Given the role local nonprofits have played on the front lines of pandemic response— distributing food to homebound seniors, providing childcare for essential workers, strengthening families through mental health services and door-to-door wellness checks, and vaccinating thousands of vulnerable residents—we are surprised that multiple San Jose candidates for elected office have disparaged the value of nonprofit sector work.
Last week, one candidate posted on her social media that the fact that her opponent has “only worked in government and nonprofits—leaves him wanting when it comes to addressing the real world problems.”
Another candidate sent a mass email, claiming that “non-profit executives are not paid to solve our city’s problems — just to manage them. They have no incentive to deliver results.”
We could not disagree more with these assertions.
We have never met a nonprofit staff person who wasn’t a professional striving to improve lives. Nonprofit staff want to address the root causes of societal issues, while recognizing that few of these issues can be solved overnight by a single organization. Often turning down private and public sector roles with significantly more lucrative compensation, nonprofit staff are driven toward helping others.
Nonprofit staff are passionate about serving; creating thriving, healthy, and equitable communities; and working together to create results. Nonprofit leaders must be adept at managing complex budgets with multiple funding sources, time-limited grants and contracts, detailed restrictions, and tightly constrained overhead. They must also be skilled in raising funds from an array of different sources: individuals, corporations, foundations, and government. Some of our colleagues are managing multi-million dollar annual budgets; others are saving lives with extremely limited financial means.
Nonprofit staff are outcome-oriented; in fact, many funders routinely require nonprofits to demonstrate quantitative and qualitative results every year. From crises such as the Coyote Creek flooding in 2017 to the initial chaotic days of the pandemic, local government immediately turned to nonprofits for help because of nonprofits’ track record in delivering rapid results.
Nonprofit organizations are businesses. In fact, they are businesses where demand usually exceeds financial resources, and nonprofit leaders must stretch in all directions to serve their stakeholders. Many nonprofit leaders do not enjoy the luxury of a dedicated department specialized in human resources, facilities management, compliance, marketing, or strategy— which means the nonprofit leaders are responsible for it ALL— and sometimes even take out the trash at the end of their 14-hour days.
In our Silicon Valley nonprofits, you will find leaders with doctorates, law degrees, Ivy League credentials, and MacArthur Genius Grants. You will also find leaders with first-hand lived experience in the communities they serve, fluency in multiple languages, and interpersonal talents that enable them to instantly build trust with clients and patients.
When pandemic shelter in place orders hit our community in March 2020, the nonprofit sector did not hesitate. It sprang into action to exponentially scale up services to meet community need. Many nonprofit staff continued to show up to work, seven days a week, in person, at significant risk to themselves and their loved ones. Others immediately pivoted to offering online health care and education. They addressed real world, real time issues that local residents were facing. And they were doing this work before the pandemic and will continue this work after the pandemic.
Our community thrives when business, nonprofits, and government work together. The private and public sectors are a critically important part of the solution to addressing the problems facing Silicon Valley. The challenges are so massive and deep-seated that we need all hands on deck to tackle them. We need our elected officials and candidates to work with our nonprofit sector, not throw unwarranted criticism our way.
The nonprofit sector is essential in making our world a better place. Disparagement of nonprofit workers is disheartening, disrespectful, and just plain wrong. We urge all candidates for office to join us in saluting our nonprofit colleagues and thanking them for their heroic work.
Michele Lew is CEO of The Health Trust. Alison Brunner is CEO of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley.