Thursday, November 15, 2012

Getting the dog back...

I'll get to the dog in a minute (it's not Mitt Romney's dog by the way). Thankfully the 2012 presidential and congressional elections are over. Millions of dollars, words, and volunteer hours have been expended. Our democracy has once again done its job, whether or not you like the outcomes.

The election has prompted this post, which is about politics, politicians and nonprofits. Tip O'Neill, the late Speaker of the House, famously said: "All Politics Is Local." In other words, politicians at their peril ignore local issues and concerns of their constituents. By the same token, nonprofits, at their peril, ignore politicians or "elected officials" - at all levels of government. Too often, once an election is over, the need to be engaged with politicians and the political process fades from consciousness.

The fact is elected officials can have an ongoing impact on the fortunes of nonprofits. There is of course the possibility of legislative funding that, although shrinking, will likely continue to exist in some form or another. There are also issues of policy and regulations at every level of government.. Nationally, as we edge up to the "fiscal cliff," on the negotiating table will be the level of tax deductibility for charitable donations, the existence of federal agencies that directly fund cultural organizations (NEA, NEH), the Public Broadcasting System, etc. At more local and regional levels, are zoning regulations and, as government budgets shrivel, growing scrutiny by cities and counties of nonprofits' property tax exemptions.

I am not going to lay out a grand scheme here but simply to suggest nonprofits should get to know their elected officials and vice versa as soon as possible. There are bound to be new players in the game. Don't get acquainted with them at the cusp of a crisis -that may be too late. Here's an example. Say you have just heard  your county government intends to widen the road that goes by your organization and that you fear that will impede client/audience access to your facility. You call your appropriate county supervisor. You don't want to hear the response: "You' re who, and with what again?"

In mid-career I was actively involved with the political process, as executive director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, then as chief of staff for a U.S. Congressman  and later as Director of Government Affairs for the American Association of Museums. I learned that Tip was right and that politics is also about people (the same can be said about fundraising). 

In the late '80s, there was a big battle in the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee about the Unrelated Business Income Tax, which if changed would have resulted in taxing income of museum shops for example. The big guns rolled in - the Metropolitan Museum of Art et al., some armed with paid lobbyists.  I happened to discover that the lady volunteer president of a small roadside historical society in Texas might be acquainted with Rep. J.J.(Jake) Pickle, the Ways & Means Subcommittee Chairman hearing the issue.  I called her, outlined the situation and she drawled: "Why sure I've known  Jake for years, we were schoolmates, I'll call him - they shouldn't be taxing our postcard sales!"  The taxing matter died. I can't say the "lil 'ol lady" in Texas provided the tipping point, but she certainly helped.

Speaking of Texas, it's time to get back to the dog, At a meeting I attended with a constituent group lobbying then U.S. Rep. Pat Williams of Montana, a great supporter of the arts and humanities, Williams told a story that originated with LBJ. Johnson loved to tell about the sign he'd seen over a storefront in an east Texas town that read: "H.H.Wilson- Veterinary and Taxidermy - 'Either Way You Get Your dog Back.' " The moral was that you might not always get exactly what you want; close might have to be good enough.

Either way it's best if you know your elected officials and they know you. If you don't, start now

Comments always welcome below.