By Ruth McCambridge
“If not us, who?”
This was the question posed by one delegate to the recent Nonprofit Congress who spoke passionately about the unique role of nonprofits in creating change through citizen action.
Of the three main priorities chosen by the congress, “advocacy and grassroots community activities” is the one that constitutes its most powerful rallying cry because it most speaks to core purpose.
It could be a powerful leverage for the other two priorities — organizational effectiveness and public awareness — especially if grassroots activities and advocacy do not get uncoupled from one another as they too often have in the recent past.
One Louisiana delegate to the congress, Wilfret McGee of Total Community Action in New Orleans, saw these two realms of activity as inextricably linked.
“Nonprofits have to focus on grassroots mobilizing and think clearly about how our advocacy activities can be assured to act in the best interests of the people we serve,” he said. “There is too much at stake. We have to focus on citizen participation.”
Valerie Keller of the Outreach Center in Lafayette Louisiana concurred.
“Problems must be identified at the community level and plans laid at that level and then taken into an advocacy agenda,” she said. “What we lack are the skills or the commitment or both to do grassroots mobilization to scale.”
ADVOCACY OVER ORGANIZING
But most of the delegates appeared to be far more comfortable discussing advocacy than organizing – too familiar and potentially a fatal flaw for any plan to revitalize nonprofit standing in the crafting of the future.
Organizing is hard work and humbling.
Is it too cynical to wonder if they had separated advocacy from grassroots community activities that the latter might not have made the priority cut?
Some attendees, however, were sincerely committed to the potential of this convening to promote a recommitment to grassroots activities: “It’s obvious that in the South we have to mobilize and revolutionize to turn things around,” exhorted a delegate from Memphis.
What exactly this means in actions taken over the next few years is anyone’s guess but here are some of the substantive issues related to social change that came up at many of the tables I sat in on during the first day:
First and foremost at one table after another, I heard delegates mention the living wage.
After that came universal health care, universal access to early child education, and free or very affordable secondary education.
At the first table where I heard this constellation of concerns come up, I also heard: “But how we confront it matters.”
In the same way that the congress reached down to its core constituency through the state associations that are its institutional members, nonprofits need to reach out to the people they are set up to benefit, including them and engaging them in activities of consequence.
A living-wage campaign supported by a large proportion of the sector would be a phenomenal show of strength and such national efforts are possible as we know from watching the nonprofit-fueled “Yes Campaign” unfold in Northern Ireland, resulting finally in the historic Good Friday Agreement.
But we must keep in mind that nonprofits are diverse, even more diverse still than the representation at this first congress.
Pulling together willful, visionary networks with non-partisan political interests in common will build local power and prestige and will bring local power to bear on national issues, but some groups will stand out on critical issues like the living wage while others make it happen. That’s the way it will work.
Creating large communities from collections of local nonprofits who have each established a base of engaged citizens will work to make us powerful but there will likely never be one unifying set of issues for us all.
Still, a unified understanding of the unique role of nonprofits as venues for citizen action is what makes them – even as the richly disorganized mass that they are – organizable, and therefore potentially powerful and effective.
Ruth McCambridge is editor-in-chief of The Nonprofit Quarterly in Boston.