It’s three weeks since the election, and the impact is still raw. The traumatic campaign season, which was supposed to end November 8, will instead morph into an unscripted chapter in American history. Nonprofits will be affected profoundly, and few have prepared for impending changes. What can we expect?
In truth, no crystal ball can accurately predict what will happen in the public sphere over the coming months and years. But we can deduce several themes likely to impact the nonprofit world, should they be fulfilled. Here are my top 5:
1. Health sector changes will affect millions.
Trump prominently criticized the Affordable Care Act and promised to eliminate it. He now has a Republic-dominated Congress even more willing to do this. We should assume major changes are coming to the health insurance system. Given that neither Trump nor Congressional leaders have offered specifics, we don’t know what the changes will be, but a rollback of access to care for millions of low-income and middle-class households is one likely result. This would have far-reaching impact on public health and social service needs.
While the ACA will receive much media attention, a greater danger may be the potential privatization of Medicare, from an entitlement to some form of a voucher program. House Speaker Paul Ryan first proposed this concept in 2012, and is now positioned to act. While the ultimate effects are unknown, disruption of health care for even a fraction of the country’s nearly 50 million seniors could have broad and similarly long-lasting ripple effects. Either change could push millions of Americans into poverty.
Nonprofits working in the health and human service realm can anticipate new and large service demands. But there are also opportunities – private funding priorities often shift in opposition to federal policy trends.
2. Environmental impacts, short- and long-term, could be huge.
While healthcare changes will affect people systemically, environmental impacts of a Trump presidency could happen on a global level. Trump has not accepted the validity of established climate science, has threatened to pull out of – and effectively destroy – the Paris Climate Accord, and has hinted at alarming environmental policies, ranging from likely wholesale elimination of regulations on industry, to a return to a coal-based energy system, to transferring protected public lands to developers and other private uses. With a Republican Congress, environmental groups may face public policy challenges unprecedented in the last 50 years, with harm to humans, wildlife and the planet lasting much longer than that.
3. Community fabric is fragile, and nonprofits need to respond.
Much has been written about the “normalization” of ethnic-, religious- and race-based demagoguery and intimidation, as well as proposed policies that derive from fears and scapegoating. Then there’s apparent validation (or at least acceptance) of sexually demeaning language, and even assault, as routine behaviors. Trump’s immigration policies, the cornerstone of his campaign, could tear families apart and inflame tensions. Time will tell if all this is a blip or a trend, but initial evidence suggests that hate crimes and harassment incidents have increased since the election.
Many nonprofits have the mission of building community, and your jobs have become much harder. Messages of tolerance and promotion of inter-cultural support and cooperation are more critical to civil society than at any time since the ‘60s. We have a much more extensive nonprofit sector now, and by adapting to circumstances, advocacy, education and community organizations can be a force for change.
4. Social justice and “identity politics” must evolve quickly.
The national electoral map conveys deep divisions between Americans. Though the red/blue split has, to an extent, been overstated by the media, county-by-county results and exit polls suggest significant divides along the lines of income class (upper and lower vs. working), geography (urban vs. exurban and rural, and coastal vs. inland), and political culture (liberal versus conservative). While race and ethnicity clearly still divide Americans, the country’s major division is between white people with vastly different lives and world views. This turns the current theme of social justice within nonprofit organizations (including diversity, inclusion and equity, largely focused on racial differences) on its head. The election results point to a need for reconciliation and communication within the spectrum of white folks.
As a strategy for building a coalition, focusing on subgroup identities (black, Hispanic, LGBT, etc.) failed for the national Democrats. It may fail in the nonprofit sector as well if we ignore the largest cultural group in the U.S. Working class whites are relatively invisible in outreach efforts, and typically excluded from efforts to promote social justice. Further, this more conservative population is out of synch with underlying value assumptions. Unless social justice work takes on a color-blind and more flexible value-based approach, the gap could continue to grow. Nonprofits can either move toward inclusion of this group, or be part of the great divide.
5. Beware of potential disruptions to the economy and your revenue sources.
Trump has proposed policies that could, according to prevailing economic analysis, promote inflation, unemployment and/or stock market instability. These policies include termination of longstanding trade deals, imposition of high tariffs on imports, withdrawal from defense cooperation structures, mass deportations of productive workers, and jolting the federal budget deficit upward through large tax breaks to the rich. To round this out, I’ll also add the likelihood of deep budget cuts to departments such as HUD, HHS, Interior and Education by the GOP-led Congress. These effects may take years to develop, but once dominoes start falling, they could affect the sector well beyond this administration's term of office.
This category poses the greatest direct danger to nonprofit organizations, because economic disruptions will not only impact the need for services, but also the ability to raise funds. A new recession, should it come, will hit all major revenue types – program fees, government contracts, foundation grants and individual giving.
Sorry I can’t be the bearer of more comforting news. But better not to be lulled into a sense of normalcy, when we really have no basis for assuming life as we knew it will continue.
However, I can address a practical question: What can nonprofits do to prepare and act?
- Be proactive.
Don’t panic. But, just as importantly, don’t wait to respond. There’s plenty each of us can do to prepare. Use the opportunity to revise your communication plan, engage your clients and donors, and imagine what programmatic changes are possible to address emerging challenges. Get input from your partners. These conversations will energize them and you.
- Focus on scale, capacity and resilience.
Organizations are never static, least of all during times of turmoil. Your organization will evolve, and you can help guide this evolution.
What changes will better equip you to increase your scale of operations and stay in tune with emerging needs?
What are your current capacity limitations, and what upgrades can ease them?
What are your business model’s strengths and weaknesses?
Most importantly, what’s your strategy and plan of action?
The old strategic plan may, effectively, be history now, but you can take specific steps based on what we can foresee with some degree of confidence. Smart strategy and disciplined action distinguish the best nonprofits. Be one of them!
- Move advocacy to the front burner.
Many nonprofits are reluctant to engage in public policy advocacy, some under the mistaken assumption that this will jeopardize their tax-exempt status. In fact, the IRS has guidelines, which are quite flexible in allowing 501(c)(3) organizations to advocate – particularly if they are educating the public or elected officials, and if they engage volunteers as part of this effort. (There are substantiality and expenditure tests.) Every nonprofit should be involved in advocacy on the issues that affect you, your clients and your community. You can be the conduit for their voices, and it does make a difference. Advocacy is most effective when done in concert with peers, and when tapping into local communities. This is the time to step it up.
Finally, keep the faith. As the ancient phrase goes, this too shall pass. If we, collectively, stay engaged and elevate our game, we’ll be standing when it does.