posted April 29, 2003

Conference on State Policymaking and Nonprofits

A Hope College professor's on-going research on the relationship between state government and nonprofit human service organizations forms the basis of a statewide conference being held in Grand Rapids on Friday, May 9.

Dr. Deborah Sturtevant of the sociology and social work faculty is seeking to help nonprofits play a more effective role in the public policy process. The need is particularly critical, she said, as the state shifts away from direct governmental delivery of social services to contracts with private and nonprofit organizations. On average, she noted, human service nonprofits receive more than 50 percent of their funding from government sources.

"So they need to be working more closely together on behalf of all the people who are being served through the human service sector in Michigan," said Sturtevant, who is professor of sociology and social work and chair of the department at Hope.

In her most recent project, which she completed earlier this year, she surveyed 55 percent of the Michigan Legislature to obtain legislators' perceptions of the relationship between government and nonprofits. In a 1997 study, she had asked executives of nonprofits about their relationship with government policy makers.

The results of both efforts will be reviewed in the conference in Grand Rapids, "Partnership in the Era of Term Limits: A Conversation between State Policymakers and Nonprofits," which state legislators and representatives of nonprofits alike will attend. The event will be held at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Grand Valley State University's Pew Campus.

Sturtevant's presentation will focus on four main areas: how nonprofits can be more influential in engaging legislators to respond to their needs; the effect of term limits; issues related to the federal emphasis on faith- based initiatives; and how the partnership between nonprofits and policy makers can be improved.

Legislators, she found, generally recognized the important role played by the nonprofits, and hoped for more direct interaction with representatives of the organizations.

Both the executives and the legislators cited trusting relationships as key, and noted that the current term limitations impede long-term relationship building.

Sturtevant found broad support among legislators for the ability of faith-based nonprofits to deliver "holistic" quality services at reduced cost, even while lawmakers from both parties had concerns about constitutional church/state separation and accountability.

Based on her research, Sturtevant proposes a formal mechanism for involving representatives of nonprofit organizations in public policy development, such as creating roundtables of experts to serve as resources or including liaisons on legislative committees, "so that they would have a regular opportunity to help frame the policies in the system," she said.

The conference will run from registration at 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. In addition to a presentation by Sturtevant, the event will include a panel discussion featuring both lawmakers and representatives of nonprofits; small group interaction during a luncheon; and visits to area examples of public-private partnerships.

The conference is sponsored by the Council of Michigan Foundations, Heart of West Michigan United Way, Hope College, Michigan 211 and Michigan Association of United Ways, Michigan Nonprofit Association, Michigan Nonprofit Research Program and Public Policy Institute at GVSU.

Sturtevant's research was supported through a grant awarded by the Nonprofit Sector Research Fund of the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C. She was assisted in her work for the past two years by graduating Hope senior and social work major Morgan Smith of Three Rivers. Smith, who will be participating in the conference, will pursue graduate study at the University of Michigan in the fall.