Q. How has your role in the Wisconsin political landscape changed in the last five to 10 years? Is there more or less of a hunger for “impartial” data?
A. In Wisconsin, the political landscape has evolved over the past 30 to 40 years with the advent of the full-time professional legislature, the centralization of power in the offices of legislative party leaders and the governor, and the increasingly take-no-prisoners partisanship that has developed among activists on the far left and far right. Respect, kindness, polite behavior, decorum are much less evident in capitol buildings today.
This has resulted in the last five to 10 years in the increasing inability of government at state and federal levels to work through and solve difficult problems. That gridlock and dysfunction has led to increased citizen alienation from public institutions. Regardless of party or ideology, both the 2008 and 2016 presidential elections were really protest elections with voters begging for problem-solving, for results, and willing to take a chance on anyone who might deliver that.
Q. Are you experiencing a decline in financial support for what you do?
A. We are a nonprofit 501(c)(3) and like all charitable organizations, every year presents new challenges. The irony is that “white-hat” truth-telling and fact-finding are not what most easily motivate financial giving in the public arena. Reflecting our politics today, it is anger and emotion and simplistic answers that move many donors to act.
For us, this is complicated by the fact that what we offer is a public good. Anyone can request most of our work for free: our civic and community lectures are free, part of our public service mission; serving as a resource to media reporters and editors is free; answering inquiries from citizens and local officials is free. People can benefit from much of our work without having to pay for it.
And although our research, writing, and speaking remain mostly free as part of our commitment to public service, it costs to provide all those services.
Another challenge for many local charities is the business mergers and acquisitions that strip the state of company headquarters, civic leadership and a commitment to finance state and local nonprofits.