Voluntary Generosity Is Not Enough

For many nonprofits that provide vital services, government funding is also necessary

By Chany Ockert and Liz Moore

We thank Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, for promoting generosity and volunteerism, especially at this time of year when many of us are making decisions about personal philanthropy (Dec. 20 Beacon: “The Christmas Compassion Test”). We write today with another perspective on the relationship between government, charitable giving, and our community.

As Rep. Regier said so aptly, generosity by individuals and business is a much-needed piece of the revenue puzzle for nonprofits. However, it may surprise most people to learn that the money nonprofits receive through work and services they provide on behalf of government in our community is 2.5 times the total revenue contributed to nonprofits (donations).

There are nonprofits that do not work on behalf of government, and therefore don’t rely on earned income from those grants and contracts. These might be youth sports organizations, churches and houses of worship, and food banks. However, a significant number of nonprofits serve clients directly on behalf of government, caring for those in need such as adults with disabilities, those struggling with addictions, our elderly in hospital care, and the list goes on. In these cases, nonprofits stand in for government, closing what would otherwise be devastating gaps in our community. And very often the services they offer are not appealing to individual donors. A great example is addiction services.

In the Flathead we have an elevated number of DUIs and incidents of illegal drug use and addiction. Not only does this bring suffering and tragedy to families and individuals, but it also stresses our entire community. From law enforcement to our schools and hospitals, we confront the significant and costly challenges associated with addiction. We need local addiction services. Yet most donors will not designate their charitable contributions to this kind of cause. Compassionate, voluntary giving alone will not solve this fundamental problem. In this case, government funding is necessary. Not because it’s the compassionate response, but because a grave and threatening societal ill must be addressed to uphold the welfare of the entire community.

Rep. Regier made a point that government exists to create and carry out law. In fact, the Constitution sets out a higher calling for government than simply making laws. As a nation, we have identified values, as set forth in the Constitution, to guide the establishment of laws. Those values are “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Since the founding of our country nonprofits have been a key partner to government as a mechanism for carrying out government responsibilities and obligations in a more efficient, community-centric way. Nonprofits must have sufficient resources to adequately fulfill their partnership role. We believe a healthy nonprofit sector is necessary to Montana’s vitality. Nonprofits should be supported in ways that allow them to do the best job possible, rather than being expected to scrape by and hold bake sales to ensure they have enough money to pay for staff to do the work we all ask of them. Compassion and voluntary giving are essential, but they are quite simply not enough.

We ask you to consider your own budget and decide if we as a community can support nonprofits through voluntary generosity alone. Consider what you give to nonprofits and multiply that times 2.5. Instead of contributing $20, give $50. Instead of $400, give $1,000. Next, look at the nonprofits you support and expand the number of nonprofits to which you give. Distribute your increased giving beyond your favorite charities and include the nonprofits that are essential to our community but serve causes you won’t regularly donate to.

Doing the math, it’s quickly apparent that the answer to funding services in communities is not an “either/or:” either voluntary generosity or tax funding. The most accurate, functional and stabilizing revenue mix for communities is “yes/and.” Yes, voluntary generosity based on compassion is integral to a strong civil society. And, a tax system that supports our community in the context of the values we set out so many years ago in our Constitution is also necessary.

Chany Ockert is a local nonprofit consultant and certified fund raising executive with a Bachelor in Arts in Political Science from Carroll College. Liz Moore is the executive director of the Montana Nonprofit Association, a membership association of 600 Montana charitable nonprofit organizations.

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