Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Invisible to Visible – Amplifying the Sector Voice

Let’s try an experiment. Close your eyes and imagine an entire industry – say tourism. Now imagine the kinds of jobs being done. What did you see? Were the jobs being done only by for-profit businesses? Was government involved? How about nonprofits? My guess is that since you are reading a nonprofit newsletter you are likely inclined to see a fuller picture of the way we work in Alaska – one where nonprofits work next to government and for-profits to make our economy work. And yet, while you might know this, I have experienced on too many occasions that when talking about our economy the assumption is different. The line of thinking goes something like this: Growing Alaska’s businesses is good for the economy and, equally true, decreasing the number of nonprofit businesses is preferred. This rationale suggests that it is only for-profits doing the work, having a positive impact, in need of protection, and worth counting. Nonprofit businesses, on the other hand, are scrutinized for their growth both in size and in number and are seen as “takers” in the economy rather than contributing to it. This may not be what you all just imagined, but I am guessing you, too, have experienced this line of thinking.

The fact is that in practically every industry in Alaska, nonprofits are doing the work and contributing to the economy. Healthcare is the leader in this example but there are many others, including tourism. These facts are easily overlooked because most entities monitoring the economy track their measurements by industry (fishing, tourism, healthcare, etc.) and not by each of the three sectors. For example, the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development could discern which sector is doing the work but they don’t publish or speak to data in this way. The result is that the nonprofit sector is rendered invisible and easily dismissed.

So why should you care about this? In a state where our communities depend on our interdependence, this can have real economic impact. Our often quiet, invisible work supports the business community and government infrastructure by caring for Alaskans, providing quality of life that attracts people to work in our communities, accounts for 12% of the workforce, and maximizes revenue by bringing into Alaska federal funding and private philanthropy, along with countless hours of civic engagement through volunteer and board service. All of this is rendered invisible if we look at the published data. The consequences of being invisible can mean that we are either ignored as a positive influence or we are on the losing end of a budgetary battle.

It is not all bad news. I have seen some small glimmers of hope that we are becoming more visible. For example, recently while I was facilitating a meeting on healthcare for seniors, a number of panelists from national, state, and local governments offered effective solutions for our communities. Each example featured a nonprofit working in partnership with a government or for-profit entity. I made a point of highlighting this and the reaction was positive. Equally true at that moment and slightly to my point on being invisible, it was taken for granted that our sector was part of the solution to issues we all care about, like seniors. Another glimmer of hope came when Foraker was invited to a statewide conversation to help the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, and specifically its Division of Economic Development, write their Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies (CEDS). Including Foraker as a representative of the nonprofit sector, alongside government and for-profit businesses, was a first by anyone’s recollection. Still we have a barrier to overcome to be truly effective, and that’s lack of data. We have a little bit and the state departments have a little bit, but none of it is visible enough to have the impact we need for change in the way we see our economy.

While I applaud the small shifts, as we prepare for the long road to make the invisible visible, I need your help.

I need you to seriously consider how public policy can be one of your top five priorities this year. For many organizations this is a new call to action that comes with great apprehension and discomfort. That is understandable because there is often confusion about what we as nonprofits, especially as charitable 501(c)(3) organizations, can and can’t do related to advocacy and lobbying. I believe strongly in the federal rules that limit our activities, and we will certainly be spending more time talking about those rules this year. But I also know that our lack of understanding about the rules has rendered most of our organizations silent. What could become true for all of us is that each of our charitable organizations could spend 5-20% of our time and resources on advocacy. (For details on the percentage for your organization, please contact us.)

Five percent for many of you would be a lot by your current standards. So let’s do it – let’s get started. Our colleague in Seattle who some of you know, Vu Lee at the Rainier Valley Corps, recently challenged every nonprofit to spend a minimum of 10% of their time focused on local, state, or national issues, informing policy makers about the issues that impact their communities. Vu is quick to note in his blog, Nonprofit with Balls:

“I know, none of us have eight minutes to spare each week, must less four hours. But the needs of our communities will increase even as our resources get cut if we do not make time for this. Bring this up at your next board meeting and staff meeting. My organization just spent three hours writing postcards, emailing, and calling local and national public leaders last week. It was fun and easy and a great community-building event. Let’s have more actions like that. Let’s all do at least 10%. (This needs a cool hashtag. #10PercentAdvocacyChallenge)”

Will you rise to Vu’s challenge? What is your next step in helping to make the invisible visible?

Each of us has to start from where we are right now. Don’t worry about comparing yourself to others. Each organization is starting from a different place. Some of you have clear guidelines and policies for engagement, some have board committees devoted to parsing out priorities. For some, this is a brand new conversation. If you need help, let us know. We are ready to support you in the journey. Wherever you are, I encourage you to determine how public policy can increase your ability to do more mission and how it fits into your world view – because it can.

Now imagine taking that advocacy time and positioning your organization to be “for” something just as often as you prepare to be “against” something. Consider the opportunities if you approach public policy differently than we have in the past in more ways than just how much time you spend. Too often, the only time we raise our voices is when we are threatened – with budget cuts or harmful policies, or when they want something, which is usually money. We don’t hear about the contributions the mission is making in people’s lives, or the contributions to the economy that the mission adds. We don’t hear how you are saving money for your state or local governments or how you are continually reinvesting your revenue into our communities, or how you are building a community that is good for our for-profit neighbors. We don’t hear about the issues that impact your work, and we don’t prepare those in power to defend the work for the value is adds to the economy or to the places we live. It’s hard for us to win when decision makers only hear about what we are losing. We certainly need to hear your voice at these times, but we have more to offer as a nonprofit sector focused on the greater good of our communities, and I encourage you to look for opportunities to do that.

To that end, I am committed to amplifying the sector’s voice, and at Foraker we are committed to building the tools and providing the guidance you need to use your voice. In 2017, in addition to the public policy priorities I shared with you in January, we have also drafted some talking points that we invite you to use when working with each other and with local and state policy makers. We’ve included a menu of options so pick the topics that will help with your messages. We also will use our policy alert system more often to keep you updated on ways you can take action on behalf of the sector at a local, state, and national level when our fundamental structure is at risk. We encourage you to sign up for those alerts.

And, I don’t think any of our nonprofits in Alaska or in our country, including Foraker, can accomplish our missions by ourselves. Our missions will and should always be bigger than our institutions. Partnership within our sector and with government and the business community is not just nice, it is essential. So, raising our voice with government and businesses is part of our mission and part of a winning solution. Finding our voice together is an essential step. If we are doing this work alone, I guarantee we will not reach our mission destinations. To that end, we want to work directly with you so we can hear your voice about the issues that affect you. Recently we held a CEO Connect session and listened to the issues you are facing, the coalitions you have formed, and the public policy work in front of you. It was inspiring and we are ready to support your work. We also have other partners in our effort to be the sector’s voice in Alaska. Through the guidance of our board, our public policy committee, and our national partner, the National Council of Nonprofits, we will be actively using our voice on these issues with local, state, and national leaders. We are also ready to get more data. Every three years we examine the sector using a number of sources to better understand our economic impact. We are looking forward to bringing you, the state, and our nation a new understanding of the impact of the sector on Alaska’s economy in 2017. You’ll find our most recent economic report here.

There is so much at stake right now in Alaska and in our nation. We are polarized. We are uncertain. We are scared, angry, hopeful, energized – all at the same time. What we should not be is voiceless. Each of your missions is about improving “the greater good.” Your mission is bigger than a political agenda, bigger than you or me. Your mission is “for” something – for curing a disease, for increased artistic expression, for a healthy environment, or for a positive economic climate. Your mission and values frame your voice to be “for” not just “against” an outcome.

Together, will you commit with me to one simple goal? That is to make the invisible visible so that we can all make better choices in our communities for the benefit of all Alaskans.