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At the Table, Off the Menu: Nonprofit Advocacy in an Age of Budget Cuts

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"If you are here to ask for more money, you are in the wrong office!"

These words, posted on the door of Dan Benishek, a freshman Republican congressman from Michigan, who represents the new "normal" for nonprofit programs in Washington, D.C.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports: "For many nonprofits that rely on federal money, the bitter budget battle that is now heating up in Washington threatens to bring one of two results: bad news or very, very bad news."

In response, nonprofit advocacy coalitions have worked themselves into a frenzy sending out online petitions calling on supporters to help stop the cuts.

New York Times op-ed writer David Brooks suggested that nonprofits should create a "Freedom Alliance," advising them "to band together and fight their common enemy, the inexorable growth of entitlement spending."

The truth is that neither old style petitions nor new coalitions of various nonprofits fighting these entitlements will make a much of a difference to events on Capitol Hill. Instead, each nonprofit must think of new advocacy strategies to enable it to thrive in this new fiscal environment. Here are five to consider:

1. Get in the Game

Independent Sector, a leading authority on nonprofits, reports on their powerful economic role noting that they produce 5.9 percent of our GDP ($751 billion in output each year) while employing approximately 10 percent of the country's workforce. That's double that of the financial, insurance and real estate industries combined. And the American public is highly engaged with nonprofits. In 2006, 65.5% of American households donated to them.

A 2007, a Johns Hopkins University study explains why: "the vast majority of charities spent less than two percent of their budgets on either lobbying or advocacy ... " Contrast this with the spending by the bailed-out banks. The Boston Globe reported that in the first half of 2010, they spent $16.3 million on over 2000 lobbyists. That's a 26 percent increase on the (already substantial) amount they spent in 2009.

There's a saying in Washington,"if you're not at the table, you're on the menu."

Nonprofits that wait patiently for crumbs to fall will end up depending on last-minute, crisis-driven campaigns, often implemented too late to be effective in preventing budget cuts. If nonprofits want to succeed, they need to enter the game before its too late.

2. Start Right, Move Left

Democrats have historically been the champions of the public service-oriented nonprofit community. The landmark national service legislation signed into law in 2009 is named for the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy and opposition came almost entirely from Republicans. Over the past 20 years I've had the opportunity to work on major nonprofit legislative strategies on health, education, and civil rights. Not surprisingly, nonprofits I've worked with in the public sector align more with their Democrat champions.

But to get things done on Capitol Hill groups must gain bipartisan support.

Advocates should start enlisting Republicans early and move from the right towards the left. Busy Democrats are more likely to back nonprofits with demonstrable bipartisan support because only they have a real chance of success. A good example are AIDS advocates engaging conservative leaders Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Sen. Burr (R-NC) as a leading champions in the battle for crucial funding for HIV/AIDS programs.

3. Return On Investment (ROI)

In an era of fiscal pressure, no program should be exempt from financial scrutiny. Currently, the emphasis of this scrutiny is on specific, measurable results.

Nonprofits need to take a cue from the business world and make a "return on investment" pitch, tied to real world issues and results, when seeking financial support.

For example, nonprofits could draw attention to the benefits they bring to a congressional member's district or state: "Our organization attracts an additional $900,000 in new philanthropy to your congressional district for every $100,000 the government invests. "If we lose $100,000, your constituents lose $1 million."

4. Change the Incentives

Social entrepreneurs today need to make their cases not by asking for cash, but by targeting specific policies that directly impact them and their work. They need to change the incentives in their social markets.

For example, instead of passively requesting small grants to meet the needs of ex-convicts dumped on the streets, advocates for the homeless could push for requiring prisons to demonstrate their success rate in helping ex-cons adjust to civilian life. Having to show the taxpayers that their money is being well spent would provide the prison industry, which spends $30,000 per inmate each year, with a major incentive to partner with low-cost nonprofits.

5. Invest Long-Term

Washington works through long-standing personal relationships, which take time and attention to build. Never forget that you have competition. There is always a long line of worthy individuals and organizations, who are seeking help, outside the office of every member of Congress. Merit is fundamental, but personal relationships often decide who gets assistance. Drop the cynicism. Contrary to stereotypes, political offices are full of thoughtful people seeking to do good in the world. If you invest time in building relationships, especially when you're not asking for anything, you can enlist not only a champion but also a strategist.

In our democracy, everyone has a right to speak. However, it is up to each of us to make ourselves heard. Those with weak or muffled voices must rely on others to speak for them. This responsibility falls upon those of us who gladly dedicate ourselves to the nonprofit community.

The new fiscal reality is forcing us to become more strategic in our approaches, more creative in our requests, and more focused on practical results -- a tough environment, but one we must master.

Let's make sure that those who depend on us are at the table and off the menu.