I rendered two politicians speechless today.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of myself. And I think I made my point, which was that the legislative process and governments, especially at the state and federal level, have stopped considering the needs of nonprofit business (emphasis deliberate, as we are also businesses, despite the do-gooding, and special tax designation).

Each year, my local Chamber of Commerce (one of the best I’ve ever been involved in) holds a “Legislative Breakfast” for chamber members to get up close and personal with legislators from all levels of government. Over the years I’ve had 5 minutes or more one-on-one, face to face with 3 US Senators, 2 state senators, 4 US congresspeople, about 5 different state reps (they come and go, those state reps), and my local county board rep.

These are not town halls for single issue haranguing, and they are not photo ops with mobs of press. It’s the closest ordinary people like me will ever get to putting your issue right into the ear of someone with the ability to do something about it.

This morning I was able to get my question right up front in the Q&A, and what I said was,

“The nonprofit sector enjoys an enormous benefit, namely income, sales and property tax exemption, for which we are extremely grateful. However, beyond this the sector, especially small non-profits with fewer than 50 employees, has disappeared from the debate, and funding for these organizations has completely dried up. What can legislators do to help small nonprofits?”

I use italics, because my question was NOT “what can my nonprofit do since you’re clearly not going to help,” or “where’s mine,” but rather, what can be done at a legislative level.

Dead. Silence.

The four people at the table (2 state reps, a county board member, and a US Congressperson), sitting there with the deer in the headlights look.

You have to understand what this means for a politician to be caught sputtering. (Did I mention the sputtering? No? Well, they sputtered.)

It means that they have not thought about this. Politicians ALWAYS have an answer. If they don’t have any answer to your specific question, they are geniuses, as we all know, at finding a nugget within your question which they canaddress. A politician caught that flatfooted has not been prepped on your issue in any way.

After an awkward moment I got some platitudes about how we have to fix everything else first, and then some advice on merging with another organization (folks, we aren’t AT&T; this does not work in the real world); cutting administrative costs (These people do understand that “saving administrative costs = “firing people” right? Or maybe they think using both sides of every piece of paper will save the sector?) and “finding individual donors” (Oh, thank you, hadn’t thought of that.)

So my advice today? Write to your legislators. Get our sector back to the table. Remind them that nfp is “small business” too, and it includes churches, arts organizations, social service, and education. At the end of the session, the Congresswoman pulled me aside and actually apologized for her colleagues. She clearly HAD thought about it. I told her I hadn’t actually been expecting any solutions, but mostly just wanted to let these elected officials know that they need to be thinking about nonprofits.

And, since they didn’t have any real solutions, I’ll help them out. Monday, I’ll answer my own question. Watch for “Ten things legislators can do to help small nonprofits.”

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