Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michelle Benson delivered a blunt message Friday to nonprofit leaders seeking state funding: Be prepared to prove your worth.
“When it comes to accessing public dollars, you will want to work really hard to prove what you’ve already done with the dollars you’ve already been given, whether it’s public dollars or private dollars,” said Benson, R-Ham Lake. “Be ready to deliver accountability.”
Benson was one of several state politicians on both sides of the aisle to address more than 200 nonprofit leaders Friday morning at the Minnesota Council on Nonprofits’ annual legislative session preview in St. Paul.
Faced with Republican majorities at both the state and federal levels, many nonprofit leaders expressed anxiety over potentially drastic changes to social services, housing, education, environmental programs, health care and the social safety net maintained by government and charities.
A tightening labor market, lower unemployment and a projected state budget surplus could help lift Minnesota families. But hand-wringing over possible changes and cuts at the state and federal levels dominated the discussion.
Benson challenged the leaders to show how their particular nonprofits do things better than others. She pointed to one unnamed nonprofit leader who, she said, could quickly tally up all their private and government funding sources but struggled to describe the impact they’ve made with that money.
“It’s a frightening time right now,” said Shelley Jacobson, CEO of Minnesota Communities Caring for Children/Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota. The nonprofit relies, in part, on state funding, and she said she was worried that could be stripped away.
Jacobson called Benson’s demands for proof of impact a Catch-22: “You have to have staff to be able to do the research.”
Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto power could short-circuit any Republican plans to dismantle programs, but “at the federal level, we are shaking in our boots,” Jacobson said.
Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said that given the political climate, nonprofits need to be a bold and frequent presence at the State Capitol and show lawmakers firsthand the children and families affected by legislative choices.
“Expand our worldview. Educate us,” Moran said. “Legislators can begin to see the humanity in what you are doing.”
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said that little is known so far about how President-elect Donald Trump and his team will govern. But she added that nonprofit leaders can’t allow the fear of the unknown to poison the sense of optimism that fuels their good works and propels change. She said that Dayton’s proposed budget emphasizes funding for affordable housing, early childhood education and child care tax credits — areas where nonprofits can partner with state and local government.
“How can we expand opportunity to everyone, everywhere?” Smith said.