas.
Ms. Goshgarian is an experienced “bird dogger,” but, she says, “this was by far the biggest audience I’ve had an opportunity to do that in.” (You can listen to Ms. Goshgarian describe how she shaped her question.)
The Nonprofit Primary Project was started by the National Council of Nonprofit Associations, in Washington, and its affiliate, the Nonprofit Congress, which unites nonprofit groups across the country to try to forge a collective voice.
Robert Egger, president of the D.C. Central Kitchen, an antihunger group in Washington — who helped set up the Nonprofit Congress — is the director and driving force behind the Primary Project.
He argues that nonprofit groups must work together to get on the radar screen of politicians, not exclusively as advocates for particular social issues, but as organizations that play a major role in the national economy and help the country tackle its social problems.
His message to them: “There are 80 million people getting older in America, our economy’s going global, but you have in every community a really robust, vibrant economic stimulator in the nonprofits. How would you partner with us?”
While the idea of more nonprofit involvement in politics is controversial in some quarters, Mr. Egger found an ally in Mary Ellen Jackson, executive director of the New Hampshire nonprofit center. He agreed to donate $15,000 for the project from speaking fees he has collected, and an anonymous donor donated an equal amount.
Over the past year, Ms. Jackson’s center has been training nonprofit leaders to approach all of the presidential candidates and educate their campaign staff members, without violating laws barring tax-exempt charities from endorsing political candidates. Mr. Egger and the center decided on the bird-dogging strategy after they had trouble getting candidates to attend forums they had tried to plan.
Participants have attended dozens of political events and tried to get the attention of all the major candidates.
Obama and Huckabee
In the final days before Tuesday’s primary, several of the nonprofit leaders reviewed a multitude of competing campaign events and zeroed in on a few. In addition to the Clinton rally, they selected rallies for Senator Obama and the Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, a Democratic-candidates dinner, and a Republican brunch.
The Obama rally took place at a packed gymnasium at Concord High School, and Ms. Jackson arrived early to get in line. She wore a red jacket on advice from Ann McLane Kuster, a lawyer for nonprofit groups who helped train the project participants. She had suggested wearing red as a way to get noticed.
Unlike Senator Clinton, the Illinois senator did not take any questions, so Ms. Jackson had to improvise. Accompanied by Ms. Kuster, who knows Mr. Obama from her work on his campaign, pushed her way to the front of the line as the Illinois senator shook hands and greeted people afterward. When he reached Ms. Jackson, she said, “Will nonprofits have a place in your White House?”
“Of course,” responded Senator Obama, a former community organizer in Chicago. “I used to work for a nonprofit.”
Ms. Kuster, whom Mr. Obama recognized, then introduced Ms. Jackson, and the senator offered a few more words: “Take a look at our national-service plan, which has a whole social-entrepreneurship component to it.” (Senator Obama has promised to expand the country’s national-service programs and to create a Social Investment Fund Network to provide money to encourage innovative nonprofit projects.)
Sometimes an encounter is brief, but the Primary Project workers try at least to plant the word “nonprofit.” At the Democratic dinner in Milford, Thomas Blonski, president of New Hampshire Catholic Charities, worked to catch the Democratic candidate Bill Richardson’s eye as he greeted people after his speech. “Remember the nonprofit sector, like we talked about before,” he said when Mr. Richardson reached him, referring to a previous meeting with the New Mexico governor. “I will,” Mr. Richardson responded.
‘Am I Stalking You?’
Occasionally, the Primary Project workers meet a candidate unexpectedly. After Senator Clinton’s rally, Ms. Jackson and Mr. Egger headed to Caesarios Pizza, a restaurant in Manchester, in the hopes of buttonholing the Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who was scheduled to greet customers there. Mr. Romney had already come and gone, so they decided to order lunch.
After about 30 minutes, they had a chance to make their case to another Republican candidate — Mr. Huckabee, the victor in last week’s Iowa caucuses. He entered the restaurant and headed directly to their table. Recognizing Ms. Jackson from a chat they had had at a rally the day before, he joked: “Am I stalking you?”
The former Arkansas governor immediately made the nonprofit connection, mentioning that he had just come from a charity fund-raising event in Londonderry, N.H., and had donated some soccer balls for children in Iraq. After some chitchat about his bass-guitar playing at the rally, he told Mr. Egger and Ms. Jackson that nonprofit groups were bringing in “hundreds of millions of dollars” to his state.
Ms. Jackson told him that New Hampshire’s 7,000 nonprofit organizations are the state’s second-biggest employer, and he said, “Wow, that is huge.”
Afterward, Ms. Jackson said her experience with Mr. Huckabee shows that nonprofit leaders should not be intimidated by political leaders, even those with a national presence. “They’re interested in what we might want to say, they’re interested in learning,” she said.
“Governor Huckabee, national contender for president, recognized me,” she said. “I’m just thrilled that that can happen.”
Mr. Egger said the New Hampshire project shows how easy it is for nonprofit leaders to capture the ears of politicians. He plans to spearhead a new project shortly — “Voice, Value, Vote” — to get nonprofit leaders to become more politically active at all levels of government across the country.
To keep a record of what the candidates said, Mr. Egger has posted videos of their remarks on his blog.