The unprecedented crisis America faces as it teeters on the so-called fiscal cliff threatens the well-being of tens of millions of individuals who rely on nonprofits.
Weary from years of the Great Recession and fed up with incessant partisan wrangling, it’s tempting for nonprofit leaders—like other Americans—to tune out gargantuan numbers and sanitized language like fiscal cliff.
After all, the tactics by political spin makers in the nation’s rancorous capital seem designed to make Americans comatose, disinterested, and disengaged.
Such gamesmanship may ease minds, but not the urgent danger.
It’s vital that nonprofit leaders take action now to influence the important decisions that will soon be made on Capitol Hill, at the White House, and, significantly, in state capitols across the country.
The first step in engaging the public is to make clear that what’s at stake isn’t just fiscal: It’s a “human cliff.”
Nonprofits must put a human face on the suffering that individuals, families, and communities will feel if pushed over the edge as the jobs and crucial services they rely upon suddenly disappear, all because Washington politicians didn’t do their jobs.
A significant reason this is happening now: Last year Congress declared that if it didn’t cut the deficit by a certain amount, then automatic spending cuts would immediately occur beginning in 2013.
Congress failed to act, so unless it changes the law in a lame-duck session after the elections, the hatchet will automatically chop $54.6-billion from domestic programs and an equal amount from defense spending on January 2, 2013.
In a 394-page report, the Office of Management and Budget last month identified thousands of programs that will be hacked by 8 to 12 percent each.
Those sweeping, massive cuts will hurt nonprofits in multiple ways:
Skyrocketing demand for nonprofit services. Millions of Americans who had been receiving services will turn to nonprofits as they suddenly find that their government services have disappeared. Politicians fixated on closing the deficit solely by making immediate, deep spending cuts need to look at the riots in Europe caused by severe and abrupt austerity programs. Americans know the deficit must be reduced, but they need a sure-footed path down the side of the cliff, not a quick shove.
Massive dollar losses from government contracts. Organizations that receive government aid to carry out their missions will see big chunks of their budgets wiped out. A sampling of what’s at stake for some programs important to nonprofits: Head Start will lose $600-million, rental-assistance programs will lose $2-billion, and disaster-relief nearly $600-million. Basic education programs will lose $1.3-billion; special education, $1-billion; food for women, infants, and children, $543-million; and child-care and development programs, $187-million.
Closures of local charities and a major loss of nonprofit jobs. Strains on the very survivability of struggling nonprofits will worsen as board members are forced to raise billions in replacement dollars to fill the sudden $54.6-billion hole—and inevitably many of the 13.7 million employees who now work at nonprofits will lose their jobs.
Since the Great Recession started, governments at all levels have been slashing their own programs, expecting nonprofits to fill the void. Economists call this “off-loading.”
Nonprofits that keep being asked to do so much more for so many more for so much longer with so much less call it something else: unsustainable.
Losses in quality of life for everyone. Just like every other American, the individuals employed by nonprofits, the more than 60 million board members and volunteers who help nonprofits, and the hundreds of millions we collectively serve will suffer sweeping losses of services as a result of the budget cuts. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the mandatory cuts will hit virtually every person, directly and indirectly, by:
- Hurting education by carving away money for “smaller classes, afterschool programs, and children with disabilities.”
- Threatening public safety by curtailing “efforts to inspect food-processing plants and prevent food-borne illnesses” and the “ability to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe.”
- Handcuffing law enforcement by reducing the number of FBI “agents, Customs and Border Patrol agents, correctional officers, and federal prosecutors.”
- Halting “scientific research, including needed research into cancer and childhood diseases.”
- Undermining the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “ability to respond to … catastrophic events.”
Nonprofits don’t have hordes of lobbyists and public-relations agencies like the defense industry, which has been busily trying to shift some of its spending cuts from defense to domestic programs.
But we have something more potent. We have a legacy of fierce leaders who have stood up against injustice. We have passion. And we have people power—volunteers, board members, and nonprofit employees in every community and in every city, state, and federal election district.
Here’s what everyone who works or volunteers at a nonprofit must do now:
Don’t give up. Embrace the frustration and channel the outrage that so many Americans feel about this situation. Stand up and call out: This is not right—stop this injustice. Bring to life the stories of the impending human tragedies by writing a letter to the editor of your local paper. Then blog about this and get the message out on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.
Inspire the public to action by explaining how slashing specific domestic programs will affect local people, directly and indirectly.
Look at the candidates for office where you live. Avoid getting caught up in the hullabaloo surrounding the presidential election.
Focus instead on who is running for Congress and the state legislature in your voting districts. Ask who will work seriously to solve problems rather than being another partisan obstructionist or apologist on either side of the aisle.
Apply the same standard for statewide races and local elections.
Stand up, speak out, and demand straight answers. People running for office need votes, and they fear the wrath of voters. They will listen right now more than at any other time.
Use the campaign season to focus candidates’ attention on the real-life issues that truly matter to nonprofits. And tell candidates for public office that you will no longer accept the acrimony and hyperpartisanship that have driven us to the edge of the cliff at all levels of government.
Now stand up and speak out one more time: through your ballot box.
Vote. Let your voice be heard.