I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature and value of nonprofit work, especially in our current chaotic national climate.
It’s good to remember right now what a nonprofit actually is: a tax-exempt organization that serves the public interest, with a defined purpose that is charitable, educational, scientific, religious or literary. It’s about doing meaningful work that makes a difference in people’s lives.
Here’s what nonprofits can do:
- Provide essential services and support locally or nationally for people of all ages, incomes, and backgrounds
- Exercise prudent fiscal management, using budget surpluses to improve and expand your services
- Provide education about and advocate for legislation and causes that are consonant with your mission – this is not only legal but some of our country's most important social gains have been won through nonprofit policy work including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (blood alcohol limits), the ACLU (discriminatory hiring practices) and Communities for a Better Environment (air quality standards)
Here’s what a nonprofit legally cannot do:
- Operate for the benefit of private interests or individuals
- Participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates
- Use substantial amounts of your resources on lobbying (though the IRS is quite vague about what that actually means)
Here are a few things you should do:
- Go back and read your mission – this is the cornerstone of your work, and I’m always amazed how many nonprofit volunteers and staff members have no idea what it is
- Continue building, assessing, and strengthening your programs and your outreach in support of your core mission
- Establish a policy that sets guidelines to determine if, how, why, and when you would choose to advocate publicly
- Speak out to your community, to your representatives, and to your local media outlets on issues that affect your constituents and connect to your mission
I founded a small town community center in 1971, back in that period of tremendous naïve idealism and hope and rebellion against the norm. I wanted to create community through music and dance; I wanted to bring people of all ages and backgrounds together. I wanted to do my part in this small microcosm to make the world a better place.
The bottom line: we all do this work because we want to make the world a better place (we certainly don’t do it for the money or the perks). I’m grateful for all the years I have spent in the nonprofit world. And I’m grateful for all the many nonprofits out there that are fighting the good fight right now.