10/31/2012 10:30 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

Why Charities Need to Push Government for a More Meaningful Partnership

In 2010 I conducted a national survey with hundreds of nonprofit organizations throughout the United States. The central area I was seeking to understand was the current relationship that nonprofits have with the federal government and what that relationship could be. When asked, "How would you describe your organization's involvement with the federal government?" the results stated that:

  • 49 percent answered that they had a minimal relationship with the federal government, limited to being registered as a nonprofit organization and/or filing an annual tax report.
  • Almost 27 percent of respondents stated that they had a somewhat involved relationship with the federal government, expanding on the minimal relationship by having periodic dialogues or communications with congressional offices.
  • Just over 17 percent of respondents stated that they had very involved relationships with the federal government, having completed the earlier criteria while also serving in an official capacity with the federal government, whether receiving a federal grant or serving on a federal panel or committee.

With nearly half of nonprofits having a minimal relationship with government, it becomes somewhat obvious as to why the nonprofit sector is the most forgotten ally to government when government is designing important policy aimed at Americans. If we look early into the Obama Administration when significant pieces of legislation were passed (stimulus, health care, etc.), the nonprofit sector was scarcely mentioned or consulted.

More interesting is that up until 2009, the Congressional Research Service had no information about the nonprofit sector, a sector roughly the same size as the manufacturing industry and growing more jobs than any other sector in the United States. Not one elected official had ever asked their research wing for information about a sector largely holding our nation's social safety net together. What this all tells me is that we have a nonprofit sector that has a developing relationship with government with very minimal input yet the federal government does not have any history in looking to the nonprofit sector in moving forward with its efforts.

In turn, I wondered if nonprofit leaders were in tune with how the federal government was involved in the specific areas they were working in. When asking over 150 nonprofit executives throughout the United States, the results stated that:

  • 65 percent responded they somewhat pay attention to the federal government's involvement in the nonprofit sector by periodically expressing concerns and ideas to their elected officials representing them nationally.
  • Thirty eight percent of respondents, the next largest group, answered that they paid minimal attention to the federal government, periodically reading emails and other materials discussing the work of the federal government.
  • The final group outside of non-respondents (7 percent) is the group who closely watches the work of the federal government, taking a leadership role or frequently advocating for areas of the nonprofit sector to their elected officials serving in Washington, D.C.

When just 7 percent of nonprofit executive leaders are closely watching the work of the federal government, maybe the nonprofit sector deserves what it gets. Obviously a heavy majority in the sector would disagree with that. The hard work for the nonprofit sector follows the election next week, where we need to organize and fight for a significant seat at the table equal to those other industries already there. Not doing so is not only bad for the sector but bad for our citizenry in the communities that these nonprofits serve.