The Importance of Speaking Up

February 13, 2013

Last month, I experienced a “rite of passage” for nonprofit executives in New Jersey.  I attended the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce “Walk to Washington”.  For those of you who don’t know, this is 50+ year tradition where the Chamber charters a train for elected officials, policymakers, lobbyists, business leaders, advocates and others for a ride to DC together.  The “walk” is, in fact, everyone walking through the train, car by car, meeting as many folks and making as many connections as one can.  We all arrive in the Capitol for a dinner and speeches – this year from Governor Christie.

New Jersey Chamber of Commerce “Walk to Washington”

You can’t work in Trenton or on anything that impacts the State and not know about the Chamber Train.  I’ve been well aware of it since about 1988.  When I first became President of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers in 2005 I wasn’t sure if it made sense for me to attend.  The cost is a bit high and given the focus of our work at the time, I could make the case to avoid it.  Every year since though I’ve gone back and forth about whether I should take the leap, or in this case…the ride.  Well I did this year in large part because the focus was on recovery and rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. I wanted to be sure to hear what was being discussed, especially since our philanthropic community has been and will continue to be deeply involved.

Governor Christie was masterful at providing the audience with a heart-wrenching, sobering picture of what our friends and neighbors have and will continue to face.  At the same time, he left everyone in the room feeling inspired and hopeful for what we will do, must do together. There was lots of talk about the contributions that people and businesses have been making. There was recognition of several true heroes who had personally done so much to provide relief.

L-R: Etta Denk of Bank of America, Phil Salerno of Children’s Specialized Hospital
and Nina Stack, during “Walk to Washington”

However, what we didn’t hear was anything about the social sector’s response. In fact, as the speakers would count off all those different industries and groups that have been providing assistance, there was not one mention of philanthropy or nonprofits, the foundation community or the charitable sector. It was disappointing.  But it wasn’t surprising.  Why? Because we, as a sector, are terrible at communicating what it is we do. It is hard to boil down into a compelling sound bite the impact of philanthropy and why it matters.  But if there were ever a time to rise to the challenge it is now.

At the same time policymakers in Washington are arguing about the impact of charitable giving, we know that the charitable community is and will be central to the rebuilding of our state. Part of the problem is cultural…few foundations are comfortable talking about what they are doing. Part of the problem is capacity…nonprofits rarely have the appropriate level of staff capacity to be effective in communications.  What is at stake if we don’t start getting this right?  The continued curse of government leaders believing philanthropy should be able to provide more money as government funding is being pulled away; at the same time they debate creating a new tax structure that does nothing to promote charitable giving because government leaders don’t truly understand its impact.

Next month, CNJG will once again join our colleagues in Washington for Foundations on the Hill. This is our opportunity to tell our government leaders in DC at least the story of what philanthropy is doing to provide relief and hope to the thousands of people and hundreds of communities in our state reeling from the storm – and at most – help them to have that “aha!” moment about how strongly philanthropy supports our communities.  Many groups within the nonprofit sector have these types of “fly-ins” and I encourage folks to participate.  They do make a difference…I’ve seen that first hand in the 8 years that I’ve been attending Foundations on the Hill.

As for the Chamber trip, I’m very glad I jumped on board this year.  There were two strategies that I set up before committing though. First, I made sure I had one of my board members, a corporate executive who runs community relations for his company, lined up to be my escort. He then could introduce me to the many riders he knew from business and years on the train. Not only did I greatly appreciate the introductions but it also help avoid those awkward moments of “what do I do next”.  Second, I knew very clearly what my objectives were – who did I want/need to meet and what did I need to communicate. Both strategies were key to the success of my experience.  I don’t see myself making the trip every year but certainly every few years. At a minimum, it is a classic Jersey experience that every nonprofit leader who interacts in any way with the federal, state or local government should experience at least once.  All aboard!

Nina Stack is President of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the statewide association of more than 120 funding organizations working in New Jersey. She also serves as Chair of the Forum of Regional Association of Grantmakers, a 33-member network serving more than 4,000 foundations, corporations and other donors across the country.