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Timothy J. Schmaltz,
ASU Lodestar Center
NMI Instructor /
Nonprofits have a unique character in our society. And it is not just their legal status. This legal status recognizes that nonprofits exist for more than a bottom line. Nonprofits exist for the community.
Most nonprofits don’t think of themselves as a political organization. Yet, nonprofits by their nature are an integral part of any community’s life. Nonprofits fight poverty, provide great venues for art and music, challenge homelessness, help organize civic life, promote the common good and a host of other functions that puts human community and the common good before profits and a narrow band of investors.
Nonprofits have distinctive characteristics such as: focus on mission and community benefit, the work as a calling, a unique satisfaction while making a difference over making money, loyalty and relationships which can create a unique sense of community and cohesiveness among staff, board and volunteers. These special attributes provide a new fertile ground for empowering people being served as a source of great political power.
Nonprofit employees, boards, and volunteers have common goals, shared values, professional interests and motivations for services. This is what keeps them together, not the possibility of profits, or even raises. They share a mission of community service and benefit. In the 21st century, the workplace, especially the nonprofit workplace, takes on a new meaning and cohesiveness. It becomes a community of distinctive interest, of shared values and mission, a voluntary association that has power. It may be un-realized power, but power nevertheless.
Nonprofits are as organized for providing direct services. This will remain, for most, their primary mission. However, within this mission of community service is another mission which can build on the natural elements and cohesiveness of the nonprofit mission. Nonprofits can become the new venues for building political power based on their unique characteristics. But can they see with new visions and embrace new roles within the community?
Nonprofits must help the people they serve find their own voices in the public arena. “Clients” must be seen as people with human dignity, having real power and strengths. People being served must be seen as assets, not just recipients. People being served can bring hope and energy in new ways for the struggle for social justice.
Nonprofits must seize the opportunity to build on natural elements of cohesiveness and self-interest inherent in their setting to build real political, electoral, and legislative power among the people they are privileged to serve. And this can be done entirely within their 501(c)3 status, through issue oriented education, voter registration and voter education, and get out the voter efforts.
Nonprofits must act during this election year as the trusted community messengers they are for the larger community’s benefit and most importantly for the people they serve.
Timothy J. Schmaltz is the coordinator of the Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition, a diverse alliance of social and health agencies, faith-based groups, and community organizations dedicated to protecting and increasing health and human services funding and setting an agenda of tax reform. He is also an instructor for the ASU Lodestar Center’s Nonprofit Management Institute (NMI), where he taught NMI 116 - Press, Power, and Politics.
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