In the aftermath of a contentious 2016 election cycle, and as budget cuts threaten some of the nation's longest-standing service programs, Cincinnati organizations are coming up with new ways to fight back, switching their focus from lobbying to advocacy and intensive, direct community action.
“We’re trying to do as much proactively as we can in a reactive climate,” says Kristin Shrimplin, president and CEO of Women Helping Women. “Our agency culture was historically head-down, focused on serving survivors and just getting the work done. But we have realized the importance of being out in the community and talking about the need to prevent gender-based violence.”
Kat Lyons, CILOKat Lyons, advocacy coordinator with the Center for Independent Living Options, expresses a similar focus shift in light of the new reality. “We are definitely reaching out to our consumers and other disability organizations with a call to action."
As part of that effort, CILO is planning Cincinnati’s second Disability Pride March on July 26 to bring awareness to the issues that people with disabilities face.
Many local groups are also finding creative ways to connect directly with legislators, sending staff and board members to state capitals and Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials and organizing onsite tours to engage and inform decision makers. They’re leveraging email and social media to provide talking points for their supporters to use when contacting state and federal legislators.
"Despite setbacks at the national level, much of our work is based on the decisions of local leaders,” says John P. Bruggen, co-chair of GLSEN Greater Cincinnati. “Which in our case means principals, superintendents and school boards. Who is in the White House doesn't change their willingness to do what is right for their students.”
Think globally, act locally
While the national debate rages on, local chapters of national nonprofits continue to focus on the cities and states they serve directly.
Mike Brickner, senior policy director, ACLU of Ohio“We can do a whole lot of good in ways that are removed from what is going on in D.C.,” says Mike Brickner, senior policy director for the ACLU of Ohio. “We are working on reforming the bail system in Ohio so people are not kept in jail just because they can’t afford bail. We have successfully challenged Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s plan to purge voter lists of those who haven’t voted recently in a case that will be heard by the Supreme Court.”
As the national spotlight roves from issue to issue, local entities often see mixed impact. For example, an organization may see a bump in donations or volunteers, but that bump might come with new demands on their services.
After Trump’s administration proposed an immigration ban, more than $24 million in donations poured into the national ACLU office in one weekend. The Ohio chapter also saw increased donations, along with a surge in volunteers and requests for information on how to take action. Meanwhile, membership quadrupled.
As other local orgs like GLSEN saw increased interest following the election, the challenge became keeping new supporters involved and engaged in their mission.
“The national story line serves as a backdrop for our local work, both from a program development and fundraising perspective, but we try not to let it overwhelm the relationship-building that is central to all our work,” says Bruggen. “We saw a pronounced increase in volunteer applications last November and December, and it helped us onboard a new group of volunteers for the mentor program we launched in the new year to support GSTAs (gay-straight-trans alliances or diversity clubs) in local high schools.”
Local nonprofits are also seeing more demand for their services — WHW Greater Cincinnati saw increased demand for gender-based violence response services grow throughout 2016.
“With the public and the media talking more about sexual assault, it triggered many survivors who are now seeking help,” says Shrimplin. “The day after the election, one of our support groups doubled.”
This growing need coincides with a federal budget proposal that would gut funding for the Violence Against Women Act, Family Violence Prevention Services Act and the Office of Violence Against Women — including grants for local agencies that serve survivors, like WHW.
Kristin Shrimplin, WHW president and CEO“When a policymaker releases a statement about what they propose to cut, it is our duty to inform the community about the local impact,” says Shrimplin. “Nonprofits are often afraid to speak out and to fully engage, but when given the platform to speak, we must advocate for our mission. WHW is choosing to be proactive and start connecting the dots for our stakeholders.”
Local groups learn to fundraise creatively
The threat of cuts has prompted groups like the CILO to seek private grant funds as well as fee-for-service work. Other nonprofits are combining fundraising and friend-raising through collaborations and innovative programs.
Planned Parenthood is no stranger to political attacks, but efforts to defund the organization at a national and state level have galvanized support for the organization. The group’s Southwest Ohio chapter (PPSWO) has seen 2,000 new donors and more than 250 new volunteers since the election.
The organization and its auxiliary group, Proud Partners of PPSWO (P Squared), have hosted cutting-edge events like an annual drag show fundraiser held at Below Zero Lounge in Over-the-Rhine (coming up on July 14) and programs like the ongoing “Sexy Time Trivia Night” at Brew House that encourages sexual health awareness.
“We were delighted that so many businesses reached out,” says Crystal Justice, PPSWO’s VP of development. “All of these events have been so successful, raising thousands of dollars and more importantly thousands of activists in the fight for reproductive health care.”
Local bars, including The Littlefield and Sundry and Vice have hosted events and drink specials to benefit local nonprofits. Just this month, Southgate House Revival hosted a benefit concert for the ACLU and many local charities are participating in Rhinegeist’s weekly “Charitable Suds” program.
“Charitable Suds was developed in 2016 out of the desire to have a more consistent charitable giving program and to utilize our vast taproom space to connect communities,” says Rhinegeist's community engagement manager Katie Hoffman. “The most consistent feedback we’ve received is that it provides an opportunity for an organization to get in front of a new audience or to reconnect with their community and share their passion.”
To keep up with demand for the program, Rhinegeist implemented an application process and to date, has received more than 55 applications from organizations hoping to score a coveted Wednesday night slot. Hoffman also says the average donation increased this year, suggesting more people are participating to support the charities they care about.
Elsewhere, the Contemporary Arts Center has joined the effort, hosting a temporary installation by artist Niki Johnson called Hills and Valleys, which features a mural comprising signage from now-defunded/closed Planned Parenthood health centers.
The Know Theatre has partnered with several local nonprofits through its Democracy in Action series and other events to raise awareness and funds. PPSWO was the beneficiary of a staged reading that took place on inauguration night, and RefugeeConnect — whose 90-plus partners work to accommodate the region's refugees — was featured at a Fringe Encore performance of “Evacuated!” by Erika Kate MacDonald. The play is about MacDonald's experience as an exchange student in Indonesia when widespread rioting led to the resignation of President Suharto.
“Community partnerships have always been central to our vision, and our partnership with Erika and The Know Theatre is a wonderful example of how organically our partnerships work," says RefugeeConnect's program director Robyn Steiner Lamont. “Erika participated in our January workshop to become a trained volunteer, and then approached us about partnering to provide a talk-back session after the opening night of her play to discuss the parallels of her work to a refugee family rebuilding life in America. She also generously donated ticket sales to support our fourth annual World Refugee Day Cup, a community-wide celebration and soccer tournament that connects local refugees and community members to resources and volunteer opportunities in Greater Cincinnati.”
These events can also help nonprofits reach new audiences, as when Women Helping Women partnered with the Queen City Queer Theatre Collective on a staged reading at Below Zero. Proceeds helped raise awareness of WHW’s work in the LGBTQ community.
Celebrating small wins in a bigger fight
Whether it’s Mayor Cranley declaring Cincinnati a sanctuary city or Rachel Dovel successfully challenging the library to provide health insurance for transgender employees, celebrating local victories becomes ever more important in light of the current national climate.
“There will be plenty of new victories,” says Bruggen. “Perhaps not at the national level, but there are many, many local allies for LGBTQ youth who understand that now is the time to speak up. And every time they are heard, that is a victory.”
As the national conversation continues to shift, local nonprofits will continually be challenged to keep donors and volunteers engaged, particularly as they pursue their long-term goals.
“We need our supporters to see past the current crisis to the amazing work we do every day, regardless of the political climate,” says Justice. “Planned Parenthood has been in Southwest Ohio for 87 years and we have faced so many challenges, and we will face even more in the years to come. We find that once our supporters fully understand the scope of work we do and how that impacts the lives of those we serve — they stand with us not because of the latest attack, but because the mission is so critical.”
For an organization like the ACLU that works on issues including mass incarceration, immigration, reproductive health and First Amendment rights, balancing the current crisis with ongoing threats to civil liberties can be a challenge.
“It is a tremendous mistake and missed opportunity if we only create a movement against an administration, rather than a movement for civil liberties," says Brickner. "It is on us to be a movement that people understand is about the fight for justice and equality, regardless of who is President, governor or on the court.”
Volunteers lead violence intervention training at Taft's Ale House.Local orgs also continue to engage the local community in new ways. WHW is helping local bars — including MOTR, Queen City Radio and Taft's Ale House — develop harassment policies as well as train staff on safely intervening in acts of gender-based violence.
Meanwhile, the GLSEN and Lighthouse Youth Services are partnering on Safe and Supported, a program to help LGBTQ homeless youth, and ACLU of Ohio works with a coalition of partners across the state, including the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice and Policy Center, to address legislative threats through legal action.
Nonprofits will continue their mission-focused work, as well as their efforts to engage the community as volunteers, advocates and donors.
“Hope, and feeling that we can continue to make progress, is far more powerful than fear,” says Brickner.