2017 State of the Sector

October 1, 2017 / Comments Off on 2017 State of the Sector


 Liz Montana Nonprofit Associationby Liz Moore, MNA Executive Director
Originally presented at the 2017 MNA Annual Conference 

It’s our tradition at the Annual Conference to spend some time on public policy…and very often we bring someone in to help with that. Occasionally someone from the National Council of Nonprofits – sometimes another policy expert of some sort. The last time we were in Missoula – 2013 – we had the privilege of having Rick Cohen here; Rick was a writer for Nonprofit Quarterly, and in many ways, was the voice of the sector. I had just met him and he had this kind of … pessimistic optimism that probably made him a great writer. He did a lunchtime address from a policy perspective and I remember one of the reviews of his session was something like this: “I didn’t love it. But I know we need our vegetables.” And it’s true – in the midst of all we’re doing, paying attention to public policy is kind of like vegetable consumption. Maybe not our first choice but necessary. So…we’re going to have some vegetables for just a few minutes. And I’m very aware I’m the last person standing between you and Vu Le… which means this isn’t just vegetables. It’s like…. Brussel sprouts or rutabaga or something.


I’m going to talk through some policy issues, offer some actionable steps, and a call to action. But I want to start with this premise: We were made for these times. As nonprofits – this is our time.


I talked briefly yesterday morning about the changes that have taken place in the last year. No matter who you are, or what your stripes… for all of us… the world has changed in the last year… year and a half.  There is the sea change in the oval office. Whether you feel good about the change or bad – you can’t deny that tectonic plates have shifted. And then in Montana – we had a surprise election for our lone representative, and that was another change. Our international relationships have changed. The state’s financial picture has changed. So, what is the state of the sector in this context?


In May of this year, MNA sent out a three-minute survey; we wanted to take the temperature of nonprofits in light of conversations about the federal budget and health care reform. We had 88 responses – not a huge amount. But it gave us a picture. And what we heard was “uncertainty.” “Wait and see”, “Instability”. There were rumors of the budget, but nothing set. Rumors about health care reform, but nothing concrete. And this was in the early days of a new administration that was generally much less predictable.  This wasn’t a scientific poll, and the response number was small But the prevailing feeling for the nonprofits who took the survey was a sense of uncertainty.


Since then – there was a proposed budget from the white house – and there were winners and losers. Winners included defense, social security and Medicare, homeland security and others. Losers: environmental protection, anti-poverty programs, Medicaid, national service, the arts, community development and others.


In July 112 of you responded to a one question survey asking about the impact of federal and state budgets on their work. In addition to significant concerns about money, more than half of you included concern about Medicaid cuts not only for your constituents but also for your staff. Not just Medicaid, but access to health care.


Now add to the mix mandated budget cuts at the state level and the probability of major tax reform at the federal level. And complex, divisive conversations about immigration and travel. And of course, there is still the uncertainty around health care reform. We are in tough times.


Obviously, there is also good news…. the rise of the stock market is very positive for employees with retirement plans. And may also increase charitable contributions. There have been increases in giving to certain types of nonprofits such as the ACLU; depending on your mission – you may see the loosening of particular regulations as beneficial. But overall – what we are seeing as “the state of the sector” is nonprofit leaders beginning to officially edge toward panic – “What are we going to do?” It’s not universal: some nonprofits are going forward as usual without a blip. But in most cases – the uncertainty we saw in May has been replaced by deep, urgent, significant concerns that appear to be grounded in reality.


So what does this mean for us? It means we need to each find our course – our path. We need to understand and act on things we can control, rather than agitate and react to things we can’t control.


Here are some suggestions I invite you to consider.

Get grounded.  

From my perspective, the most critical activity nonprofit leaders can engage in right now is a process of re-grounding the organization in its mission. That’s basic. You need your feet to be solidly under you if you expect to move forward. Who are you in the world? What is the unique contribution you’re making. Articulate that as keenly and meaningfully as possible, and then hold onto it. I’m not talking about your formal mission statement; I’m talking about something spicier … livelier.


An example: at MNA, our tagline is to promote a strong nonprofit sector in Montana. But here’s how I see it . We are on the front line of civil society; we are up for the task; it’s our role and our calling. And I wouldn’t miss it. Do you hear the change? Being grounded in the mission in a sharper, more vibrant, more current way can be nurturing all by itself. It can be life-giving and add tremendous resilience and soul to your organization.


(Next) – practice asking a different kind of question. There is a leadership concept called generative thinking – and we include this in our board governance training. Generative thinking is all about asking the questions that help you make sense of a situation, rather than generating strategies.  And we love to jump to strategy…because we’re problem solvers. But it can be helpful to stop and make sense of a situation first. We still need strategy – but let’s start with questions. An example:


The state budget cuts: rather than starting with “what are we going to do?” Ask questions that help you really understand exactly what you’re dealing with before generating solutions.


Here are some examples:

How does this impact our short and long-term operations? Our strategic plan?

What partners should we be talking with about this?

What does this mean specifically for our constituents?

What are we most afraid of and what is the likelihood it will happen?

What other information do we need?


These are “sense-making” questions.  And before we jump to strategy – it’s important we first really understand what we’re strategizing about. It saves time and helps us avoid spaghetti on the wall. And here’s the thing…. When we really understand what we’re dealing with – and what it means – we can respond more calmly. And we’ve all seen the difference between a chaotic, crisis driven reaction, and an informed response. Especially as leaders —- staff leaders and boards —- it’s important to understand this concept of making sense of the situation before deciding what to do about it.


Next – hone your message until it is compelling. This is related to being grounded in the mission – but its the external version of that. A few weeks back nine or ten nonprofits, and three foundations met with Senator Tester. This was a roundtable listening session of one hour. And we had a dozen people in the room, all who wanted to talk about their work. Two things about that meeting. One – each participant was allotted two minutes. 260 words. No more. Each had to figure out what was really worth spending their two minutes on. And they held each other accountable …and it worked. With twelve people… times two minutes… that’s 24 minutes. So we had 36 minutes for the Senator to ask questions, have a dialogue. It was a rich, informative experience because the participants were so disciplined about their message that it made it compelling and memorable.


Second thing about that meeting. Senator Tester commented that almost every person around the table had mentioned Medicaid. And he said this, “You need to get better at your message regarding Medicaid. I had heard it before, but until a few weeks ago I did not understand the significance of Medicaid to working families.” In essence, he had the numbers, the statistics, and had probably even heard the stories. But somehow, the message wasn’t getting through. When he heard up to 70% of Medicaid recipients are part of working families, that got his attention. Knowing what you do and how important it is…is completely different from telling it in a way that hits home with someone. Find the story that sings… and go with it.


Next: Seek ways to increase your organization’s influence in the policy environment. And there are many ways to do that. Meet with legislators once a quarter – or more – not to ask for anything, but to build a relationship and be a resource. Become top of mind to your policy-makers. Increase the influence of your board. It’s important to have different perspectives, different political leanings on a board so that you are associated with a mission, not a party. Understand the rules of lobbying, and participate. Ask board members to participate. It’s hard to gain credibility if you aren’t present…or if you’re only present in the crisis. If you are the one who shows up, and you consistently provide good quality information, and you do your follow up – you will be trusted by both sides. I think about the lobbyists I most respect… they aren’t identified with their party, or their personal pet issues. They are identified as being credible “go-to”s regardless of party or affiliation and that makes them more influential.


Finally – we need to understand who we are as nonprofits in the bigger scheme of things. I was in a meeting earlier this week where one of the participants said twice, “If we want nonprofits to survive, we need to…” and I very gently…I think… made a slight but critical correction. I said, “At MNA, we’re not thinking as much about a nonprofit surviving.” (Hope that doesn’t offend.) We’re thinking about civil society, and the Montana we want to live in and have for our children. It’s not about the nonprofit, it’s about what we want our lives to look like, and the lives of our neighbors, and those who have less.”  I made this point 1) because it’s true. And 2) I was sitting with a group of Montana funders, and I wanted them to hear me say “Nonprofits aren’t asking for money so they survive…they are asking so their communities survive, and thrive.” This is an important difference. Now, at the end of the day are we fighting to keep nonprofits alive? You bet we are. But that’s the means… not the end. And we need to be very clear on the distinction.


You heard me say earlier that MNA is on the frontline of civil society. Actually – every nonprofit in this room is on the front line. It’s why we exist. Every nonprofit is a reflection of the will of the people… we are the ultimate democratic form. I wish someone else would speak as profoundly as Alexis de Tocqueville did…but until then, we have his words describing what we call the nonprofit sector, or the civil sector. In “Democracy in America,” he noted


“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only have they commercial and industrial associations in which they take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give celebrations, to found seminaries, to build inns, raise churches, distribute books, send missionaries; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.”


Look at the Constitution. I carry a copy with me, and have taken to reading it and the Declaration of Independence occasionally. The Constitution starts with “We the People.” And that concept is contained throughout. We represent the very people the Constitution is grounded in. The early versions of nonprofits… voluntary organizations…were catalytic in terms of our country’s fight for independence. The civil rights movement. Women voting. The front line of civil society is our space. We were made for these times.


The right to assemble and petition is a first amendment right. Nonprofits are born of this right…. And we need to remember that. It’s our role. We must occupy it. Be present, clarify issues, advocate. Who else is going to?


Yes – it’s hard. And it’s scary. … I was once working with a leadership coach and was telling her how hard my job was. She said, “You know Liz, you use that phrase a lot. ’It’s hard.’” I was taken back… but she was right. And then she said “So you sing, right? What do you do when a note is high… almost too high.” And without even thinking I said, “I lean in.” This was several years ago, before the phrase was being commonly used. I don’t know how I even knew it…but it was true. And it changed my thinking about things that are challenging. We have some hard times. And the realities of the budget, healthcare, these are difficult and hard realities. And in the face of them…we can only do what we can do. But certainly we shouldn’t do less than that, right? Lean in.


This is our time. We were made for just such a time. So take hope. Take hope in one another. Be strengthened in your resolve. Lock arms with those around you and hold the line. As Pat Hughes said yesterday… run toward the roar.


I need you, my children and grandchildren need you. Our far-flung communities need you; this beautiful and glorious Montana needs us. Our country needs us. Our world needs us. There is so much we can do – especially together. Let’s do it. Thank you, and thank you for being a blessing.