A Closer Look: Philanthropy and the public citizen

Posted on July 22, 2017 by Sonoma Valley Sun

Reader perspective by John Donnelly — This is to share my thoughts and hopes concerning the recently released report “Hidden in Plain Sight: Sonoma Valley and the Charitable Sector that Services Us.” What a tremendous gift and opportunity this report provides to us. Bravos and thanks to the Sonoma Valley Fund.

Hidden-in-Plain-Sight-284x300As a member of the First Congregational Church of Sonoma (FCCS), these comments were developed for the July 8 FCCS’s Leadership Retreat. The centerpiece of the Retreat was to discuss the Hidden in Plain Sight report with the goal of finding new ways for us to better serve our Sonoma Valley community. The Ministerial Alliance of Sonoma was also invited to join us for this Retreat.

The Report’s findings and conclusions fall into three main areas: (1) the magnitude of Sonoma Valley’s growing socio-economic justice challenges; (2) the scope and structure of the philanthropic “charitable sector” in Sonoma Valley; and, (3) why and how we need think now more strategically about the ways this charitable sector — a network of nonprofits — can grow and collaborate so as to more effectively meet these needs and challenges.

I welcome and applaud the Report and the vital questions it raises for us not only as members of faith communities, but also as citizens. However, the main thrust of my remarks is to highlight what I see as some very strategic omissions in the Report and its conclusions.

For me, a critical limitation of the Report is that it assumes throughout that the government or “public sector” is too limited and jurisdictionally compartmentalized to meet many of the present and future needs of Sonoma Valley. The Report never questions or revisits this assumption. As the Report states: “We must work to keep expanding the philanthropic pie, especially in light of the likely government funding cuts.” Nor does the Report ask us to consider what are the underlying causes contributing to such limited government capabilities.

Missing here is the call to join the resistance to the neo-liberal ideology that has dominated government policymaking over the past several decades, privatizing many public functions while further eroding the public sector’s capacities.

The Report does not acknowledge the need to challenge these anti-government politics. Nor does it suggest the need to question the underlying structural-systemic factors that have contributed to the challenges identified for Sonoma Valley.

In the all-important concluding section the Report asks us to think strategically and collaboratively for new solutions — to think “outside the box!” However, here the“box” still remains only the charitable sector; “outside” the box still excludes any consideration of how the charitable sector might also address the need to lobby as citizens for the democratic reform and restoration of the public sector’s capacity to more effectively address Sonoma Valley’s challenges.

So, if in addition to expanding our participation within the charitable sector, let us explore how might we also begin to think of ways we can lobby as citizens to advocate for scaling up public sector resources and programs as well. To suggest just a few ways we might think outside the box, here are a few possibilities.

The Report’s Executive Summary states: “And no Valley nonprofit focuses on housing, arguably the Valley’s most significant problem.” Some government housing policies that merit consideration for lobbying might include:

Lobbying at the Federal level to eliminate the Federal tax deduction mortgage interest deductions allowed for second-homes. Higher tax rates on second-homes in Sonoma Valley could enable the reallocation of some housing toward more affordable, first-home development.

Lobbying at the State level to reform Proposition 13 to increase the property tax rate on second homes. The increased tax revenues could then be dedicated to subsidizing affordable housing throughout the state.

Lobbying at the local level to re-allocate more of the Tourist Occupancy Tax (TOT) – bed tax — from funding Sonoma Valley tourist promotion to more funding for affordable and alternative senior housing, and accompanying infrastructure.

Lobbying at all levels for increases in the minimum wage and for adoption of living wage rates. Our FCCS outreach to collaborate with the North Bay Organizing Project (NBOP) is most promising in this regard.

Youth development and education, addressing the Report does highlight that there is “at least one area where coordinated government and philanthropic investments appear to be having a significant impact.”

Lobbying to apply this hybrid model of partnership between the charitable and public sectors to other Sonoma Valley needs and challenges identified in the Report (e.g., mental health services, senior services, day care for children of working parents, etc.). The successful hybrid partnerships developed between State Parks and nonprofit organizations are examples of what might bereplicated in other areas.

Lobbying to restore and increase tax-supported Sonoma Valley school district budgets. Recent reports indicate the 2017-18 school board budget includes another broad scale budget reduction plan of more than $2 million additional cuts. The Sonoma Valley Educational Fund commendably helps to provide funding for school programs impacted by inadequate school board budgets. However, why not also lobby to restore more effective public funding of our schools and make American public education great again?

Lobbying at State level to restore and increase state funding for higher education. Public universities have experienced drastic cuts in state-supported funding; they have often responded by enrolling fewer poor and middle-class students—replacing then with affluent and out-of-state students who can afford the higher tuitions. And, student debt is now a major burden for far too many.

These are just a few examples to illustrate how public policy advocacy options might contribute to addressing Sonoma Valley’s needs; I hope you will have other similar ideas to propose.

Taking note of the Report’s “Joining Together to Improve Performance” my suggestion for inclusion here is that our charitable network of nonprofits now considers collaborating to allocate up to 20 percent of their funds — allowed by 501(h) of the tax code — for public policy advocacy; perhaps an intern might be employed to help identify public policy issues in Sonoma Valley that merit lobbying efforts; such efforts might then be coordinated within the network by the intern.

John Donnelly is a retired economics professor, former chair of the Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards, and chair of the First Congregational Church’s Earth Care Committee.



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