Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nonprofits are Good for New Mexico

By Ona Porter

Following the close of the 2008 legislative session, and in preparation for a special legislative session on health care, New Mexico Youth Organized (NMYO) and Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) distributed mailers to the constituents of six legislators. The mailers informed constituents about how their legislators were voting on critical issues and provided information about the source of contributions their legislators were receiving from special interests. Believing this to be political campaign intervention, Secretary Mary Herrera, acting on the advice of Attorney General Gary King, ordered the nonprofits to register as political action committees (PACs). A lawsuit disputing the claim quickly followed.

Recently, Judge Judith Herrera issued an important federal court decision in this closely watched case. In her decision, Judge Herrera sided with decades of legal precedent, and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Free speech is a value that all of us hold sacred. The implications of having nonprofits, whose primary purpose is not the election or defeat of candidates, register as PACs for simply speaking out about an issue are chilling. If nonprofits were forced to register as PACs, it would severely restrict the ability of thousands of organizations across New Mexico to serve their communities. Perhaps most importantly, it would leave critical voices unheard.

Most people are familiar with the services that nonprofit organizations provide to vulnerable people throughout our state. But the work of nonprofits often goes beyond service provision and extends to advocacy. If a family is homeless, it’s important to provide that family with shelter. At the same time, we must address the causes of homelessness if there is any hope for an America where decent affordable housing is available in all of our communities. That work is advocacy. Similarly, if someone contracts cancer due to exposure to second-hand smoke, providing that person with treatment and perhaps hospice care is essential. But getting to the root of the problem at a policy level will help save lives. That takes advocacy.

Another crucial component of nonprofit advocacy is accountability. Holding our public officials accountable to the needs of their constituents is a core function for nonprofit organizations. Stopping short of criticizing an elected official, simply because that official will stand for election at some point in the future, undermines the essence of our democratic process.

Our elected leaders should be working for all of us, vulnerable communities included. When they do not, nonprofits have a responsibility to point it out. Can you imagine a policy debate in which only corporate interests get to provide input? New Mexicans across the state would get the short end of the stick if they did not have nonprofits working to make sure their voices are heard and their interests accounted for.

Nonprofit organizations also meet with elected leaders to share the complex information, research and experience that is critical to public policy decisionmaking. Issues that affect our communities, like affordable housing, poverty, health care, and education are given greater attention because of the hard work of nonprofits. Absent that role effectively executed, communities that have a huge stake in the outcomes would lose a voice in the policy making process.

In a study of just 14 nonprofits in New Mexico that was completed by the National Committee For Responsible Philanthropy late last year, the researchers documented that the total dollar amount of benefits accruing to the groups’ constituencies and the broader public in the five-year period studied was more than $2.6 billion. Additionally, they found that for every $1 invested in the 14 groups for advocacy and organizing ($16.6 million total), the groups garnered more than $157 in benefits for New Mexico communities. Thus, the return on investment and economic stimulus of organizing and advocacy by nonprofits in New Mexico is inarguably significant to our state's wellbeing.

In a state where money and resources are scarce, it is absolutely critical that we not tie the hands of those who are working hard to build their communities. In addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars nonprofits bring to our state's economy, they provide critical services, empower communities, and advocate on behalf of those same communities in order to solve social and economic problems. Some elected officials continue to look for ways to silence nonprofits. This must stop. Instead, we hope those who have actively worked to undermine the work of New Mexico’s nonprofits will accept the clear reasoning in Judge Herrera’s legal decision, and acknowledge and support all of the good the nonprofit sector brings to our state.
Porter is the executive director for Community Action New Mexico.
Copyright © 2009 by the New Mexico Editorial Forum. 10/09