Single Issue Advocacy in Politics and Nonprofits

More than ever, it's the political season. We find ourselves engaged in politically-charged discussions, whether or not we're very active or even interested. These discussions of national, state and local concern are hard to avoid. Most of the in/valid information bantered about changes few opinions, is just "more of the same." But I can say that I was quite struck by last weekend's conversation with a good friend, a self-proclaimed a. apolitical type, and b. "single issue voter."

My friend, a well-educated, highly intelligent and active person, will choose a Presidential favorite based solely on the fact that the person holding the office during the next four years will likely appoint one or more Supreme Court Justices. She wants to make sure that the high court is "skewed" to the side that will support her stance on her chosen single issue.

Her logic makes a lot of sense but, frankly, is distressing as it confirms the trend I've perceived toward single issue voting. My guess is that a lot of people choose our country's leadership using this approach. A harsh analogy is in how I chose the husband of my youth (a politically correct description, don't you think?!). I wanted a good looking guy, and that's exactly what I got. Of course, he came with a lot of other "stuff" - some good, some bad. But I did get exactly what I was looking for! Now, as a middle-aged single person, I can tell you that my list of criteria was far too short.

This fall, many officials will be elected based on single issues, from fighting the Iraqis to fighting the local gravel pit. And many nonprofits similarly get their start. The focus that the single issue approach allows is terrific, and I do believe that social change oftentimes results directly from the efforts of these zealous "freedom fighters." But there are times when the single issue approach - both in government and nonprofits - gets in the way of the common good and common sense.

The worst case of nonprofit endeavor gone amuck due to single issue advocacy occurred Christmas 2001 in a tiff between gay-rights supporters and The Salvation Army. Unhappy about the Army's unwillingness to offer health benefits to domestic partners of gay men and lesbian employees, a national protest of the red kettle fundraiser was launched. Protest notes, vaguely resembling $5 bills, were distributed to gay-rights supporters for "gift" to the Army's kettles: "I would have donated $5, but The Salvation Army's decision to discriminate against gay men, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered employees prevents my donation now and in the future."

Peace on earth, good will toward men. And women. And children, and transgendered individuals and...

While the gay-rights activists have every right to voice their concerns, work to change attitudes, advocate for themselves and their loved ones, does this promotional tactic make any sense? Does beating down The Salvation Army staff and volunteers, their fund raising potential, their positive press during the holidays, their outreach to those in need (regardless of sexual orientation) serve the common good? Serve to better the condition of those they want to assist?

While knocking the wind out of The Salvation Army's season of giving seems unnecessary and inappropriate, the campaign did not come close to the lack of civility displayed by the animal rights billboard campaign featuring then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani with a milk mustache and the tagline, "Got cancer?" As a matter of fact, he did have cancer and they knew it. That was the day when I realized that nonprofits have nothing on business or government when it comes to scruples.

Thankfully, this magnitude of incident is isolated. But I think we need to use these recent nonprofit antics as reminders...that our nonprofit cause and its means to an end can become as barbaric as the demons we choose to fight. And it's not worth it. To break down our nation and our society, to destroy those who disagree with us degrades us all. We the people, we the nonprofit leaders, deserve better.

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