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Salamon got his first lesson on the significance of nonprofits in the 1960s, studying the nascent civil rights movement in rural Mississippi. In 1981, he authored a seminal study of the sector in response to then President Ronald Reagan’s proposals to drastically cut government spending. Reagan argued that nonprofits could pick up the slack for downsized government agencies. Salamon revealed that in many cases, it was nonprofit organizations, not government agencies, that already did the hard work of administering government programs ranging from health care to low-income housing. Of the proposed cuts to government spending, $40 billion would have been taken from the very nongovernmental groups Reagan expected to keep the country going. The study dealt a blow to Reagan’s plans and set Salamon on a decades-long quest to put the nonprofit sector on the map both in the United States and abroad.
Salamon summed up two decades of research in his 2003 volume, The Resilient Sector. In order to survive a long string of political attacks, Salamon wrote, nonprofits had devised innovative new fundraising techniques, stolen pages from the private sector (some have even set up for-profit subsidiaries to bankroll their activities), built partnerships with businesses and government, and joined forces on the local, state, and national levels to become an industrial and political force. “Although largely unheralded, nonprofit America has undergone a quiet revolution, a massive process of reinvention and re-engineering that is still very much under way,” Salamon wrote. While some fields had progressed more than others, he argued that “there is no denying the dominant picture of resilience, adaptation, and change.”
Not five years after Salamon wrote those words, the economy would slump into a recession, and his thesis would be put to the test. In January, with evidence of the meltdown building and a new president in the White House, Salamon gathered a dozen national nonprofit leaders at the Pocantico Conference Center north of New York City. Distressed at the economic news and concerned that the nonprofit sector would once again be sidelined during the economic and policy debates, the group volunteered Salamon to create a statement making a case for the sector’s needs—and potential contributions— during difficult times. After a late night of writing and a series of revisions by the group, a manifesto emerged. Called “Forward Together,” it serves as a call to action to nonprofit, business, and political leaders to “renew and reinforce America’s compact with this crucial set of institutions.” The document garnered the signatures of leaders representing more than 100,000 nonprofit organizations. Salamon took the agenda directly to President Barack Obama’s White House Office of Social Innovation.
Salamon and his allies flew the flag for the “citizen sector” again as Congress and the president were considering the $787 billion stimulus package. When word came down that priority would go to “shovel-ready” projects such as roads and bridges, the Center for Civil Society Studies used its numerous contacts to compile a list of stalled projects from nonprofits nationwide. The list, which included a workforce training and child development center in a poor part of San Antonio, Texas, and a mental health center in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, represented an estimated $10.6 billion in infrastructure needs. The ultimate decisions about where to spend the stimulus money rests with the states. “I can’t say that [our report] shook money loose,” Salamon says, “but this never would have been on the agenda without it.”