Nonprofit Leaders Reply -- No Power in Sight

01/10/2011 11:27 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So I sent the post on Chicago's nonprofits and the opportunity to impact the 2011 Mayoral election to a number of local nonprofit leaders and scholars.

At the same time this conversation is taking place, the Illinois House punted on a move to increase the Illinois state income tax.

Right now, Illinois is at the bottom of the list of regressive state systems. Meaning we here in the Land of Lincoln tax the poor at higher effective rates than we tax the rich -- surprise.

So, not only does the corrupt and incompetent state government run up huge deficits and end up not paying billions of dollars owed to the state's nonprofits, but our decades-old inability to fix our regressive tax system has systematically and brutally raped the poorest among us.

So I repeat, will Chicago and Illinois' nonprofit and social service agencies suck it up and get into the political power game with some zest, smarts and intentionality?

Here is a bit of the responses I received from an earlier post I wrote:

From the Chicago Jobs Council:

The Chicago Jobs Council (CJC) is a 30 year old non-profit organization that works to ensure access to employment and career advancement opportunities for people in poverty. CJC welcomes the opportunity to provide candidates across the political spectrum with input on important policies that impact low income workers and their families. We recently issued recommendations to all of the candidates for Mayor that call for the next Mayor to prioritize individuals, communities, and systems reform in order for Chicago to remain a regional and national leader in workforce development.

Here's my reply:

I read your three page document, "Workforce Development for Chicago." It's VERY dense and hard to read. I teach classes on this stuff and I can't figure out what you want. Can you boil it down to 1 page with 5 bullet points - what, exactly, do you want the new mayor to sign up for. Give us some specific programs and names some DOLLAR AMOUNTS for those programs. This is so vague that people can endorse it and we'll NEVER know if they acted on it or not.

People - this is weak tea is EXACTLY the problem I'm trying to highlight. Whatever mojo or power the Chicago Jobs Council MIGHT have will be squandered if it doesn't make specific demands and have some mechanisms for communicating them to the general public and their constituents AND have some way to HURT the candidates who blow them off. Rest assured, they will be blown off.

From Prof. Donald Haider, Professor of Management & Strategy and Professor of Social Enterprise, Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management:

Interesting idea. And one thing we know about nonprofit community is that they are diverse, fragmented, comes in all flavors and sizes. Each sectors/subsector has its own professional or advocacy agenda--education, social services, health, arts, environment, community development, etc. What they have in common is their tax status--501©3, their need for resources, various dependencies upon government funding, and that most deal in intangibles seeking to change people's behavior or existing condition. The Independent Sector serves as a cross cutting umbrella and national lobby for charitable, volunteers and philanthropist/funders. There are others but none really at Chicago level. The fact is that as governments continue going through "resets" of what they can afford to do and what they are obligated to do, more traditional shared services and activities will be outsourced/devolved/delegated in absentia to nonprofits. This unraveling has just begun and with end of stimulus support, it will accelerate. This provides an opportunity for a new dialogue among public officials with nonprofit leaders. Am not sure elections are the best mechanism for generating this, but can be a beginning.

My reply:

Professor, thanks for the reply. It may be that government seeks to shed services and obligations - which is a political outcome that should be challenged. It may be that some of these services fall to nonprofits. Will they be paid to take on new obligations? I see two disturbing trends over the last decade or so - one is the push to privatize public assets and hand over entities and services once thought to be the domain of the public sector - trash collection, roads, bridges and parking meters - to the private sector in a series of non-transparent sweetheart deals that screw the taxpayers. That has certainly happened in Chicago.

There was no public debate on the push to privatize here. I helped organize Protect Our Parks to stop one small but very significant secret deal. I helped organize No Games Chicago to stop another massive land grab and privatization deal. The other trend is what I call "publicization" - the opposite of privatization. This is where government seeks funding from the private and foundation sector to operate elements of government. I've counted over ten entities here that are sucking corporate and foundation funding as well as individual contributions to operate Chicago programs. These include foundations for the public library, the Cultural Center, Millennium Park, Buckingham Foundation, Gallery 37 and AfterSchool Matters, the Department of Aging, The Chicago Park District and the Garfield Park Conservatory. There's even a private foundation for the entrances to the highways that keeps them policed and groomed.

What's next, a grant from the Chicago Community Trust to purchase a street sweeper or the MacArthur Foundation paving our streets? This is above and beyond the hundreds of parents groups that surround our public schools and tax themselves millions of dollars annually to supplement the miserable state of funding for our schools - which works great if your community is affluent (as is mine, I served on the LSC for the Lincoln Elementary School which has four separate nonprofits circling it, raising over $100,000 every year). Is the nonprofit community to stand by and watch this unfold without comment or action? You see, that's the point - we react and do not propose. Is that the fate of the nonprofit world - to pick up after the sins of omission and commission from the government and business sectors?

From Judith Gethner, Director, Illinois Partners for Human Service::

Tom, thank you for reaching out! Illinois Partners' 600 members statewide believe that when the public understands the important role that a service provides a community, their elected representatives respond. All of the Mayoral candidates are likely to be supportive of human services. Our role will be to put them in touch with constituents across the region who can convince them to join our campaign for improved service delivery and appropriate funding.

My reply:

You can't be serious. How will we, the public, "understand" the role that nonprofits and service agencies provide? What will they do with this understanding? We will make calls and send emails, right? Perhaps we'll go to Springfield for a few hours? How many times have we done this over the past twenty years? It's all very tenuous. What specific goals does your organization have? For example - increase the spending on education per pupil from X to Y? Or, increase number of Head Start slots from Y to Z by date certain? Or increase funding for teen age offenders in the community to X? What happens if the representatives don't get the message and, say, blunder through another legislative session borrowing and passing the buck on the serious decisions that need to be made? What happens if the candidates for mayor say that with a $600 million hole facing the city that we all need to sacrifice? Where is the push back, that for example, might occur if anyone could add up the cost of corruption in local and state government? How insistent are you and your organization prepared to be?

So, dear readers, I remain stuck on this topic and will continue to develop it for The Huffington Post and other fourms.