Five Opportunities for Nonprofits in a Trump Administration

November 16, 2016

By Heather Iliff, President & CEO of Maryland Nonprofits


One of the biggest strengths of nonprofit organizations is that we are non-partisan, and can create a space for community problem-solving that is not muddled by political conflict.  Nonprofit staff and board members are diverse and include a wide range of political perspectives – Democrat,

and Independent.  Having said that, studies have shown that the staff of foundations and charities do tend to lean more Democratic in their voting and donations to political parties.  Therefore, it is safe to assume that many nonprofit staff members are feeling gloomy about the implications of the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. 

There are many issues of serious concern to nonprofit leaders:

  • Policies could negatively impact people of color,

    and the LGBTQ community.  We are already seeing the impact of an emboldened slice of the American public engaging in acts of bigotry,

    and violence. 
  • Nonprofits concerned with climate change will undoubtedly be facing repudiation and repeal of agreements,

    and reductions in funding. 
  • Organizations concerned with reproductive rights will likely face

    and uphill battles to serve women. 
  • Deportations could lead to community disruption and increases in children needing foster care and other services. 
  • Disinvestment in refugee resettlement could leave already-stretched human services systems overwhelmed, and the expertise and capacity to serve these populations scattered. 
  • Repeal of the Affordable Care Act could lead to the need for more charity care. 
  • Capping charitable deductions and decreasing tax incentives for giving could lower charitable donations overall. 

The list of worries for nonprofit leaders in a Trump Administration is a long one, and I don’t want to discount that.  However, it is also important to focus on opportunities that emerge when dramatic leadership changes happen.  We are wise to think of ways nonprofits can be strategic in taking advantage of and get involved in shaping certain priorities President-Elect Trump and Congressional Republicans have promoted.  These include government reform, infrastructure, focus on inner cities and rural areas, deregulation, and a grab-bag of causes favored by Republicans.

  1. Reform of Government:   Nonprofits are stuck functioning with dysfunctional systems in government, and have had to align and optimize their programs and services to access governmental funding streams that are ill-conceived and poorly implemented.  Many voters, not only those who voted for Trump, were trying to send a signal that the whole system needs an overhaul.  Incremental tweaks over time have been akin to how Microsoft piles on new code over the old code that slows down your computer.  A path to true reform lies in something that Trump may be uniquely qualified to do – wiping the code clean and pressing the reset button on tired and broken systems.  Imagine what could be done if the billions spent on poverty programs that trap people with the wrong incentives could be redesigned and invested in wealth creation and good-paying jobs?  While tearing down institutions (and funding streams that we have become reliant on) may be painful in the short-term, if nonprofits are active and engaged with the Trump Administration, we could shape how institutions are rebuilt with greater community empowerment, innovation, and insight. 
  2. Big Infrastructure:  One of the few policy items that the President-Elect mentioned in his victory speech was the need to invest in infrastructure and he talked throughout the campaign about needing to think big and accomplish great things.  Many scientists and economists lament America’s decision not to build the Large Hadron Collider in Texas that is attracting great talent and investment to Switzerland where it was ultimately built.  Big ideas for major infrastructure can come from within the nonprofit sector and transform our economy, our ability to innovate and our environment.  While we can expect to see a major cratering in support for anti-climate change initiatives, support for green infrastructure could be on the table, such as decreasing impervious surfaces, green rooves, and LEED certified buildings.  Major investment in broadband, the electricity grid, and transportation could be transformational if communities are engaged rather than sidelined in the planning process.  Done without community input, we could end up with more neighborhoods devastated by bifurcating highways, or left out of the information superhighway.  Nonprofits and community leaders need to step up and be involved in shaping major infrastructure initiatives so they bring maximum benefit to communities.
  3. Inner Cities and Rural Areas:  President-Elect Trump has promoted the idea of rebuilding inner cities, which have faced systemic disinvestment for decades.  Strong engagement by the nonprofit community can help shape new investments in “rebuilding” to ensure

    is empowered and strengthened, not displaced.  Looking at the electoral map, it is clear that rural areas voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Bringing jobs to rural areas is a top priority.  Nonprofits in rural areas face significant challenges in funding, transportation, and ability to develop sufficient scale to deliver services in sparsely populated areas.  Nonprofit organizations need to be engaged in shaping strategies for investments in areas such as support for entrepreneurship, broadband access, self-driving cars, and small town revitalization in ways that meet the needs of rural and small-town America.
  4. Deregulation:  Nonprofits, especially in the health & behavioral health, human services, child welfare and disabilities fields, are faced with nearly crushing regulations that govern the minutia of how services are delivered, rather than rewarding organizations for successful outcomes.  Every time there is a tragedy or a scandal,

    red tape gets wrapped around an already ill-functioning system.  People being served are hitting multiple roadblocks, and have difficulty navigating to access their entitlements, and nonprofits must spend scarce resources on an army of financial and compliance staff.  Some nonprofits are getting unannounced inspections 20 or 30 times a year, wasting taxpayer dollars.  Requiring strict adherence to “evidence-based practices” is squeezing out the heart of charitable work where people make human connections and walk people through their challenges – with faith, spirituality, love, creativity and innovation.  Republicans favor deregulation, transparency, technology and streamlining.  If nonprofits are involved in the deregulation process, we could create a system that truly puts people first, is more efficient and effective, and rewards organizations for succeeding with people.
  5. Favored Causes and the Private Sector:  There are certain causes that tend to be favored by Republicans that serve as an opportunity for organizations working in those areas.  Pregnancy aid centers that help people avoid abortion, veteran’s organizations (also mentioned by the President-Elect in his victory speech), and programs that promote self-reliance and personal responsibility may have new opportunities.  George W. Bush significantly expanded support for faith-based organizations and famously accelerated treatment for AIDS.  Melania Trump has focused on anti-bullying, and often causes of First Ladies can get a leg up in attention for donors and for public funding.  Nonprofits that promote market-based solutions are likely to find support, such as initiatives that enable the private sector to help farmers improve soil management that is better for the environment.  Finally, nonprofit leaders must remind policy makers regularly that nonprofits are a critical part of the private sector.  If the government divests, the nonprofit sector needs to be supported to pick up (and improve upon!) those initiatives.   Nonprofits employ 10% of the nation’s

    and are a far larger employer than agriculture, construction, finance/insurance/real-estate or wholesale trade.  Wherever the Trump administration outreaches to and involves businesses, we need to be vocal about the need to also bring nonprofits to the table.

Let’s not bury our heads in the sand.  Lester Salamon points out in his book, The Resilient Sector, that nonprofits have a superior ability to adapt and pivot in the face of challenges, including drastic cuts during the Reagan Administration.  President-Elect Trump was often criticized during the campaign for changing his positions on major issues over time.  To me, that means he is open to new information and is influenceable.  We should advocate for a cabinet level position in the executive branch to liaise with the nonprofit sector.  Engaging diverse community-based organizations, veterans’ groups, hospitals and universities, performing and fine arts organizations, advocacy

and civic associations will make America stronger and a Trump administration more successful.  We must insist on being engaged in shaping the changes that are to come.  As Frederick Douglass famously said, “power concedes nothing without a demand.”