Obama Must Mobilize Supporters to Help Nonprofits

Dan Schellman, right, of Jefferson City, Mo., was among AmeriCorps volunteers who assisted emergency workers after flooding in Poplar Bluff, Mo., in March.
Dan Schellman, right, of Jefferson City, Mo., was among AmeriCorps volunteers who assisted emergency workers after flooding in Poplar Bluff, Mo., in March. (By Dan Gill -- Associated Press)
By Paul C. Light
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 28, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama has been very judicious thus far about mobilizing the vast coterie of supporters from his campaign. Generation "O," for Obama, is ready to do its part in putting the country on a more hopeful path.

The question is what Obama should ask of his supporters. Washington already expects 4 million people on the Mall for Obama's inauguration, but what will he say to activate his supporters?

As a dreary Thanksgiving comes and goes, one answer is to mobilize Generation O to help the nation's struggling nonprofit sector. Unlike the automobile industry, whose representatives were ferried to Washington on private jets, the nonprofit industry has yet to show up at all.

This does not mean the nation's 1 million other charitable organizations and their 11 million employees are flourishing. There is already plenty of evidence that the sector is suffering. It is often the first to experience recession as households cut back on discretionary contributions and the last to recover. Of the nearly 1 million nonprofits up and running, as many as 100,000 will fail over the coming six months.

Budgets are tight, hiring freezes are in place, and cutbacks are taking their toll on training, information technology, evaluation and even fundraising. Driven by increasing demand for basic services, many nonprofits are shorting their own employees, who are so deeply committed to their missions that they are willing to take pay cuts to help the needy. They are part of a self-exploiting workforce -- wind it up, and it will take a pay cut.

Obama has made a number of promises that will help the sector indirectly. He wants to expand the AmeriCorps program to 250,000 members. A million might be a better target, especially as part of an economic stimulus package. Full-time AmeriCorps members usually make less than $14,000 a year, but they still spend money.

Obama has also promised to support pending national service legislation, which might also become a vehicle for helping nonprofits as they downsize. Originally drafted by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the bill would recruit 175,000 volunteers who would be paid a modest stipend to encourage states to create Serve America fellowships.

At 300,000 new positions total, these two efforts will certainly help the nonprofit sector cover some of its lost capacity. But with several million jobs at risk, even in the hospitals and universities that are part of the nonprofit community, the two programs will not go far enough to replace the lost capacity. What the nation needs is an emergency program to rescue failing nonprofits while protecting healthy nonprofits from further job freezes and cuts.

Such a program would involve two initiatives. The first would be a loan fund for distressed nonprofits. This program would be administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, which has shown its ability to work with states and nonprofit intermediaries to funnel money into needed activities, including the recruiting, training and deployment of volunteers. With an interest-bearing payback provision, the loan fund would carry minimal taxpayer risk and would be directed to distressed nonprofits that can prove their ability to spend the money to increase effectiveness.

The second initiative would be a call for Generation O to volunteer. This volunteerism cannot be the run-of-the-mill, episodic engagement that increasingly characterizes volunteering in America -- the kind of come-and-go volunteering that rarely helps nonprofits fill vacancies in front-line service jobs. Rather, Obama should call upon his supporters to make durable, year-long commitments to specific high-impact jobs. In addition, Obama should call for a national advertising campaign explaining the nonprofit sector's role in society. One of the reasons the nonprofit sector is not on the favored list is that many Americans simply do not know what it does to help society.

Carefully crafted, an expanded AmeriCorps, national service and the two-pronged rescue would help the nonprofit sector grapple with next year's winnowing. Not all nonprofits will survive the crisis, nor should they, but Obama cannot let the winnowing become a random shooting.

If Obama wants to shore up the safety net as unemployment heads for double digits, he must act soon to help the nonprofit sector. He should mobilize his supporters to push Congress for quick action on this nonprofit agenda as part of his economic stimulus package. The nation cannot afford a massive loss of nonprofit jobs.

Paul C. Light is a professor of public service at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service and author of "The Search for Social Entrepreneurship." He is writing an occasional column on the presidential transition for The Washington Post.

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