A Post Office: If You Can Keep It

Our mail system is under siege. Nonprofits get special dispensation from the U.S. Postal Service and are especially reliant on it. They must fight especially hard to protect Ben Franklin’s creation as should we all.

Every citizen has an interest in maintaining the widest possible access to the polls so we all should come to the defense of the post office. But nonprofits have a special obligation to defend this essential American institution.

Nonprofits rely on the post office for a variety of special needs and services. Even in an age of online solicitations, many nonprofits take advantage of special subsidized postage rates that enable charities to communicate with their constituents and raise money from potential donors. The American Cancer Society paid one firm over $35 million in 2019 for direct mail strategy according to IRS forms. Even if we sometimes lament the way they pile up in our homes, those solicitation letters are really the lifeblood of so much good work in this country.

According to Independent Sector, nonprofits typically make up 10 percent of all U.S. Postal Service mail volume, amounting to a whopping 154 billion mail pieces per year. In a global pandemic, nonprofits depend upon the postal service even more. Nonprofit constituents – members, clients, patients, parents, subscribers – lean on the USPS  to keep a social distance.  And don’t underestimate the contribution nonprofits make to the national economy, not just in terms of their good works in health care, education, and other areas but also in their economic might. Nonprofits employ over 12 million workers. In some states like North Dakota, they constitute over 15 percent of the labor force. All totaled, the nonprofit sector contributed an estimated $1 trillion to the US economy in 2016, composing 5.6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

“We encourage all nonprofits to advocate for themselves and the communities they serve. In that regard, we’d be a strong proponent of any and all nonprofits weighing in with their representatives to make sure they are well informed of the value the postal service has. We want the USPS to continue being a strong institution for civil society,”  says Dan Cardinali, the CEO of Independent Sector:

“Given the magnitude of the pandemic, we want every government institution to be well-funded and operating at its absolute height in order to serve American communities and the nonprofit sector.“

 The leadership of the USPS – Postmaster General DeJoy and his colleagues on the Board of Governors – argue that their dramatic policy changes – reductions in staffing and sharp limitations in overtime, along with the dismantling of equipment – are all steps to make the organization more competitive. Critics of the post office have long argued that it should operate more like a business. But it’s not a business. It’s a public service. Your first clue is right there in the name, the United States Postal Service. And the commitment of universal service, delivering mail affordably is sacrosanct. It costs 55 cents to mail a letter from Barrow, Alaska to Boca Raton, Florida. That’s not a profitable business decision but it is essential if we’re to have one fixed rate for First Class postage stamps.

If you’ve ever filled out a shipping label for FedEx or UPS, you know that there is no box to claim your subsidized nonprofit rate as there is the USPS.

Running the post office like a business; Where have we heard that before? It’s the common refrain heard by many nonprofit leaders. But for any organization with a public service mission, narrow metrics of profit and loss can’t govern all we do.

If there’s a positive outcome from this unwanted spotlight on the mail system, it may be that we are forced to acknowledge how much we rely on a service and how popular it is. According to the Pew Research Center,  91 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the post office. It is one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats agree on.

Let’s appreciate the ways in which this service helped to shape America as a more informed and egalitarian nation.

The post office today carries the DNA that Ben Franklin provided as the first postmaster of the United States and even before that, as postmaster of the colonies. Franklin was famously a man of letters and science and he saw the post office as instrumental in disseminating knowledge. But even more so, as Walter Isaacson notes in his biography, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, the postal service “furthered Franklin’s conception of the disparate American colonies as a potentially unified nation with shared interests and needs.”

It’s hard to comprehend just how radical was the notion of a United States Postal Service, beginning with the Post Office Act of 1792. It aimed to provide universal service at a modest price to all recipients across the burgeoning states and territories. (It’s important to note the obvious caveat that universal service in those days did not extend to Black or Native American people.) The scale of postal expansion was vast, growing from 75 locations in 1790 to 8,450 in 1830, according to Richard John in his authoritative account of the early post office, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse. Measured another way, the post office at that time was by far the largest function of the federal government, employing nearly 8,800 workers of a total federal workforce of less than 12,000.

Beyond the concept of universal service, the postal system also sought to expand the reach and distribution of newspapers, delivering subscriptions at a greatly reduced rate and even further allowing each newspaper to send a copy to every other newspaper for free, such that by the 1840s each newspaper was receiving on average 4300 other newspapers per year. By another important measure, in 1832 newspapers provided just 15 percent of postal revenue, but they made up 95 percent of the weight, as noted in the aptly titled “Spreading the News.”

What are we to infer from this critical chapter in the history of the post office? At the founding of our nation, faced with myriad demands, wise leaders invested heavily in a vast expansion of our capacity to deliver information to the widest possible audience.

Once we get past the momentary assault on our postal service, philanthropy and government should consider ways in which we too can invest in a media ecosystem that is as ambitious and egalitarian as the early post office. We can start by greatly expanding affordable access to broadband, providing free or low-cost access for those who can’t afford expensive digital subscriptions. And we should deliver subsidized rural broadband the same way we have provided mail services to far-flung recipients.

At various times in our history, philanthropy too has played a vital role in greatly expanding the quality and reach of information in our media ecosystem, most notably in the early 1960s when the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation provided early support for what became a greatly expanded federal commitment to public broadcasting, with the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Service.

In The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure, a recent essay published by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, media scholar Ethan Zuckerman calls for philanthropy and government to explore ways to establish robust information services that reach large audiences with quality information but do not abuse the trust and privacy of users. Zuckerman suggests the possibility of taxation on existing information services that make money through invasive advertising practices, to create subsidized public service information resources, including funds for journalism.

As Zuckerman says, “Public service digital media offers us the opportunity to imagine what could be possible. What is the media environment we want?”

In the meantime, nonprofits and foundations should come to the aid of a post office under siege. At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Ben Franklin was reportedly asked what kind of government was created and he is said to have replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The same might be said of our beloved postal service today.

James Walker provided research assistance.

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Vincent Stehle

Vincent Stehle is executive director of Media Impact Funders. This article does not reflect the views of that organization, its directors or staff.