Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says the “hyperpartisanship” in American politics keeps her up at night. She’s not alone.
Diana Aviv, president of Independent Sector, made the topic a theme of her keynote speech at the annual meeting in Chicago of the nonprofit coalition. Two other chief executives, Melissa Bradley, of the Tides Foundation, and Bob Edgar, of Common Cause, spent an hour and a half at the meeting discussing how it has posed challenges for their organizations.
In her speech, Ms. Aviv said that many important government social programs are being eroded because of fiscal challenges and the failure of politicians to reach agreement. Ms. Aviv urged nonprofits to play a leading role in promoting national discussions about the kind of society Americans want and the role of government in achieving it.
“What better meeting ground than our nonpartisan space?” she asked. “Can we partner with those who promote civility in the public square and work with them to help sort out hyperbole from fact and prioritize what is important?”
Said Ms. Aviv: “From global foundations to neighborhood nonprofits, we can demand an end to political stalemate as strategy.”
Speaking after Ms. Aviv, Eric Tanenblatt, vice chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, said he didn’t believe that people should be looking to government to solve their problems but agreed with Ms. Aviv about the challenges posed by the political climate.
“We’ve lost the days of healthy dialogue and debate,” he said.
Darren Walker, a vice president at the Ford Foundation, said that conversations about society’s future needed to include a discussion about “justice.”
“One of the fundamental things left out of this conversation is our notion of economic justice,” he said. “We must have a strong and vibrant middle class.”
He added: “We have to get beyond our common resentment to get answers.”
Ronald Richard, president of the Cleveland Foundation, urged nonprofits to identify specific solutions to the polarization and gridlock in Washington. His idea: Eliminate the option of a second term for presidents and replace it with one six-year term, so presidents don’t spend half their first term running for re-election.
In a session on “half truths and ‘gotcha’ politics,” Ms. Bradley of Tides and Mr. Edgar of Common Cause discussed how their left-leaning organizations have responded to attacks from conservative pundits and activists such as radio-show host Glenn Beck and controversial videographer James O’Keefe.
Some of their advice: Don’t wait until you get attacked to communicate about your organization’s work. Building trust is a continuing process, and nonprofits need to make sure they count many supporters who can correct misinformation if and when its spread.
Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey, president of Robert Wood Johnson, also weighed in briefly on political rancor during a plenary discussion on Monday. Asked what kept her up at night, the foundation president said partisanship.
Foundations and nonprofits need to spend more time thinking about how to communicate about their work “so we don’t get drawn into battles unnecessarily,” she said.