Should Your Fundraising Be Apolitical?

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Nonprofits involved with the abortion debate are seeing a fundraising spike because of the recent leak of a draft opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court that would overrule Roe v. Wade.

But for nonprofits whose missions are not about reproductive rights, the future of Roe v. Wade is causing intense internal discussions about whether they should take a stand or be apolitical.

The topic of abortion stirs strong emotions on both the left and right. As a result, public statements from a nonprofit on the issue are likely to rankle a portion of its donor base.

Does that mean your organization should stay silent — and do the same on other politically charged issues?

Let’s take a deeper examination.

The Higher Ground

English poet William Blake (1757-1827) goes to the higher ground when he said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to us as it is — infinite.”

I like Blake’s insight because the nonprofit sector should aspire to higher ground. When you share your vision of that higher ground and relate it to your nonprofit’s fundraising needs, you will always raise more revenue!

One great American grassroots movement, The Catholic Worker, founded in 1933 with pacifist beliefs, refuses the 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax status because the organization equates getting a federal tax designation with participating in the U.S. war economy.

The Catholic Worker’s political convictions inspire its donors, who, in turn, are among the most resolute in the nation. Its donors give generously, including estate and legacy gifts, donating houses, land, farms, and making bequests even though the organization has no planned-giving program!

It’s About Your Organization’s Values

My counsel to you about being political (or not) has to do with your values. It unfolds like this:

  • Be utterly clear about your organization’s values, and stand up for them; however …
  • Your values must be informed by data, research, and science, not just what you think or believe.
  • Your values are communicated by your organization’s actions, not what it thinks or states. Look at where your resources go and what impacts you’ve made in your field of service. There your values lie.
  • Your values are shown by how your organization spends its time and budget — both on the smallish daily routines and the “big hairy audacious goal” that contributes to the long-lasting justice we seek.
  • There are awakening moments in our organizational life when we see that what we thought were our values may not be so. When we feel that uncomfortable awareness, we must take stock and be honest, and admit to our compromise.

Values are what matter and what last.

Consequences of Having Values

That’s how my fundraising becomes political — not by intent, but by consequence.

This consequence is how the late nonprofit leader Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of the international nonprofit Partners In Health, discussed his values to a “theology of accompaniment” — a lifelong practice of not only walking with people who are poor but also working to change the conditions that keep them poor.

“Once we chose the most poor to work with, everything else became clear about who we were and what we had to advocate for,” Farmer said.

Farmer and his team raised $145 million annually to run Partners in Health, and he was political.

The political processes we live with (live under) often pretend they are value free; but a nonprofit does not have that luxury.

Instead, we must stand up, be counted, and speak out, as long as our position is well researched and grounded in the natural sciences.

The quality of our fundraising program depends on those values for it to be real, to be soulful, to be worthy of our best efforts.

How does your organization decide when and how to engage in politically charged issues? Let us know below, and please share this post with a colleague who may find it timely.

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