The Charitable Sector could be Government’s Best Partner in Creating Prosperity
A Dialogue Among Sector Leaders and Partners
As state budgets have diminished in recent years in Oklahoma and demand for basic services continues to increase year over year, the charitable sector – philanthropists both individual and institutional along with partnering charitable nonprofit organizations – have sought to mitigate community deterioration through targeted investments. In the past three years alone, three-quarters of nonprofits in Oklahoma have seen dramatic increases in demand for basic services, echoing a national trend. However, this came at a time when one of Oklahoma’s most important industries (oil and gas) saw enormous declines in revenues along with state budget shortfalls that have cut agencies dramatically. This perfect storm of funding cuts for the sector coupled with the increased needs of Oklahomans has created an unsustainable situation for charities and philanthropists.
Recently, the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits gathered local nonprofit, philanthropic and legislative leaders for conversations that mirrored community dialogues happening at the federal level. Mimicking a questionnaire developed by Independent Sector in 2016, the Center convened groups over the past three months to answer just three questions, asking them to reach consensus on the charitable sector’s assets, actions the sector can commit to taking to address state challenges, and commitments from state government that enable nonprofits to adequately and effectively do the work necessary to improve communities. Leaders convened represented a wide swath of sub-sectors, including human services, healthcare, arts and humanities, self-sufficiency, community-improvement, education, private foundations, corporate funders, individual philanthropists and other experts.
Of the findings, the following consensus emerged from the various conversations. This summation indicates a real willingness from the charitable sector to become more engaged in the advocacy and policy making process, and we hope that stakeholders on all sides can collaborate to improve our state’s situation.
Our Assets Make us Unique!
The charitable sector can bring a number of its assets to the table as we promote positive change in communities. These attributes are unique to the sector and point to flexibility and entrepreneurial spirit that will be a powerful resource for policy makers, donors and the public.
The sector provides an influential perspective and deep understanding of constituent needs in the community. As nonprofits are embedded in cities, towns and rural areas, they provide an important voice for the issues faced among diverse groups. They understand the critical economic needs of their respective communities along with both the hardships suffered within those areas and the success stories. Policy makers can obtain a better grasp of what is happening on the ground thanks to the philanthropists who invest in their communities and the nonprofit agencies and organizations that serve them.
Nonprofits and philanthropists, particularly institutional philanthropy, provide unparalleled expertise in not only identification and diagnosis of various community issues but in the routine use of evidence-based and emerging practices to provide solutions that create lasting change. Moreover, this data-informed expertise is backed up by highly trained staff and volunteers who can mitigate negative issues or provide proven solutions based on their deep understanding of the problems. They have proven effectiveness in filling the widening gaps between government funding and the increased community need. Best of all, nonprofit employees, board members, funders and other community leaders can be an expert resource for policy makers to provide necessary testimony on issues as varied as educational outcomes measurement, health outcomes or economic impact. They also can share a unique view of various populations – urban vs. rural; early childhood; aging; the disabled; people living in poverty; etc.
Because the sector has a hopeful vision for a positive future, there has been a focus on innovation in both service delivery and outcomes tracking. The charitable sector has shifted to a greater focus on partnership: philanthropists and nonprofits working together to solve complex problems through thoughtful solutions. Philanthropy has focused greater energy on funding pilot projects and initiatives that are creative with better outcomes rather than continuing investments into programs that do not provide community impact. Furthermore, nonprofits have developed solutions from out-of-the-box thinking that reach more people, provide greater access to diverse services and have higher levels of community impact. Because of this innovation, there is an inherent entrepreneurial spirit shared by philanthropists and nonprofits that can transcend old methods that were less effective and efficient.
Most importantly, the sector’s greatest asset might be its flexibility. Unlike the bureaucracy of government, nonprofits can be more nimble and responsive to community changes. They have access to human capital – both in staff and volunteerism – that can also provide them with the ability to pivot in response to community challenges. With their perspective, expertise and innovation, nonprofits can apply this flexibility to answer calls that range from minute changes in health outcomes to major disasters. This flexibility, along with the sector’s passion for the people they serve, will benefit government as it seeks to invest in a leaner and more efficient charitable sector.
Our Commitment to Excellence and Transparency
We can also commit to a number of actions to ensure our communities can thrive. We are hopeful that these actions help our donors continue to engage and invest and that our policy makers understand the value and uniqueness of the charitable sector.
TELL THE STORIES
Nonprofits are committed to the people they serve, and they are the perfect partners to tell the stories of their missions and programs. The charitable sector has long provided an important platform for those who are underserved to have a greater voice, to help Americans understand the plight and suffering of those that could be our neighbors and family members, and the economic impact of nonprofit services and charitable investments. These stories are bold, and we will encourage the sector to tell those stories to reach not just donors and policy makers, but the public at large. We can have a better civic dialogue and discourse in America when we are honest about our challenges and can speak candidly about issues and solutions that improve communities. This, in turn, develops a more empathetic and informed public.
The charitable sector, just as the academic or business sectors, can provide data, outcomes, measurements and evidence of its effectiveness at solving community problems. More importantly, it can share this data with policy makers and the public in a meaningful way, not only proving efficacy but also the efficiencies created when the sector collaborates together with various investments and programs. Additionally, this evidence can help support new initiatives or improved programs that save money and have greater impact over time. Finally, this unbiased data can help better educate the community on the bigger issues we face and hopefully reduce demand for services into the future.
The charitable sector has worked very hard in the past decade to show excellence in not only programming but in efficiency, effectiveness, transparency, board governance and operations. The sector will continue to demonstrate that excellence by maintaining policies that scrutinize conflicts of interest, both real and perceived, promote transparency within the workplace and with the public, develop and utilize best practices, evaluate efficacy of programs to increase positive outcomes and impact, and educate the public on the value of the sector.
Most importantly, the sector will continue to be accountable to donors, stakeholders, the people we serve, our board members and the public. We will appropriately steward and accurately report outcomes of investments. We will adhere to codes of ethics, both external and internal. We will partner and collaborate with others to demonstrate greater accountability to our missions. Furthermore, we will embrace the highest levels of professionalism to ensure that our contributors, policy makers and the people we serve continue to maintain the trust enshrined in decades of work with the nonprofit sector.
We Can Work in Partnership with the Right Investments
However, to do this incredibly important work, we need policy makers to commit to a number of actions to strengthen the sector, collaborate with nonprofits, understand the role and limitations of philanthropy and address challenges together. By understanding that government actions have consequences that ripple throughout the charitable sector, as partners we can work for a greater synergy among all stakeholders.
INVEST IN CORE SERVICES
Government must invest in core services to ensure every Oklahoman and every American has access to an education that will prepare them for the workforce, healthcare services that will maintain a high standard of living, human services that help those who need it most, infrastructure that promotes economic prosperity, and a public safety system that promotes prevention, rehabilitation and equity of treatment for all citizens. The charitable sector has for many decades replaced core services for individuals, but it cannot possibly fill every gap. Only through investments to these areas can we effectively partner with government to ensure each and every citizen can reach his or her fullest potential.
A SEAT AT THE TABLE
Government can look to nonprofits and the charitable sector as valuable resources, but we must have a seat at the table in decision-making. As we employ nearly 10% of the nation’s workforce and account for 5.3% of the nation’s GDP, the sector seems to be left out of much of the conversation, particularly when it comes to funding of core services and how that affects the work of nonprofits and philanthropy. By ensuring a voice in building consensus for smart, effective decision-making, the public-private partnerships created by government working with the charitable sector could have greater efficacy and synergy.
UTILIZE OUR RESEARCH AND EXPERTISE
By partnering with the charitable sector, government would have access to a strong bank of human, social and intellectual capital. The expertise within the sector, coupled with the independent, unbiased research available from nonprofits and philanthropists, can help government tackle community issues with the right data, better methodology and greater use of evidence-based and emerging practices. This data shows that investment on the front end yields enormous cost savings for government along with economic impact for communities down the road.
RECOGNIZE OUR CAPACITY
Most importantly, the charitable sector needs policy makers to have a more explicit understanding of our capacity. While the sector employs some of the nation’s best experts, our funding is limited to the capacity of our donors and government partners. The sector simply cannot cover all of the gaps left behind by continued government cuts. By preserving policies that promote charitable giving, adequately funding core services, contracting with nonprofits that enable them to cover all costs, and understanding that our safety net is heavily dependent upon visionary investment, government can help nonprofits thrive with their limited capacities. This partnership will work best if government can work to shift the burden away from a sector that is already crippled with increased demand and fewer resources. Instead, we should work together to promote greater reach, access and impact with the proper investments that ensure the prosperity of every citizen.
For more information about these community dialogues, please contact:
Daniel Billingsley, Vice President of External Affairs
The Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits
720 W. Wilshire Suite 115
Oklahoma City, OK 73116