November 5, 2010

Why should nonprofits welcome the Tea Party?

Filed under: Nonprofit, Politics — Tags: , , , , — kgilnack @ 3:39 am

Earlier today I tweeted that the Chronicle of Philanthropy was rightly taking heat for publishing an opinion piece by Leslie Lenkowsky titled Why Philanthropy Should Welcome the Tea Party, but didn’t have a chance to back that up by elaborating with a comment during the day.  As I started catching up and writing this reply tonight, I discovered I had more to say than would even fit in their comments field, because, well, there’s a lot to say about nonprofits, politics, and what little the Tea Party has to offer our sector.

Dissenting or unpopular view points can foster thoughtful debate and dialogue, as @Philanthropy was correct in pointing out when they replied.  However, The Chronicle is also responsible for curating what opinions it chooses to put out on its site — vetting them for the most useful, relevant, and thought provoking ideas (at least IMHO).

I started searching for guidelines that the Chronicle might use in deciding what opinions to publish but could not find any. Even under Submission Guidelines on their Contact Us page I didn’t see any way to submit an opinion piece.  So, all I can do is offer my opinion as to why I think we could have found a better discussion piece…

The crux of the author’s argument seems to be that

“When motivated by a compelling set of issues, it seems that Americans can still put together an impressive campaign, spontaneously, swiftly, and with little professional leadership or guidance … For that reason alone, the philanthropic world should find at least some comfort in the Tea Party’s accomplishments.”

First of all, the compelling set of issues that brings this group together is ambiguous at best, but centered around the notion that we should have smaller government. Yet this basic premise is undermined by the fact that “they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers,” and the movement offers no substance about about what they would cut or why.  Well except anything that might benefit immigrants – pretty sure most of them would get behind that.

The hypocrisy of the movement’s message aside, the author is essentially saying “hey guys, come on, they’re increasing voting and civic participation, so it has to be good…”  One could replace the word “Tea Party” with “KKK” and not really lost much of the core elements of the post’s argument.  It’s a false premise to assume that all campaigns that get people riled up and politically aware are created equal.

Now, I know that by and large, most members of the Tea Party do not identify as racists.  However, between the birthers, the anti-immigrant activists, and isolated instances of violence and hateful rhetoric, this isn’t exactly an inclusive bunch. There’s a reason that Tea Party members “tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.”

I don’t really think the argument as to what extent the Tea Party may be racist is directly relevant to the debate here. I do think that just because you get a group of people together doesn’t inherently make it a good thing, and the author doesn’t seem to care at all about what ideas this group is espousing.

Mr. Lenkowsky even goes as far as saying another potential benefit is that “those with strongly felt concerns will face pressure to reconcile them with the views of others.”  I’m yet to hear of a productive example of someone exchanging ideas with a Tea Party member and making any sort of thoughtful progress toward a common end.

While the Tea Party proports to be anti-incumbent in general, it is only Republican candidates who reap their benefits (well, except for Delaware, Nevada, Mass, Connecticut, and some other places where voters rejected the extreme Tea Party candidates and opted for Democrats).  Again, there’s a reason that “they do not want a third party and say they usually or almost always vote Republican.”

There is a difference, though, between mainstream Republicans and Tea Partiers. “While most Republicans say they are ‘dissatisfied’ with Washington, Tea Party supporters are more likely to classify themselves as “’angry.’”  While the author simply dismisses the role of corporate and private money in the movement, the fact remains that the likes of Sarah Palin, John McCain, RNC operatives, and many large interests have campaigned with and/or helped fund the movement because they know it is in their interests.

I fail to see how this angry, anti-government group is something that the nonprofit sector should embrace.  The types of cuts they would enact – like Ballot Question 3 in Massachusetts this past election – would devastate many nonprofits, particularly the human service agencies providing essential care to the most vulnerable in our community.  Contracts are already underfunded and nearly half of Massachusetts nonprofits are operating at a deficit.  The Tea Party offers nothing that will address these problems, and their anti-tax rhetoric is a direct threat to our sector.

It is time that we took a stand together and reminded our elected officials and the public that it is the role of every member of our society to contribute to fixing the problems that still plague communities.

We do so through our taxes, which then go toward funding our homeless shelters, our recovery programs, our independent living centers, our veteran services, and so many other crucial programs. During tough times with declining revenues it is more important than ever to preserve them

Nonprofits are already struggling under existing contracts and recent cuts and it is not helpful for our sector or the people we serve to embrace a group that would blindly push for further cuts without considering what we will lose. It is not helpful to embrace people who think the Department of Education is a waste of money, or who are in the minority of thinking healthcare reform should be repealed – most people who aren’t satisfied with it wish it had gone farther!

Furthermore, the actual structure of Tea Party organizations and their attitudes toward participating in the 501c-sector as described in Nonprofit Quarterly raises even more alarm. Is it beneficial to have groups parading around and soliciting donations as nonprofits when they don’t even incorporate their rongaizations? One potential saving grace is that hopefully the lack of professionalism in their organization will lead to them being short lived..

If there’s anything that the nonprofit community should do in response to that movement, it is organize ourselves to fight for our sector and more effectively communicate our message to the masses. While the author clearly downplays the role of money in their impact, I wonder how our community could transform America if we had a major “news” network agitating in our favor and the millions that the Koch Brothers and so many others have channeled into the Tea Party.

There are lots of angry mobs that get motivated who I don’t think help our democracy or will advance the cause of nonprofits. And just because they happen to organize and vote does not mean that their ideas have merit or should be welcomed.

And I thought most of this would go without saying, which is why I felt @Philanthropy could provide us with something more thought provoking thank this Tea-Party-Apologetic post.

What are the real lessons to be taken from the Tea Party?  Things we’ve known for a long time, but it’s good to be reminded..

  1. Anger is a great organizing motivator
  2. It is possible to spend 2 years blocking progress, recovery, unemployment benefits, and anything else that might help the country – and still direct people’s anger toward the party that was trying to help the country recover
  3. Nonprofits need to organize and get our message out there
  4. Taxes and government are easy to vilify, and we need to remind people what they provide and what would be lost without them
  5. Everyone, on both sides of the aisle, want to see a better more efficient government. If we can get ahead of that with real suggestions that help get more funding to services, we’ll all be better for it. That might appeal to the Tea Party, but I still suspect that unless those savings yield more money for the wealthier-than-average Tea Partiers.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tracy Tran, Nonprofit Millennial. Nonprofit Millennial said: Why should nonprofits welcome the Tea Party? – by @kgilnack #nmba http://bit.ly/aY3Zi7 […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Why should nonprofits welcome the Tea Party? « (Nonprofits+Politics)2.0 -- Topsy.com — November 5, 2010 @ 4:20 am

  2. You have some valid points. In no ways do I align with the Tea Party, in fact the movement is partly to blame for my growing apathy with the political parties in general. All of that being said, I find it troubling to suggest that “not all participation is created equal.” The flaw in that thinking is that while hateful and divisive assembly and speech alienates groups, limiting or censoring it can have extenuating consequences for all groups.

    I will agree that the Tea Party movement hasn’t put together strong policy papers and isn’t really looking to work across the aisle. Unfortunately, neither have their counterparts, which is partially has led to the anger that created the movement. If this continues over the next two years, there will likely be a backlash towards incumbents on both sides.

    The paradoxical silver lining I see in all of this is that the increase disillusionment among younger voters, moderates and independents will eventually lead to more consensus forming candidates and a decrease in influence of the extremists in the two major parties. We’re slowly building towards this and when that day arrives, I believe we will see more progress on many different issues than we’ve ever seen before.

    I appreciate the continued dialogue on this topic even in my dissent towards some of your arguments.

    Comment by Tim — November 5, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for taking the time to read my comments and respond. I should clarify that I don’t think we should censor speech or ideas even when they are hateful. The point I was trying to make was that just because a particular movement energizes voters, does not mean that it is inherently beneficial, something that civic-participation-minded nonprofits need to embrace, or something that is relevant to readers of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

      In fairness and disclosure, in case it is not already abundantly obvious, I am a partisan – I believe deeply in the Democratic Party and think their platform best reflects many of the interests of the nonprofit sector.

      But, partisanship aside, the concern I have is not with the lack of policy details or the lack of interest in compromise. I do think that Democrats made some effort to work across the aisle, until it became clear that the GOP strategy was say no to everything until the midterms.

      The concern I have is that at its core, the Tea Party movement is about vilifying government and taxes, which is a fairly direct threat toward important funding for critical programs that government contracts with nonprofits to provide. It’s also an attack on funding for the arts, research, conservation, and education.

      All the civic engagement in the world does not counter-balance that risk to nonprofits.

      I appreciate your thoughts as well and hope we keep this dialogue going.

      Comment by kgilnack — November 5, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

  3. Thanks for writing such a detailed response, Mr. Gilnack.

    As I’m sure you know, The Chronicle of Philanthropy has been an independent source of news and opinion about the nonprofit world for more than two decades. Because we are so dedicated to offering an impartial view, unlike others newspapers, we do not run our own editorials at all — but instead open our pages and our Web site to a wide range of viewpoints. You can find many of those points of view on our Opinion page at http://philanthropy.com/section/Opinion/212/ or you can browse recent issues to see the wide range of articles we run.

    In addition to publishing opinion articles from people in and out of the nonprofit world, we also have several longtime columnists. Among our two longest-standing contributors are Pablo Eisenberg, a Georgetown University scholar who founded the Center for Community Change, and Mr. Lenkowsky, who has had a long career as a grant makers, scholar, and, as your commentators noted, a brief stint in the federal government. Those two share very different views of politics, but both care greatly about scrutinizing the nonprofit world and helping people make sense of it by offering new ways to think about issues of importance to everyone committed to advancing the social good.

    The debate this piece has engendered is precisely what we hope to do — stir discussion about important priorities in the nonprofit world. Thanks to you for a thoughtful response and all the others who have contributed to the comments section of the article. Keep ’em coming.

    Stacy Palmer, Editor, The Chronicle of Philanthropy

    Comment by Stacy Palmer — November 5, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    • Ms. Palmer,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to reply to my thoughts on the publication of Mr. Lenkowsky’s opinion piece.

      I do think it is valuable to present a range of opinions, and as you correctly note, the piece in question certainly has fostered a good amount of dialogue, which can be beneficial.

      I wonder, though, to what extent you open your pages? How does The Chronicle go about soliciting its opinion pieces? What criteria, if any, do you use in determining whether or not to post a particular opinion piece?

      There are two issues I have with the Tea Party post. One is the lack of substance to the arguments put forward in general.

      The other is that I’m not sure that responding to this piece was the best use of everyone’s time and thoughtfulness given all of the many significant issues our sector faces. I enjoy a political debate that centers around nonprofits, but am just not sure Mr. Lenkowsky’s piece offers enough substance to be warrant the level of discussion that it generated.

      Nonetheless, thank you very much for taking the time to respond, and for continuing to offer so many useful resources through your publication.

      Comment by kgilnack — November 5, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

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