Pat Libby is a Professor of Practice at the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences. She created and directs USD’s Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research, which comprises graduate programs at the masters and doctoral levels, a research center, and comprehensive community education programs. She talks with Inside USD about challenges for nonprofits, lobbying efforts, and what it’s like being a Boston native.
What a question! Where do I start? There is a huge difference between Boston and San Diego. When I first moved here I missed the excellent public transportation system (and still do), the lush landscape of deciduous trees, the brick and wooden buildings, the rich history that is everywhere, and the pride people have in the city and in their individual neighborhoods – each of which has a distinct identity. Oh, and the pizza. You really can’t get anything like it here.
Bostonians are passionate about sports too: you can’t walk a block in Boston without seeing people wearing Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins or Patriots gear. The biggest difference though really has to do with how people approach life and work. In Boston people live to work; in San Diego people work to live.
Bostonians are also direct. If they don’t like an idea, they let you know why and aren’t afraid to build on the ideas of others. Here people are much more indirect. They won’t speak up if they hear something they don’t like yet often complain about it to others afterward. By doing that they miss great opportunities to generate new thinking.
Now the great part about San Diego — in addition to the weather, which you really can’t beat — is that people are much more laid back, polite and tolerant. You rarely hear a car horn honk or a voice raised here whereas in Boston it’s timpani of sound. San Diego is also much more of a melting pot than Boston.
I have to confess that my license plate is “BSTN4ME” which tells you where I stand.
Q: In your opinion, what is the toughest challenge for a nonprofit in today’s economy?
Although not all nonprofits have a mission to address poverty, most serve and/or employ people who are low-income. Therefore the biggest challenges the sector faces as a whole are the cuts that are happening to the federal safety net. For instance, in November, Food Stamps (now known officially as SNAP) were cut by $5 billion resulting in an average household reduction of $30 per month in benefits. As a result, food banks and food pantries are flooded with people who need help. On top of that, the compromise budget that Congress is negotiating contains an additional $9 billion in cuts to the Food Stamp program. Those cuts mean 85 million people per year will lose their benefits or see them dramatically reduced (1 out of 7 Americans receive Food Stamps). If you combine that news with the fact that unemployment insurance hasn’t been extended for 1.3 million Americans, and that the value of the minimum wage is worth less in today’s dollars than it was in 1968, you really have a lot of people who are struggling.
It doesn’t seem fair to me when I see people who are working full time, for instance, members of the military, people who work at fast food places, or folks who do maintenance work, standing in line at food pantries. It’s unconscionable. There are 280,000 children in San Diego who need food assistance.
The fact is that no matter how hard nonprofits work, we simply can’t replace the role of government in caring for people. Nonprofits are beginning to realize that and are waking up to the fact that they have to become much better advocates for the people and communities they serve. All of that is my way of saying that the biggest challenge facing nonprofits is to make sure that they are not so engrossed with the admittedly important day-to-day details of running their organizations but that they keep focused on the impact they are trying to make in their communities and in the world.
Q: You teach a class, Advocacy Skills and Strategy, and you recently took your students to Sacramento to lobby the legislature in regard to assisted living facilities and the need for them to carry liability insurance and to be regulated in other ways as well. What lessons were you hoping that your students would learn firsthand?
Actually, my graduate students are engaged in three separate legislative campaigns this year – one that you mentioned, one having to do with extending the age through which foster youth who are enrolled in college receive a housing subsidy, and one having to do with using cap and trade funds for a pilot program to underwrite public transportation subsidies for low-income youth and adults (those students reported that low-income families spend on average, 40 percent of their income on transportation costs). At this point we are optimistic that each of these campaigns will find a legislator who will author a bill on behalf of these causes (the assisted living initiative already has many different bill authors who are tackling different aspects of the problem). I’ve taught this course for 10 years with Howard Wayne, a USD Law School alum who is a former state legislator.
The idea behind this course is for students to learn how to develop a legislative campaign from start to finish. Through the course students have been successful in passing many important California laws ranging from a law that allow the state to spend money in Mexico to abate environmental pollution affecting San Diego to a law that requires computer repair technicians to report child pornography. It’s really wonderful when students learn they can make a difference and then make it happen.
Q: Lobbying is often spoken about with a negative connation, especially in Washington, D.C. What do you feel is the real purpose of lobbying, and what advice would you give to a student who would like to make a career of advocacy?
The real purpose of lobbying, at least, from the perspective of someone who wants to be a change-agent, is just that — to create change. The advice I would give to someone who was interested in this work would be to find that thing they are passionate about and to work toward making that idea a reality.
Q: We often see leaders of nonprofits making hefty sums of money. Do they deserve this kind of compensation? What is your take on how nonprofits should grapple with the compensation issue?
Oh geez, that is such a myth! Sure there are some folks at the top of the nonprofit food chain who are making big bucks but the vast majority of nonprofit employees earn much less than their counterparts in the public and private sector. There are, for example, more than 9,000 public charities in San Diego of which only 1,800 have staff! All the rest are volunteer-driven organizations. The larger nonprofits that do compensate more generously run complex organizations and are required by law to benchmark the compensation of their top executives against others in the marketplace. These not your grandmother’s nonprofits.
Q: If you had a week to do whatever you’d like, what would you chose to do?
My favorite place in the world is Hood River, Oregon. It’s heaven on earth. I love to go there with my husband to hike. The trails are numerous and each beautiful in its own way. It’s one waterfall after another.
– Melissa Wagoner