The budget crisis is an existential threat to the American dream. It is also an existential threat to the nation’s nonprofit organizations. But the nonprofit world has gone AWOL.
Nonprofits have a powerful self-interest in the debate and a clear duty to jump in. It may well be impossible to resolve the crisis without them.
Nonprofits are understandably and appropriately fighting to preserve the money that finances their work, both in direct payments and through appropriate charitable-giving incentives, but it is dangerously myopic for them not also to be working for a broader and more fundamental budget overhaul.
No partisan plan can solve the budget crisis. The only way out is a bipartisan grand bargain that cuts spending and raises revenue as well as restructuring the tax code and reducing the long-term cost of Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlement programs.
This will happen only if enough voters can be educated and energized in support of a bipartisan budget overhaul to force both parties to move to the center. Neither politicians nor the news media will make this happen. Arguably, only the nonprofit world has the independence, credibility, expertise, and resources to get the job done.
Nonprofits must recognize that they remain on the sidelines at their peril. If federal deficits continue to spiral out of control, nonprofits face a future of trying to do more and more with less and less, as a weakening economy exacerbates social ills and reduces both government aid and private giving.
Staying on the sidelines also gives the lie to lofty civil-society rhetoric about nonprofits’ role as the bedrock of the democratic process. Our democracy is in crisis. Surely the leaders of civil society have a duty to lead citizens in a conversation about fixing the problem.
Nonprofits bring essential strengths to this effort. Most important, they bring people, relationships, and community. Nonprofits are woven into the fabric of every city and town across America, and they connect individuals across the nation around their shared commitment to a cause.
Through these communities, nonprofits can engage their constituents in a sustained, informed, and rational conversation about the budget crisis, giving citizens the chance to share their perspectives and to seek common ground.
Nonprofits also bring to the effort the skills needed to undertake the task. They are experts in social marketing, coalition building, advocacy, and policy analysis, and they have demonstrated again and again that they can change the course of public debate and drive legislative action on major public-policy issues.
Foundations, which last year made grants of more than $45-billion, clearly have the financial resources to support a large-scale public-education campaign without serious diversion of funds from their other grant-making priorities.
But to provide effective leadership, nonprofits must overcome the same tests of judgment and character that face the nation as a whole. First, they must stop kicking the can down the road. Second, nonprofits must have the courage of their convictions about the role of civil society in sustaining a constructive civil discourse.
Finally, the nonprofit world must recognize that it is divided by the same ideological fault lines that divide the larger society. Too often, in the interest of galvanizing supporters, nonprofit leaders become part of the problem by distorting opponents’ positions and maligning their motives.
If nonprofits are to help the nation restore a constructive civil discourse and put the country’s finances back on track, they must first re-establish a respectful and constructive discourse among themselves.
This is not a call for conservatives and progressives to suspend their ideological debate but rather for them to cooperate in creating an honest framework for that debate.
The budget-process breakdown has encouraged politicians alternatively to promise larger government without higher taxes or lower taxes without smaller government. America cannot move forward until we have restored budget discipline and can once again have an honest debate.
This is a moment of truth for nonprofit leaders. If they don’t lead a bold national effort to change the tone and substance of the budget debate, they will become complicit in America’s inexorable decline.