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Time for Nonprofits to Step Up and Make America Good Again

January 17, 2017

NonprofitsassociationsAlthough many Americans are skeptical of Donald Trump's ability to handle his presidential duties, a majority believe he is competent to be president. Nevertheless, the charitable sector should be concerned about what his presidency could mean for nonprofit organizations — and perhaps democracy itself.

The incoming administration has claimed an electoral mandate based on false assertions of massive voter fraud. In reality, Trump lost the popular vote by more than 2 percent — over 2.9 million votes. And he owes his Electoral College victory to 75,000 votes spread across just three states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

It's important to remember these facts as the country prepares itself for an onslaught of executive orders and regressive policy initiatives likely to come out of the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress. Needless to say, many of those initiatives will belie the core values and progressive goals of the philanthropic community.

We know that a majority of Americans support some of President-elect Trump's proposals, including lower and simpler taxes for the middle class; more spending on infrastructure, the military, and veterans' services; and term limits and new ethics rules for members of Congress (although Congress itself opposes the last two).

We also know that most Americans are opposed to Trump's proposals to lower taxes on high-income Americans, build a wall on the border with Mexico (even before Congress said it would cost taxpayers billions of dollars), and deport illegal immigrants without offering them a pathway to citizenship, as well as his preference for fossil fuels over renewable energy sources.

Furthermore, unlike the president-elect and Congress, most Americans want to see Obamacare improved, not repealed and replaced. They want to see government regulations improved, not weakened or eliminated. And while they believe small businesses pay too much tax, they believe corporations pay too little.

Problematic, too, are many of Trump's appointments, such as putting a fiscal hawk in charge of the budget office, which may give the White House cover to go along with draconian cuts in Medicare and Medicaid pushed by another cabinet nominee, despite Trump's promises on the campaign trail.

What really ought to alarm those who work in the nonprofit sector, however, is Donald Trump's affinity for strongman leaders, an attachment he shares with Russian president Vladimir Putin, a man he greatly admires. Indeed, like Putin, the president-elect is not averse to bullying his opponents, and he encourages such behavior in others. He also has a low tolerance for disagreement and dissent and has little apparent regard for the truth. While, for example, there is agreement in the intelligence community that Putin ordered a multi-faceted effort designed to help Trump win the election, the president-elect seems intent on protecting the Russian president, and himself, by suggesting that his intelligence briefing on the matter determined that those efforts had no effect on the outcome.

The Trump/Putin bromance and their shared affinity for authoritarian leadership pose a real and present danger for nonprofits. Putin has done much to strengthen oligarchy in Russia. Trump, himself a billionaire, has appointed a number of billionaires and individuals with significant wealth to his cabinet, and he seems untroubled by the Republican-controlled Senate's efforts to wrap up confirmation hearings for his nominees before all background checks have been completed.

Moreover, while Trump insists that as president he cannot have any conflicts of interest because he is exempt from ethics laws, he fails to mention or acknowledge other Constitutional dictates, and it is clear that he, his family and his cronies are unlikely to lose sleep over future suggestion of corruption. Just as troubling is the fact that when the head of the Office of Government Ethics declared the president-elect's plan to separate himself from his business empire woefully inadequate, Congressional Republicans called him to a closed-door hearing and threatened to cut funding for the office.

In the weeks and months to come, nonprofit organizations and foundations working to advance the public good are likely to find the president-elect's actions troubling in several ways. Specific policy initiatives that favor the wealthy at no small cost to ordinary people and the environment will create one set of problems. Efforts to privatize government services are likely to create another. And, if Putin's actions are any guide, having an individual in the White House with authoritarian proclivities could well create a third set of problems for the sector — and our democracy.

Indeed, if nonprofit leaders believe that civil society in the U.S. is constitutionally protected in a way its Russian counterpart is not, they should think again. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, in Rust v. Sullivan (1991), that government can restrict the free speech and prohibit actions of any charitable organization it subsidizes, and it has declared tax exemption a subsidy in Regan v. Taxation With Representation of Washington (1983). This gives a President Trump the latitude to bully and intimidate charities if he so chooses.

The charitable sector's efforts to serve people and protect the planet depend in large part on its capacity to encourage empathy and speak truth to power. The choice to remain silent, of keeping a low profile and hoping the bully will focus his attention elsewhere, is a recipe for failure.

Instead, charities must increase their capacity for engagement and advocacy, not run from it. Doing so means learning to operate in ways that eliminate traditional divides. For starters, nonprofit organizations and philanthropy should make it a priority to frame and promote specific policies in ways that everyone can understand and appreciate — and that recognize people's very different realities.

They also must be clear that disagreements over policy are not the result of inherent failings in people, regardless of which side of a controversial issue (or presidential contest) they might take. People, especially those who feel unseen and ignored, need to have their value as individuals affirmed and their agency respected.

The nonprofit community should take a lesson from the successful efforts of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), working in collaboration with other organizations. In the face of congressional Republicans' egregious decision to weaken enforcement of ethics rules meant to rein in lobbyist cronyism, advocacy groups quickly mobilized public action and deluged House members with calls and emails that soon had House leadership working to reverse the ill-considered move even before President-elect Trump could tweet his own displeasure.

For a brief moment, at any rate, the popular outcry seemed to bridge differences between Trump voters, mainstream Republican voters, and those who opposed his election. This was something we all could agree on. And it demonstrated the power of effective organizing and public action when issues are framed in ways that appeal to our sense fairness and the widespread conviction that disrespect, abuse of power, and corruption on the part of the powerful cannot be tolerated in a democracy.

By helping people do the right thing, charities and philanthropy can, as a friend of mine likes to say, make America good again. Beyond fighting for compassionate and sound public policy that benefits all of us, the nonprofit sector must stand up to a self-serving bully whose leadership threatens to further erode public confidence in government and its accountability to voters, not to mention civil society itself.

Headshot_mark_rosenmanMark Rosenman is a professor emeritus at the Union Institute & University. To read more of his posts, click here.

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Posted by David Jacobs  |   January 18, 2017 at 04:49 PM


This is not your best work - it reads as a bit of a primal scream sorry to say. Anyway, not to get too bogged down in the weeds, but I'll simply note a few things that can't be allowed to pass unremarked upon:

"The incoming administration has claimed an electoral mandate based on false assertions of massive voter fraud"

--- Actually the incoming administration claims an electoral mandate based on the fact that they did win an electoral mandate

In reality, Trump lost the popular vote by more than 2 percent — over 2.9 million votes.

--- I'm continually astounded that grown adults act like this means anything. As a professor emeritus you should know quite well the victory condition of a Presidential election is to pile up enough individual states (electoral votes) as opposed to running up the score in California.

And he owes his Electoral College victory to 75,000 votes spread across just three states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

--- Again....so? The Chicago Cubs owed their World Series victory to a handful of runs spread across just 4 games. Does that mean they're NOT World Champs? Please don't say they're not, Cubs fans have suffered enough over the past century. I assume this is rhetoric designed to try to make the victory look less legitimate. Good luck.

The doom and gloom - actually abject panic -on display here is terribly overplayed. Things such as Obamacare and the other policies you herald must have not been nearly as good or popular as you thought over the past 8 years, as shown by the election results. And there's nothing wrong with admitting that.

Charities and philanthropies - even those advocating policies I personally disagree with - are among the best parts of America. And they must continue to do what they're doing, as their efforts are needed and appreciated. What you'll see is that your most dire of predictions will fail to pass. And it will most likely be close to "business as usual" even if policies unpopular in the lounge of the Union Institute are passed and implemented.

As a closing aside "This gives a President Trump the latitude to bully and intimidate charities if he so chooses" made me laugh. I saw precious little outcry compared to what it should've been regarding how the Internal Revenue Service abused their power in regards to certain organizations. Perhaps Pres. Trump can be a teachable moment - if people are suddenly aware and fearful of how a government can bully and abuse their powers when it falls into the "wrong" hands, maybe that's a great case for actually decreasing the amount power wielded by said government???

Posted by Mark Rosenman  |   January 19, 2017 at 10:44 AM

Hi, David. Right off, I do indeed concede that Donald Trump won sufficient electoral votes to claim the formal mandate to become our 45th President, as he will tomorrow. However, my perhaps poorly worded point is that he did not generate sufficient popular support to justify a winner-take-all mentality in aggressive and domineering pursuit of his foreign and domestic policy agenda.

The fact is that national polling (which unlike state polls that proved wrong during the campaign, maintains a fairly accurate reading of the American people) now shows Mr. Trump has a disapproval rating of over 50 percent and is the least popular new President in a generation. I would suggest that a reasonable national leader would heed those data and work to unify us, rather than to rush off to operate as a strongman imposing terribly consequential measures on such a divided people – including your mentioned repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which most Americans reject , especially with the consequences just projected by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Beyond the President-elect’s own well-documented misuse of the Trump Foundation, he has shown no charitable record worthy of great note. His demonstrated mean-spirited propensity to bully those who disagree with him does, however, suggest good reason for philanthropy’s leeriness and concern – although I certainly hope he will operate against pattern and my fears for charities will “fail to pass.”

Finally, I indeed concur with your displeasure with illicit and illegal actions by any government agency, and agree that IRS personnel have had an at-times terrible propensity (going back to the Nixon era) to so act. The way to deal with such matters is not to weaken government agencies, programs and safeguards essential to the public good, but to strengthen the disclosure, accountability, ethics and other oversight agencies that our Republican Congress now seeks to weaken, intimidate and bully, as noted in my post.


Posted by Howard  |   January 25, 2017 at 04:51 PM

I think I agree with the last poster. It's a shame that such a well done blog about a specific topic would veer off on such a political highway. There's really no sense.

I read your blog for fundraising ideas and information only.

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