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Nonprofits Must Stand Up and Fight for Themselves, or Perish

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Recently, I attended a meeting with non-profit advocates and program providers whose work would all but stop if Congressional Republicans successfully slash the federal budget. Inspired by public sector workers fighting against attacks on their collective bargaining rights, I hoped we could galvanize a similar uprising in the nonprofit sector. To my dismay, instead of strategizing to combat the cuts, the people in the room were debating whether to fight back at all.

I've found myself in many such meetings in the past few weeks. Each time, I have been surprised -- and alarmed -- by the non-profit community's reluctance to tackle this issue head-on. Frankly, I can't shake the feeling that we are surrendering to the schoolyard bully. These budget cuts are an existential threat to many organizations and, more significantly, dangerous for the millions of individuals who rely on them. Yet those who would hack these programs represent a tiny minority of zealots who are immune to the human cost of their actions.

The dollars on the chopping block constitute too little of the budget to make a dent in the federal deficit -- despite the claims of Tea Party-backed Republicans. But they support programs that do the bulk of the work that most Americans expect from their government -- educating children, caring for the sick, and strengthening communities. They form the basis of the American social contract.

Now, under the false pretense of deficit reduction, that contract is being shredded -- and many non-profits seem unwilling to protect or restore it. What accounts for this passivity -- and what can be done about it?

Non-profit culture is partly responsible. The mission of most non-profits is to provide direct services to people in need, and the idea of stepping into political battles strikes them as an unseemly departure from their real work. Many are also reluctant to criticize the very government that provides them with resources.

Ill-informed lawyers reinforce these beliefs, wrongly advising non-profits that strict laws prohibit them from engaging in advocacy. The philanthropies that fund non-profits often prevent grant recipients from doing anything that might be called "lobbying," even if it's nothing more than contacting or educating elected officials.

High-impact non-profits are testing and proving the very solutions that should inform -- and reform -- broader public policy. But some donors see social programs as fundamentally distinct from social change -- a disconnect that has a chilling effect on providers who need to connect with policymakers.

Behind closed doors, non-profits express hope -- not confidence, but a wish -- that someone else, whether President Obama or the Democrats in Congress, will step in and save the day.

But that could well be a false hope. Indeed, if we fail to let politicians know just how devastating these cuts will be, even our natural political allies will be less likely to take a stand on our behalf.

While we scour the skies, helplessly waiting for Superman, the opposition is bullying us into submission.

But President Obama was right: "We are the ones we've been waiting for."

It is time for America's non-profit sector to take responsibility for its own fate -- and to do so aggressively -- before it's too late. Our inaction creates a vacuum in which the most extreme forces in America can spread their irresponsible ideas.

We may not have started this fight, but we must be the ones to end it.

We must mobilize our supporters, board members, stakeholders, and donors, urging them to call, write and visit their representatives in Congress and to let them know, in concrete terms, what these cuts will mean. Non-profits must also better educate themselves about their legal rights to express these views.

Finally, we need to hold our elected officials accountable for the votes they take and the choices they make. When the Speaker of the House responds to impending job losses with a curt "So be it," you know that political leaders have lost touch with reality. As the people who, every day, fight the tough battles on the ground, we have an obligation to give voice to the voiceless -- to remind politicians that their actions have real, devastating consequences on people's lives.

I've been an advocate for most of my life. I've worked with many incredible organizations that do the hard work that lifts up communities. And I've never felt the sense of urgency I feel now. This is no less than a fight for the principles that define our nation.

We are at a decision point. We can succumb to extremists who would eliminate the bond between government and citizens, and erode the safety net that protects our most vulnerable. Or we can seize this opportunity to fight for the programs that achieve results and improve lives. We can rebuild people's trust in the nation's ability to solve big problems, community by community, person by person.