With Democrats poised to gain in November, issues that have stalled in recent years may find their way back on to policy agendas. But the country is different now than it was just months ago, and progress on the issues that matter to America’s nonprofits will depend in part on solutions that can gain the support of both Democrats and Republicans. And on whether nonprofits are ready for the challenge of divided government.
A few months ago, the winds of change were howling. Democrats held leads of up to 16 points on the generic congressional ballot, in late February. And with Democratic candidates posting high-profile wins in congressional special elections and having flipped 40 statehouse seats since Inauguration Day, we still think November’s will be a change election. But more recent polling shows the race tightening.
Divided government means contention, but it also means compromise. And newly-elected policymakers on both sides of the aisle will feel accountable to address the real issues that matter for families. That could create opportunities for nonprofits to make progress on issues that have been in limbo for years. The question for nonprofits is this: Are you ready for a future where both sides of the aisle matter?
We believe that nonprofits nationwide have a lot to learn from their colleagues in the “red” states of the South and the West. Both sides of the aisle have always mattered in those regions, and nonprofits in those states have always had to find solutions that bridge partisan divides. Recent red state wins include:
- Alabama nutrition grant funding to improve the affordability of nutritious food for low-income families and seniors, led in part by Voices for Alabama’s Children. A public opinion poll was conducted to help make the case that Alabamians supported a public strategy to improve access to healthy food.
- Foster care reform in Kentucky, prioritizing family reunification and eliminating obstacles to adoption, with Kentucky Youth Advocates playing a leadership role. There, advocates made it easy for the press to get consistent and convenient access to information and perspective on the legislation.
- Restoring voting rights in Louisiana for thousands of people who paid their debts to society and are on probation or parole, led by Voice of The Experienced. This was a five-year effort ultimately won by formerly-incarcerated people themselves.
- Pre-K expansion in New Mexico, increasing the state’s pre-K capacity by nearly 30 percent, backed by a private-public coalition coordinated by the United Way of Santa Fe County. Its “Expand NM PreK Tour” stopped in six locations around the state to gather feedback from stakeholders on potential benefits, drawbacks and questions about pre-K expansion, and to raise public and media awareness.
All of these wins followed hard and long fights, none of them is a complete victory, and each is unique. But taken together, they offer a critical insight. In a nation where divided government may soon be the default, there is much to learn from the successes of red state advocates who built policies that could work for Republicans and Democrats and found ways to win.
The challenge for nonprofits and the philanthropies that fund them is to learn what they can and share the lessons they learn, so all will be prepared for the change coming this fall.