News Column

ADVOCACY: Issues Under the Microscope

December 2001

By Janet Perez

The war on terrorism alters the funding and focus of Hispanic nonprofit organizations.

National Hispanic advocacy organizations have had a hard time getting back to business-as-usual since September 11. In fact, business clearly is not as usual, on either the operational or the long-range-planning front. Fund-raising efforts have taken the most immediate hit for many groups, while for others, lobbying work in the nation's capital has become a more difficult and potentially hazardous task. The attacks also have had the effect of changing many programs' goals and focus, while the needs of the growing Hispanic community still call for the attention of policy makers.

In terms of fund-raising, the attacks have engendered a strange mix of fiscal conservatism and community spirit. Herik Venegas, vice-president of development at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) in Los Angeles, says that in the immediate aftermath of September 11, millions of dollars in donations were redirected from long-term social programs toward relief efforts. Also, some industries reeling from both the attacks and the faltering economy are no longer viable sources for funds.

At the Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities (HACU), President Antonio Flores says corporate donors are still showing their commitment to the organization at least for now. MALDEF does not get state or federal funding, so it has to rely on individuals and corporations. Yet the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), an umbrella group that writes grants for more than 200 local community groups, faces the same uncertain financial future. "We're not a sort of everyday donation kind of organization," says spokeswoman Lisa Navarette. "We are worried because it's going to affect our community-based organizations and our affiliates much more. The jury is still out."

The advocacy function of these organizations continues to be strong even in the midst of a changing national agenda. "Now mail is being screened for all kinds of things, and people are not around as much as they used to be because of problems with anthrax and the Capitol complex," says HACU's Mr. Flores. "But there's been no slowdown. We now communicate with members of Congress through e-mail, fax, and the telephone." During the initial crisis, technology also helped groups stay in touch with their constituencies via the Internet (see directory on following page).

Despite distractions an NCLR employee, for instance, was tested for anthrax after visiting the Hart Building, where Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has his office Ms. Navarette is surprised at how much discussion still goes on about issues of importance to the Hispanic constituency. "If you had told me on September 12 that we would have to stop going up to the Hill for a while, I would not have been surprised," she says. "But actually, that has not been the case."

The issues addressed by Hispanic advocacy organizations remain the same, but they are framed now in a new context: accessibility to health care for Hispanics in light of potential anthrax outbreaks; immigration and civil rights in conjunction with the nation's war on international terrorism. "A number of people in the anti-immigrant group want to use this [terrorist] issue to push their agenda, and that's our biggest concern," Ms. Navarette says.

During the next year, nonprofits will face the same challenges as other businesses maintaining their revenues and keeping their agenda relevant. Aside from government grants and foundation money, events constitute a major source of funds. HACU did some initial hand-wringing over whether to cancel its annual conference, scheduled for October 2730 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "We felt that, all in all, canceling would not be conducive to our association, and we would be playing into the hands of the terrorists," Mr. Flores explains. Nevertheless, reorganization within the air travel industry, the public's newfound aversion to travel, and worries about the economy may affect event attendance and logistics into the foreseeable future.

On a positive note, groups hope to raise the profile of Hispanic issues by hooking into rising community spirit around the country. MALDEF and NCLR are working to help the families of Hispanics lost in the World Trade Center. As more people become aware of those Hispanic workers and their contributions, Mr. Venegas says, we could see a major breakthrough in the public's understanding of the Hispanic role in the nation's economy.

Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS magazine

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