A Seat at the Table for Skilled Generalists and Nonprofit Advocates

Profile graphic header image with headshot of Tim Delaney

"If you ask members of the LBJ School Class of 1982 what they have in common, you likely will hear great pride when describing themselves as 'skilled generalists,'" Tim Delaney said when he sat down recently to share how the LBJ School of Public Affairs influenced his development as an advocate and leader, now for the nonprofit sector as President and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits

Delaney’s career path reveals he took that skilled generalist training to heart. He has been a partner in a large law firm where he used his policy training to help impeach a governor and protect civil rights; his state’s Solicitor General and then Chief Deputy Attorney General, winning cases in the U.S. Supreme Court; and founder of a nonprofit promoting ethical leadership across the country.

The RGK Center caught up with Delaney following his months of lobbying to make sure nonprofits were included in several pieces of important COVID-19 relief legislation passed by Congress.  He shared the story of how nonprofits and the LBJ School have shaped his life. Like any good storyteller, he starts at the very beginning.  

“I was born in a nonprofit hospital,” Delaney explains. “Some of my earliest memories are of nonprofits, beginning with Girl Scouts because my mom was a Brownie group leader for my older sister. Later, at the YMCA I learned how to strike out gracefully because I had so much practice,” he laughs. “It wasn’t until decades later when I looked back at my time attending a nonprofit college, receiving scholarships from nonprofit funds, getting married in a nonprofit church, taking my family to nonprofits like the San Diego Zoo, and more that I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a consistent thread there.’”  

A self-described “lifelong student of government,” Delaney went to Yale, earning his bachelor’s degree with a double major in political science and American studies, before attending The University of Texas at Austin in the dual degree program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the School of Law.  

One of the courses Delaney took in his first semester at the LBJ School was American Government Policy taught by former Congresswoman/then-professor Barbara Jordan; he later also took her class on ethics. Jordan went on to become his faculty advisor and one of the readers for his professional report.  After graduating, he kept her informed of his volunteer work in ethics, like drafting the Phoenix Ethics Handbook and developing a statewide mandatory Public Service Ethics Law.

Barbara Jordan statue on the University of Texas at Austin campus, installed in 2009. More info here. Photo from the LBJ School of Public Affairs. 

Delaney credits his dream of creating a center promoting ethical leadership in serving the public to this relationship he built with “BJ”, as he said he and his classmates casually referred to the late Congresswoman.  To hold himself accountable to his dream, he publicly shared it for the first time in 1998 when receiving the LBJ School’s Distinguished Public Service Award. This dream became a reality when, in 2001, Delaney left the Attorney General’s office to found the Center for Leadership, Ethics, and Public Service.  

“All that goes back to some of the formative discussions with Barbara Jordan, linking my interests in public policy and public service, and other things I learned at the school,” Delaney recalls. “The LBJ School has been one of the core pillars of my existence and certainly any successes I’ve enjoyed.” 

A proud alum of the Forty Acres

Delaney remembers his experience at the LBJ School as one that helped develop him into the proud “skilled generalist” he is today.  “Back in the day,” he explains, “the School took great pride in producing ‘skilled generalists’ – people who can communicate with various specialists and then pull everything together.”  

He describes this training from the LBJ School as “the greatest gift,” allowing him and other LBJ graduates to observe, listen, and see how the puzzle pieces across disciplines can fit together to create effective policy.  

“As skilled generalists, we can sit at almost any policymaking table and understand the different languages of the specialists, being conversant in and seeing the intersections between tools and topics such as statistics, personnel policies, health care, and climate change,” Delaney explains. “Not necessarily being the gold champion in each specialty, but being more like a decathlete who is very proficient in all of them, so we can then look at the big picture and help move organizations, public opinion, and society to implement solutions.”  

This ability to listen to community needs, sense the natural rhythm of policymaking, and communicate effectively has helped Delaney lead the National Council on Nonprofits (NCN) since 2008. He explains that he arrived in DC just weeks before the nation went into the freefall of the Great Recession. Although NCN had focused in the past on nonprofit capacity building, he saw the grave policy threats to nonprofits at the federal and state levels. Delaney then began transforming the organization into being an advocate for the sector, focused on promoting and protecting the work of charitable nonprofits nationwide.

Today, NCN connects the country’s largest network of nonprofits, with more than 25,000 organizational members. It integrates policy analysis and advocacy on various issues of concern to the entire 501(c)(3) community. Normally, the NCN works on sector-wide issues that could impact all nonprofits, such as charitable giving incentives, regulatory oversight, and property tax exemptions, but most of this year has been spent responding quickly to the COVID-19 crisis and ensuring nonprofits are included in relief bills and other key legislation.  

Tim Delaney testifying before the House Ways & Means Committee to protect and expand charitable giving incentives.​

Upon learning one morning that congressional staff had started drafting the first major piece of coronavirus legislation, Delaney worked with his VP of Public Policy to quickly craft a proposed solution that included the nonprofit sector. They delivered it on Capitol Hill by mid-afternoon with supporting signatures from 30 other national nonprofits. This allowed them to make sure nonprofits were included in what became the Families First Act, and “ever since, nonprofits have been included in all the different major COVID-19 bills,” explains Delaney proudly.  

Days later, NCN provided the legal expertise for the language inserted into the CARES Act that made charitable nonprofit organizations eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program. As a result, charitable nonprofits received tens of billions of dollars in forgivable loans, enabling nonprofits to survive and continue helping people in need.  The quick action of the NCN’s network of nonprofits was possible because of the value the network places on advocacy, encouraging nonprofit leaders to engage in and be aware of public policy that affects them.  

Daily advocacy 

Advocacy, Delaney explains, is the big umbrella of influencing others under which legislative lobbying falls. He considers the “myth” that charitable nonprofits cannot lobby as one of the most damaging for society at large. 

“For too long, attorneys and accountants have been passing along false lore, claiming incorrectly that nonprofits can’t lobby. That claim is wrong as a matter of statutory law, it is wrong as a matter of regulatory law, and it is wrong for society at large when nonprofits are told repeatedly we can’t lobby,” Delaney explains firmly. “We have a constitutional right to lobby, and we have a moral obligation to speak up when we see wrong. To put a muzzle—a false muzzle—on nonprofits is absolutely wrong and harmful. Nonprofits have a front-row view of society’s problems, which places us closest to workable solutions. Keeping that information away from policy makers hurts society at large.”

Charitable nonprofits employ more than 10% of the American workforce and the third largest industry in the country in terms of employment -- bigger than construction, finance, and even all of manufacturing, Delaney explains. He emphasizes that the importance of America’s nonprofit sector cannot be overlooked, especially when the COVID-19 crisis is driving more people to nonprofits for basic survival assistance while revenues for nonprofits are plummeting.  “With tens of millions of Americans relying so heavily on nonprofits right now,” he says, “society cannot afford to have any more nonprofits collapse right now.”

“Advocacy doesn’t have to be about changing a law or policy, but we also need to be equipped so that when laws need to be changed or protected, nonprofits are at the policy table to have a voice,” Delaney says. “There’s a saying among advocates in the nonprofit sector: if you’re not at the table, you’ll be on the menu.” He adds, “Collectively, we are huge, and we could be mighty if we use our voices.” 

“I think it’s important for us all to look for opportunities to raise our voices together,” Delaney says. “Nonprofits are the way the American people come together productively to work on what individuals see as a community problem.”  

Tim Delaney emphasizing the irreplaceable value of nonprofits at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol.​

This, Delaney explains, is what NCN does—rather than attempting to focus attention on public policy issues for every subsector, such as education, arts and culture, health care, and more. NCN works where it can make the biggest impact, examining sector-wide issues that can affect the work of all nonprofits, such as reforming government-nonprofit contracts so dollars can be spent on programs helping people rather than paperwork to fill files, the confusion and stigma surrounding nonprofit advocacy and the importance of being aware of state and local policies that affect your organizations and those they serve. 

“That’s why we fight around the clock, seven days a week, to make sure that the American people have the ability to come together through charitable nonprofits to solve community problems and work together for the greater good,” Delaney says. “We’re always talking to people about everyday advocacy, just being an advocate for your mission. Every day when you wake up and you’re brushing your teeth, look in the mirror and ask—who can I advocate with for my nonprofit today?”  

Advice for LBJ students and grads

Tim Delaney offers three pieces for advice for LBJ students and recent graduates. The first, not surprisingly, reinforces what he has learned as a skilled generalist graduate of the LBJ School: “Get as many experiences in as many settings as you can, as early as you can in your career, so you can have a broader understanding of how the world works.” Next, he advises: “Keep your head on a swivel” looking for mentors—people you can learn from and turn to, whether it’s someone from within your organization or outside of it. And the third, because he says he didn’t focus on it early enough in his career: “Learn about budgets, because he or she who knows the budget can control almost everything.”  

Delaney also shares his best ethical decision-making tool, one that is free and can be found most anywhere – an empty chair. “Always have an empty chair in the room where you’re making important decisions,” Delaney says – in your office, a board room, a legislative hearing. Then, mentally put your mentor in that chair as you consider what to do. For Delaney, his mentor Barbara Jordan often sits here.  

“Before I have to make a dicey decision, I look at the empty chair and think, ‘What would BJ say if I did this versus that?’ Just slowing down and asking the question before doing something of significance,” Delaney says, has helped him slow down and consider a broader range of possibilities and ramifications.  

“Nonprofits and people going into government need to recognize that we all are committed to the common good. We need to come together to take care of each other and support each other, and that’s the benefit of having Barbara Jordan sitting in my chair—she hasn’t steered me wrong yet.” 

Dec. 10, 2020