08/01/2011 05:21 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2011

The Failure of Progressive Nonprofit Organizations

When progressives and their organizations voted enthusiastically for President Obama in 2008, they never thought their candidate would turn out to be a middle-of-the-road politician, a compromiser without much courage or principle, a massive ego surrounded by fawning toadies and a leader lacking judgment in his selection of advisers, especially those charged with managing the depressed economy.

They believed the campaign rhetoric they had been fed. He was supposedly a community organizer, yet one who barely got his hands dirty in Chicago neighborhoods. He presumably had substantial experience in the Illinois state senate, where more often than not he did not vote on important legislation. His rhetoric was powerful and moving, yet it masked a lack of conviction and decisiveness. He was not what he seemed

During the campaign he pledged to create jobs, invoke tough regulations on financial institutions, implement immigration reform, tighten environmental standards, and pass major reforms in our health and educational systems. But he never learned from the experiences of FDR or Harry Truman, that to win tough political battles you had to be prepared to get your hands dirty, engage in the skirmishes and take the fight to the country. Instead, the progressives found a President who preferred to remain above the fray, hoping vainly to bring all sides together in a grand "love-in".

The early warning signs were unmistakable, yet progressive groups did little or nothing to counter the President's policies and programs. As one of the nonprofit leaders said, " He's our guy, we must support him." Some said they could not undermine our first Black President. Others pointed out that they did not want to disturb the cozy relationship between the Administration and many progressive groups, especially since the possibility of federal money was on the table. No matter that Administration and White House executives were not interested in the views of nonprofits and refused to accept their rare, well intentioned criticism.

The Tuesday meetings at the White House with nonprofit representatives were meant not as a platform for serious discussion and debate but as sessions to mobilize support for Administration policies and initiatives. During the lengthy debates on the health reform legislation, several independent efforts by nonprofits to mobilize constituency support were actually suppressed by White House operatives. Our "organizer " President, ironically, has shown a distaste for independent grassroots organizing.

After the first year, the progressive groups were even more aware of the President's shortcomings and those of his closest advisers. However, they still seemed paralyzed, incapable of speaking out on behalf of a progressive agenda which the Administration was decimating. Slowly, they did begin to press for an effective jobs program, consumer protections, changes in immigration policies and the abuses of mortgage lending. But it was much too late; enormous damage had been done while progressive groups stood on the sidelines.

How could this have happened? For one thing, progressives and, indeed, Democrats in general, have always been much more reluctant to criticize their own than have conservatives. In the Bush Administration, for example, a number of conservative think tanks and other organizations were very vocal in their criticism of Administration policy.

Having been out of office for eight years, progressives nonchalantly assumed that all would be better, that their social and economic justice issues would be a priority for their newly elected friends in the White House and Congress. They were reluctant to apply the pressure needed to hold their new Administration to its campaign pledges, nor did they appreciate the growing force of the then emerging right wing activists, eg. tea party members. They were slow to establish themselves as a forceful, outspoken presence both within the Administration and party circles.

Nonprofit leaders failed to display the courage and energy required for challenging the Administration's priorities, policies and irrelevant programs, such as the social innovation funds. Several national organizations successfully helped immigrant groups and coalitions throughout the country organize protests and demands for immigration reform, but these efforts were not expanded to include grassroots work on jobs, anti-poverty or other neglected programs.

While the community organizing groups did an excellent job in mobilizing their constituencies for changes at the local and state levels, they never could coalesce for an effective national effort. Progressive nonprofits talked a lot about recreating "movement" organizations that might recapture the old spirit of social change. It was, unfortunately, only talk.

What they didn't talk much about was their own weaknesses, their lack of organized constituency power, the absence of leadership within their own ranks and their lack of cohesiveness as a coalition. They did not recognize that progressive groups and their ostensible constituents--low income, minority and working class people - did not have the power and influence to win any major policy or political battles. For this reason, perhaps, they never did reach out to their middle class colleague organizations which could have strengthened their attempts to implement a social and economic justice agenda.

The insularity of many progressive nonprofits within the sector as a whole is a relatively new phenomenon. When the Ford Administration in the early 1970's tried to abolish most of the Johnson-era anti-poverty programs, a broad and powerful coalition of nonprofits defeated these initiatives. The coalition was led by middle class organizations like the League of Women Voters, the National Association of Social Workers, the National Association of University Women, the National Urban Coalition and environmental and consumer organizations, as well as by civil rights groups, poor peoples' organizations and professional associations. The middle class members of this coalition embraced social and economic justice issues as part of their overall agendas.

Throughout the 1980's and most of1990's similar broad coalitions fought national budget battles, attempts to reduce social safety net programs and efforts to undermine federal regulations to protect consumers, workers and our environment. But then such initiatives that brought together middle class groups with more traditional anti-poverty organizations petered out. Perhaps the fact that poverty as an issue dropped off our political radar screen was one of the reasons. Another could have been the growing conservatism across the country that downsized our concerns about social and economic justice.

Whatever the reason, middle class nonprofits lost some of their former zeal for addressing low income issues, while traditional anti-poverty and civil rights institutions abandoned their outreach to their former allies. The latter became more comfortable dealing with their own kind, seemingly oblivious to the consequences this separation would have on the impact of their efforts.

It is time for our progressive nonprofits to wake up to the reality that without assistance from the outside, without potentially powerful allies, they will not be able to pressure their own Administration successfully, nor defeat right wing attempts to destroy, their progressive agenda. Some middle class organizations may not be willing to restore the grand old coalition, but many still retain a commitment to the notions of social and economic justice. They need to be cultivated and wooed.

It is up to progressive nonprofits to reach out to middle class organizations that can provide the muscle that is sorely lacking in today's fights around the budget, programs for poor and working class people, fair taxation, sensible immigration reform, clean air and tougher regulations on financial institutions. These nonprofits must start talking to potential allies in middle class communities. If they don't recruit new partners, they will continue to lose the battles they could win.

Do our progressive nonprofit leaders have the smarts and ability to forge this new coalition? Only time will tell. Unfortunately, there is not much time left.

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