by Liz Moore, MNA Executive Director
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to lead a Roundtable discussion between Senator Jon Tester and twelve nonprofit and philanthropic leaders from around the state. Gathered were individuals representing the arts, environment, disability services, youth, homelessness, hunger, Indian country, economic development, health and mental health. We could easily have added another dozen people and still fallen short of fully covering the range of issues Montana nonprofits address.
Because we had just an hour, each person was under a strict time constraint. He or she had just two minutes, or 260 words, to describe the concern that was utmost in light of the proposed federal budget or policy changes. The result was dramatic and moving. In just 24 minutes, nonprofit leaders articulated what their corner of the world is experiencing. Because MNA’s public policy work is directed more generally toward the wellbeing of the nonprofit sector itself, it was particularly meaningful to me to hear each person describe specifically what really matters in his or her work:
- It matters that Indian country have economic development opportunities through tourism. Their murdered and missing people matter as well.
- It matters that a rural school have an arts program, and that a woman leaving domestic violence have safe shelter and then affordable housing.
- It matters that people with disabilities are waiting for services, and that rural Montana is disproportionately impacted by federal budget cuts.
- It matters that Montana’s most vulnerable youth have someone looking out for them, and that the astronomical prevalence of substance abuse be met with all we’ve got.
- It matters that our streams are cherished for the resource they are, that our infrastructure is strong for the future, and that Main Street is vibrant.
As Senator Tester listened to each leader in the room, he asked questions, made notes, and/or commented on what he was tracking on a given issue. Here are three highlights I took away from his comments:
- Create a more powerful message about what matters. Senator Tester talked about a shift that took place in his understanding of how potential cuts to Medicaid will impact everyday Montanans. He very honestly said, in spite of all the information available, the reports, research, etc., he had held a perception that Medicaid was mostly used by people who just didn’t want to work. And then he was at a meeting where someone talked about the fact that 70% of medicaid recipients are from working households. His understanding of Medicaid underwent a tectonic shift. I understood him to say this: information only goes so far; you have to get better about the message of how this really matters.
- If we want a functional moderate middle in Washington, D.C., strong enough to withstand extremes on either side, we need to tackle campaign finance reform. To put an explanation point on that in a different way, an attendee said in a note to me afterwards, “Nonprofit leaders generally represent populations whose voices are drowned out by the big money in politics or by those in important positions – so their voices rarely get heard.” Money can’t be the voice of democracy. We need to be that voice. It matters.
- This fall, tax reform will be on the table. We’ll be watching to ensure philanthropy is strongly incentivized. This is especially important in a rural state whose foundation funding ranks 47th in the nation. We need all the help we can get. It is incumbent on all of us in the nonprofit sector to watch and weigh in on the significance of charitable giving incentives. MNA will keep you current on what’s happening, but only you can speak to how it matters.
Before Senator Tester left, he and I had a brief exchange about medicaid and mental illness. I told him a story of a family member who lives in a group home and would have no home at all were it not for medicaid; his mental illness makes it such that living with family is impossible. Senator Tester related a similar story about a family who sent their son out of state because living at home wasn’t feasible. And he said, “What if they hadn’t been able to do that? Where would that young man have gone? We’re talking about a human being here.” And I knew it mattered. Thank you Senator Tester.
Let’s each of us double down on finding ways to send our message more powerfully in the weeks and months ahead. Perhaps the exercise of honing it down to 260 words will be as effective for you as it was for those in the room on Tuesday. Here’s what I’m taking with me from the exchange around the table: As nonprofit leaders, we have our hands with which we serve. We have our feet with which we set direction and focus and shift as needed. And we have our voice, which is the instrument we are compelled to use as effectively and persuasively as possible to say, “This matters.” Let’s do it!