There is an adage that goes “success has a thousand parents; failure is an orphan”. This, obviously, speaks to people and organizations who seek credit for a good thing happening. Sometimes that’s unjustified and unfair.
But what about when a great success really does come about because so many stood up and stepped up? That’s powerful and profound, and that’s exactly what happened in Santa Clara County this summer and fall…and the victory came together the night of November 8, 2016, when Measure A was approved by the voters.
…not that we knew it at the time.
We needed 66.67% to win, and it took nearly two weeks to certify that we won with 67.67%. Obviously, we won by a very, VERY narrow margin of a single percentage point.
A reminder, in case you’re late to this party: Measure A provides $950,000,000 to build supportive housing, low-income housing and to help first-time home-buyers. The lion’s share, paid for with a property tax increase, will kick Silicon Valley’s homelessness crisis to the curb. That crisis is arguably the worst in the nation, and county voters demonstrated on Election Day that they have heart, they want to help, and they embrace the common good. Considering the results at the top of the ticket, this victory and the compassion it reveals is extremely important.
What’s also electrifying is the number of non-profit organizations that got involved, many for the first time. To do that, their leadership needed to confront and reject a myth that 501c3 tax-exempt charities cannot “do politics”. I’ve written about this myth before, and this summer and fall after jumping in head-first to this effort, I worked to educate and urge my colleagues in the “public benefit sector” that contributing time, talent and treasure to Measure A was
- Perfectly legal;
- A moral obligation;
- A path to your own success, and;
- The only way we were going to win.
Let’s explore these four areas a little…and at the end, I’ll explain why.
Perfectly Legal. That is, if you follow the rules. No big deal; we do it every day. It’s legal to drive your Corvette 70MPH. But only on some roads. If you’re sober. And you’re a licensed driver. Rules…we learn them and abide by them. In the case of charities and elections, California’s rules are quite clear: Your charity cannot officially support a candidate, but you can support a non-partisan initiative or measure so long as it relates to your mission (why homelessness and health care are related should be evident, but if it’s not don’t worry: It will be by the end of this essay).
The general rule is 20%–that is, a nonprofit charity can donate 20% of their annual budget to a ballot initiative in California, and spend right around that much staff time advocating. There are reporting requirements that get a little complex, but not nearly as complex as, say, your annual audit! Again, it’s a matter of learning the rules and following them. If you’re lucky and can afford it, a nonprofit or election lawyer is smart to engage…or better yet, talk one into joining your board!
Here is a great place to start to learn the details of campaign/lobbying rules…and remember, rules change all the time, so don’t just rely on one source of information.
A Moral Obligation. Those who work for/run nonprofits do so to get rich and buy jet airplanes. Kidding! We are fiercely dedicated to the idea of reconfiguring parts of the world for the betterment of others. We love animals and want them safe. We detest prejudice and injustice. We want to slow climate change so it doesn’t destroy Florida. Or, in the case of Measure A, we feel that everyone deserves a place to live and that homelessness is worth fighting.
None of that makes us saints or even unusual. People who run hotels and who sell falafel for a living also care about these things…if they didn’t, Measure A wouldn’t have passed. But here’s the difference: If you work for a homeless shelter or a food bank, you understand the issue WAY better than the average person. If you and your agency sit on the sidelines while the community discusses supportive housing, the issue and level of discourse is short-changed. Your voice is necessary. Your opinion piece in the newspaper is vital. Your agency’s money is a bit greener. Your endorsement counts…more than that of others. Not getting involved is simply not okay.
A Path to Your Own Success. Homelessness, for example, is sad and awful. That’s why people are compelled to help. Also, homelessness is expensive. I knew the number was big, having spent time with so many providers, but even I was shocked when I learned that Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (the hospital my agency supports) spent nine hundred million dollars over a four-year period providing care for people who are homeless. Add in other county (tax-payer provided) interventions like law enforcement and social services, and you’ll find we spend over five hundred million in just one year, not counting the program budgets of the dozens of nonprofits on the front lines.
And the real tragedy? People are, generally speaking, NOT getting better. How could they? Managing people’s chronic health conditions while they’re living in a creek bed? Helping people with mental health conditions while they’re living under a freeway overpass? What the ping pong balls do we expect? This is why the housing first model makes logical sense, and why so many nonprofits ultimately came aboard the Measure A Campaign: Working hard to serve people whose lives aren’t measurably improved by your service is soul-crushing—among people like doctors, nurses and social workers whose hearts and souls are huge.
Fundamentally, the heroes of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center—along with my colleagues who run nonprofits like HomeFirst, The Health Trust, Destination Home, Momentum for Mental Health, Catholic Charities…they care about people. When asked why a hospital foundation was all-in on a homelessness measure, I would often site those great agencies and say “I want their work to work better.”
The Only Way We’re Going to Win. Like it or not, campaigns are expensive. Cheap compared to the homelessness crisis, but still. We faced the longest ballot in California history, and local measures are way, way down near the bottom. To earn the attention and vote of enough Santa Clara County residents this year, we figured we’d need to raise a million and a half bucks. At least.
But here’s the problem, which is really the central message of this rambling treatise: Lots of nonprofits didn’t even know they could get involved! What an untapped resource (I reasoned), and opportunity to exceed those fundraising goals. By the time I jumped in, our badass County Supervisor Cindy Chavez had already convinced several charities to give big, and the VMC Foundation immediately endorsed and gave (gulp) $100,000. This was not funny-money; this was operational reserve. This was a risk.
Now, we’d done that before and more than once, so I also saw that my obligation was to help educate other 501c3’s that they needed to ante up. Boy, did they ever! By November the Measure A Campaign had raised a whopping $2.3 million. There has never been a time in Silicon Valley where more nonprofits joined housing developers, wealthy progressives and other stakeholders to amass such a war chest. All that money was turned into direct mail to voters, radio, TV, YouTube, and (not making this up) 15,000 cookies given out on college campuses…anything really, to rise above the Clinton/Trump noise and Be Heard. We also hired seasoned campaign professionals – the best we could find.
The nonprofit community stepped up in other important ways. Many of us are members of the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, and together, we convinced them to withdraw their initial opposition to Measure A. We wrote letters to editors, penned opinion pieces for every newspaper in the valley, and spoke at every community gathering we could find. Closer to November 8, we got on the phones and never stopped dialing. We pounded the pavement with literature. We went bananas on social media. If not bananas, then
Election Night, November 8, 2016. The shock of Donald Trump’s victory muted what would have otherwise been a great celebration: Measure A passed—by a hair. This is revealing on a number of fronts. First, we needed every agency, every donor, every dollar to win. Had any of our handful of six-figure contributors sat on the sidelines, we likely would have lost. And because giving means commitment, agencies that contributed were also there with volunteers walking and phoning. It took every one of them to get us across that goal line.
Second, this victory speaks to who we are in Silicon Valley. With civility and compassion in short supply nationally, we dig deep and find it here. We’ve done it before, many times, for similar reasons: If Washington won’t help us solve problems, we’ll solve them ourselves. For example, with the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Santa Clara County leaders realized no one was going to help us provide care to underserved kids. Thus, the Children’s Health Initiative was created by county officials, labor leaders and funders who responded to the problem and built an innovative solution to it. Years later, it would be replicated by most counties in the state. Years still later, Governor Brown made it the law of the land. As a result, every child in California has access to health coverage.
That’s a major triumph, right? That’s why my third and final point is that we must keep the band together. Pundits and newspapers described Measure A as “game-changing”, a “hail Mary pass”, “staggeringly ambitious” and “unprecedented.” Every nonprofit who joined the coalition should feel proud and electrified, because all of us, together, made it happen. I’ve already described how every ounce of energy and every dime donated was necessary to win, so now let’s ask the obvious question: What’s next?
Keeping a coalition together is never easy, but the “other” major event of November 8 reveals that we simply must. If Trump’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act is actuated, if persecution of specific religious groups is encouraged, if trickle-down economics widens even further the economic canyon swallowing more and more in our community…well, you get it. We’ve got our work cut out for us.
So, even loosely, we nonprofits have to stay united to further the progressive policies on which we agree. We have become a multi-celled customizable action tank for addressing needs. As the greatest needs emerge, and as solutions are proposed, and to the degree those solutions require a massive coalition of idealistic leaders, we must be ready and be together. If you’ve read this far, you may very well be one of those idealistic leaders. We’ve proven we can do amazing things. You are awesome. We are awesome. Let’s meet for coffee soon. I’ll buy.