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Nonprofits in a Time of War

Nonprofits have the responsibility of outrage when government policy creates and exacerbates misery: Charities need to speak up and demand that Congress get Washington's foreign policy and its financial priorities in order.
 
 
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Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Nonprofit organizations are scrambling for charitable dollars because recent experience has taught them not to depend on government money to solve public problems. It seems the money just isn't there. Or is it?

Government does manage to finance what it wants to do, but sometimes with trade-offs. Regardless of the views nonprofit leaders have had about the war in Iraq and how it has been waged, one thing is clear to people on all sides: The costs of the war have propelled government-spending cuts that affect millions of Americans and the nonprofit organizations that serve them.

Even while handing out more than a trillion dollars in tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, the Republican-controlled Congress approved enough extra off--budget spending for the Iraq war to have paid for about 50 years of Head Start for each of the million or so kids enrolled in that program. Those same dollars could have covered about 16 years of medical insurance for every child living in poverty in the United States or paid four-year state tuition for every undergraduate at every college and university in America -- and still have had a bit left over to send some on to graduate school.

In fact, federal spending on the war could have financed enough new public housing to accommodate every homeless American in permanent residences and even provided some with vacation homes. But that's not what President Bush asked for, and not what Congress gave him. The reality is that in education, housing, nutrition, and other areas, federal support for nonprofit groups that provide services was cut -- so organizations had to do more with less in the face of growing need -- while government money went elsewhere.

Instead of doing good, the money was used to finance a war, started with shameful deceit and continued in a fog of failure, denial and lies, that has cost more than 3,000 American lives, wounded more than 22,000 other American men and women, and resulted in the deaths of between 52,000 and 600,000 Iraqis -- the larger estimate is made by Johns Hopkins University scholars after careful study. Congress has already appropriated more than $350--billion for that war beyond regular military budgets, and costs are projected to total more than a trillion dollars when continuing care for the wounded is counted.

This isn't like the first gulf war, where costs were shared by a large number of nations. Americans are footing the bill for this one and will be paying it, quite literally, for generations to come.

Charities have been increasingly reluctant to speak about important public--policy issues and the need for more aid to go to domestic causes instead of the war, and foundations (save for very few) have shied away from such advocacy. But charities should realize that speaking out today does not mean getting involved in partisan politics. The war has little popular support and massive opposition -- and a very broad swath of Americans has been affected by its financial and human costs. Perhaps it would be wise if nonprofit groups that see themselves as leaders in their communities and in society listened to their followers and began to catch up with their views.

Not only has domestic federal funding failed to keep up with growing need, but since the war began in 2003, cuts have been made in more than half of the 72 federal direct-service programs tracked by the Coalition on Human Needs, a Washington group that advocates for federal policies to aid the poor. Most of the cuts went deeper than 10 percent after inflation. Federal programs that help young people, support community services, and provide mental-health services, substance-abuse prevention, child and health care, and food to the elderly are among the hardest hit.

Even more disturbing, in the last session of Congress, House and Senate appropriation committees recommended that 55 to 62 of those programs should be cut further, some by as much as an additional 25 percent in the government's 2007 fiscal year.

Those government programs provide the money that nonprofit groups use to supply services to low- and moderate-income people, the very people who are losing ground in today's economy as the real value of salaries and wages decline.

The federal funding streams at issue should not be considered as "subsidies" or as "gifts" to charities and their beneficiaries, as some conservatives label them -- these tax dollars fund programs through which government meets some of its own responsibilities by enlisting nonprofit groups to tend to public problems and to advance the common good. And simply as a function of scale, there is absolutely no way that private philanthropy, even given increased American altruism, can provide an adequate substitute for government funding, no way at all.

The war has had other undeniable direct costs for those immediately involved. Beyond the horrors and hardships faced by many of the wounded, the trauma and stress carried by tens of thousands of others will continue to affect the quality of their lives and the lives of those who love them. And it goes much further.

Nearly two-thirds of the "weekend soldiers" in the National Guard -- more than 200,000 men and women with civilian lives -- have been called up to assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan and had their family, work, and community lives disrupted; some may even be recalled for the new surge. Active-duty military personnel have faced the family upheaval of multiple rotations through Iraq, and face yet more. And while nonprofit groups have sprung up to help deal with these issues, how will they get the resources they need to do the job?

President Bush's plan for his war surge and the associated cost in lives, limbs and dollars cannot be tolerated. Even if it isn't to be financed by further cuts in funding for domestic services, as likely would be the case if it is allowed to occur, it simply is wrong. And Americans have shown they know that.

The United States already is paying a terrible price for this heinous misadventure. Americans are less safe at home and abroad, and more isolated in the world as a nation, as a people, and as individuals. Our enemies have grown in number, conviction, determination, and ferocity. Friends grow scarce and those who remain distance themselves from us. Erosion in our own rights and liberties seem to some of us a required trade-off for greater security. Many Americans, as well as people around the world, feel that our government and international institutions have dissipated and lost moral authority, legitimacy, and effectiveness.

Comparatively trivial pocketbook issues remind us daily that we cannot personally escape the toll of this evil, even if we think Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo have nothing to do with us. Iraqi oil profits certainly have not covered the cost of the war, as we were told they would -- they seem to be as elusive as weapons of mass destruction. In fact, the war has cut Iraqi oil production and made it much more costly to fill up the gas tank here at home. That also has sent thousands of people to seek aid from charities for their fuel costs and growing money woes, and made it even harder for organizations and volunteers to do their work for charitable causes.

Shouldn't the nonprofits have said something about all of this in the last few years? Shouldn't charities say something now?

Charities have moved from running bake sales toward social entrepreneurship to create bakeries to finance their programs -- and while businesslike behavior has allowed some organizations to serve more people, in the process too many groups have given up demanding that government meet its fundamental responsibilities to do good with the money provided by taxpayers, given up on expecting government to fund essential human services to meet basic needs.

The nonprofit world is grounded in a sense of humanity, which means we also have the responsibility of outrage when vulnerable people are suffering and when government policy creates and exacerbates misery. Today, silence is an abdication in the face of an abomination. Charities need to speak up and demand that Congress get Washington's foreign policy and its financial priorities in order.

Mark Rosenman works in Washington as a public-service professor at Union Institute & University, which has its headquarters in Cincinnati.

 
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