This article was written MCN public policy director Marie Ellis and originally published in the Summer 2022 special legislative issue of Nonprofit News. Read the full issue.
A lesson I’ve learned working in public policy is that optics matter. What’s true and what the public perceives to be true can be very different, and it’s to our own detriment if we refuse to recognize those false perceptions.
What’s true is that the vast majority of nonprofits in Minnesota are scrupulous in following laws, complying with oversight requirements, and acting ethically.
That isn’t always what the public perceives, unfortunately. When there is news that a nonprofit employee has allegedly committed fraud or otherwise acted unethically, people who already are distrustful of nonprofits feel that their opinion is validated, and people who are trustful of nonprofits in general lose a bit of that trust.
Our sector might be a bit odd in that we welcome appropriate oversight of ourselves. Nonprofits rely on trust, from donors, communities, and government, and complying with regulations is one way to earn trust.
In response to a specific instance of alleged fraud at a nonprofit in the news, individuals and elected officials call for more government oversight of every nonprofit organization; this is like trying to heal a sliver with a full-body cast. What we should be doing is figuring out where the sliver came from and sanding down that wood. In other words, tightening whatever oversight allowed that specific fraud to occur.
A few legislators proposed a full-body cast of new nonprofit oversight measures in the 2022 legislative session, that, if they had passed, would: impose a compensation cap on all nonprofit staff tied to the Governor’s salary (currently $127,000), mandate that a nonprofit be in existence for at least two years before being eligible to receive any state grant, prohibit state agency employees and state and local elected officials from serving on nonprofit boards of directors, and require additional specific information in state grant applications and reporting. (Note that this legislation did NOT become law. Read our article on the legislation for all the juicy details.
) These proposals did not become law in large part because of the advocacy work of nonprofits across the state, advocacy partner organizations like the Minnesota Council on Foundations, and strong, detailed, timely advocacy by MCN.
Unfortunately, new oversight proposals like this come up pretty regularly at the state capitol, and it’s necessary that our sector is ready and able to respond when they do. You can help!
In fact, we NEED you to help! As much as MCN worked against the 2022 proposal, we didn’t get strong traction until nonprofits around the state connected with their decision-makers. (Shout out to the Living At Home Network for their incredible advocacy on that legislation specifically!)
Get to know your legislators and other elected officials. Invite them to your site or converse virtually. Let them know about the communities you work with, the biggest challenges you have, and some of the ways your organization positively impacts the people in your district. Approach these meetings knowing that you are doing the elected official a service by educating them about what’s happening in their districts.
Specifically, find opportunities to talk with your elected officials about outcomes. There’s a pervasive misunderstanding at the legislature that nonprofits should be able to track our outcomes easily and in very detailed ways. There are no easy ways to measure the deep and long-term impact of a nonprofit’s work. Our missions tend to be about broad social change, tackling issues and disparities that can’t be solved from one angle.
Nonprofits are expected to report on a deep level of outcomes – often outcomes that won’t happen until long after the money from the government contract has been expended. Legislators MCN worked with in 2022 shared frustration that nonprofits don’t supply specific numbers on the impact of state contract funds. Mind you, those nonprofits could report on how the funds were spent, but not on the exact impact those funds had on the community.
To all the evaluation teams, grant report writers, and everyone trying to quantify the unquantifiable: we see you! MCN will continue to educate lawmakers on the big picture of nonprofit reporting challenges and why specific metrics often don’t show the breadth of an organization’s impact.
The only way to combat incorrect optics is to get the right information to the right people.
Government oversight is important, and the only way for that oversight to be appropriate for our work is for elected officials to understand the work you all do.