Dear Nonprofiteer, If I have my ear marked, does that make me a hog?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I serve on the Board of a group located in the district of a reasonably senior member of Congress.  He’s helped a number of organizations in the district secure funding from the Federal government for various projects.  How do we get in on the action?

Signed, Eager for Access to the Gravy Train

Dear Eager:

The practice you refer to is called earmarking, presumably an extension of the notion of "pork"–hogs’ ears were marked to identify their owners just as cattle’s flanks were branded.  And it can indeed produce significant benefits for the agencies chosen.  But you really couldn’t have selected a worse time to try to begin slopping at the public trough.  Earmarks have received quite a bit of negative attention recently, as the source or evidence of corruption in the Republican-led Congress.  Thus Democrats–whatever their genuine feelings on the subject–have felt constrained to, well, constrain the practice.

Last week the New York Times ran a cautionary tale about an Indian tribe that relied on its member of Congress to secure funding for a project: when the Congressman lost his power, the tribe lost its money.  Nor is being left high and dry exclusively a Federal problem: as Crain’s Chicago Business reported in late August, line-item vetoes by the Illinois governor eradicated state earmarks to nonprofits with the stroke of a pen. 

You didn’t ask, but here’s the Nonprofiteer’s policy take on earmarks: like check-offs on your tax return, or special high-priced stamps to support causes, they’re a way to do an end-run around the democratic process.  If something’s in the public interest, the public as a whole should pay for it.  If it’s not in the interest of the public as a whole, it shouldn’t receive the fruits of general taxation.

That being said, earmarks are the way the game is now played.  As with campaign finance, there’s no reason for would-be reformers of the system to be held to a higher standard than everyone else.  You can be opposed to earmarks in general and still consider it if not your duty at least the better part of valor to see whether you can secure state and federal money for the good work of your agency.

Things to bear in mind as you do:

  • Hiring a lobbyist for this purpose may well be worth the money.  That’s why big nonprofits get bigger earmarks than small ones–not because of some rule of budget proportionality but because getting things done in Washington requires hitting on Congresspeople repeatedly until by the water-on-stone method you secure what you want. 
  • See if among the friends of your agency there’s a major contributor to your Congressperson’s last campaign.  The people’s elected representative often listens most carefully to His Master’s Voice–which, high-school civics to the contrary notwithstanding, issues from people who write checks.
  • You’ll do better if you have a specific project–a new building, say, or a fancy-schmancy MRI.  Not only are such bricks-and-mortar-and-equipment grants easier than operating expenses to justify to other Representatives, but they provide the Congressperson with something concrete (literally) to display as evidence of his/her service to the district.  (Pause to note the irony of Congressional hostility to providing nonprofits with operating expenses while members of Congress help themselves to substantial portions
    of same.  Wouldn’t you gladly trade off an earmark for just one year’s use of the franking privilege, whereby our elected officials receive free postage?)

The Nonprofiteer really thinks your time would be better spent building an individual-giving donor base, which won’t disappear in the next election; but if you’re going to seek slops, you should at least know where the feed-lot is. 

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One Response to “Dear Nonprofiteer, If I have my ear marked, does that make me a hog?”

  1. Sam Davis Says:

    The examples cited by the Nonprofiteer offer practical wisdom why being a “hog” at the “public trough” is risky. All it takes is one member of Congress defeated for re-election or one governor with line-item veto power and your trough is empty.

    Ethically, accessing tax money means taking money, indirectly, from individuals who may not have voluntarily given it themselves. This is something akin to theft, perhaps not quite as heinous, but akin nonetheless.

    Both points argue strongly for doing all the fundraising necessary for your organization or project from individuals, companies and foundations. You still run the risk of large donors changing their minds, but now you’re in the driver’s seat, not the politicians, and the ethics are all squared away.

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