Not Ready to Play the Game: Nonprofit Participation in Public Policy

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During a meeting with executive directors from several Boston area nonprofits, one of them reported that being involved in the public policy process is a “necessary evil.” As an organization, they try to avoid having to deal with elected officials but have to because their grants and contracts depend on solid relationships with them. He went on to say that every time he leaves a meeting with an elected official he feels “unclean.”

All too often nonprofit executive directors in the United States share this perspective on involvement in the public policy process. Nonprofits recognize the importance of public policy to mission-related goals and, on occasion, get involved. Yet, they are not ready to be consistently present at the policymaking table with government due to several factors including fear, confusion, disdain for politics, and deficits in financial resources, policy skills and leadership.

Moreover, receiving foundation and government money serves as an added factor in deterring nonprofit policy participation. These are just a few of the findings of a new national study by OMB Watch, Tufts University and Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest (CLPI) called the “Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project” (SNAP).1 The goals of the study  are to learn the extent of the sector’s participation in the public policy process, and to understand the forces influencing their participation in making public policy.

On the positive side, the SNAP study revealed several forces that motivate nonprofits to get involved. It is important to remember that public policy participation is a far wider range of activities than just legislative lobbying as defined by the IRS code. Many nonprofits organize and mobilize people, conduct and disseminate research, raise public awareness about policy issues, educate government about appropriate regulations, meet informally with elected officials, represent individuals and groups before the judiciary, encourage basic civic participation through voting and much more.

Public policy participation is also not just for so-called advocacy organizations and large associations. It is for any organization whose mission or programs are somehow affected by government decisions. Sometimes staff of nonprofit service organizations will say, “We carry out our mission by providing critical services, education or cultural experiences and government doesn’t really have an effect on what we do.” Even if this perspective were true on a daily basis, public policy touches the lives of every person and every organization, at least indirectly.

The good news is that 86 percent of nonprofits participate in one or more public policy related activities at some point during the year. 2 Perhaps even more surprising was that 78 percent of nonprofits reported that they “lobby.”3

However, the bad news is that that the frequency of participation is low. For example, 69 percent of nonprofits either never engage in direct lobbying or do so infrequently; 77 percent have either never testified before a legislative body or do so infrequently. Not surprisingly, health and environmental groups reported the highest levels of participation. Among the lowest were arts, religion and recreation.

Compared to business and organized labor–who have made influencing public policy integral to their efforts–America’s nonprofits are suited-up but rarely are in the game.

The top three factors motivating public policy participation are: when the policy activity is determined to be in support of the organization’s mission; when there is a need to raise public awareness on an issue; and to protect programs that serve clients, constituents and community. In focus groups, most executive directors recognized that public policy participation could be a positive strategy for achieving their mission. According to one housing organization in Minnesota, “We do legislative work. We put together an agenda and advocate for [it].”

Leaders of organizations that conduct business with government through grants and contracts went further to say that, because they have a working relationship with government to provide services, it is important that they offer policy ideas and lobby for them. One executive director of a human services group in Pennsylvania explained, “We carry out a core function of government; therefore we insist on a partnership with government. But that sometimes means we have to pressure government for a place at the table and to action on our recommendations.”

One of the strongest motivators for nonprofit participation is when government extends the invitation to be at the policymaking table. Whether attending an innocuous public hearing, participating on an advisory committee, or briefing a legislator on a pending bill, nonprofits will show up. They may be skeptical, but they will participate.

As one executive of a community development organization in Massachusetts reflected, “I’ve found that if I take a proactive approach more often than not I can become a leader in the group and shape the agenda and therefore the final report or recommendations or whatever. However, there are groups where I’ve participated but have been less invested. I’m on one group right now that I’m only on because some city officials asked me if I would.”

Associations can also be a strong impetus for nonprofits to lobby. The more nonprofits are asked to respond to various calls to action to contact legislators, the more they will do. E-mail and the Web are facilitating nonprofit advocacy, making it easier for them to send letters to legislators. (See: http://www.givevoice.org; or http://capwiz.com/ombwatch/.) In recent years, associations have become more sophisticated at communicating and networking with state and local chapters–and it pays off as members of Congress count the number of letters and calls they receive from constituents on every issue. This surrogate approach to policy participation can have a downside if local or state nonprofits determine that it is sufficient to comply with their association’s call to action, but are otherwise inactive at the local level where so much of public policy is eventually implemented.

There are several persistent barriers to greater public policy participation by charitable nonprofits. The first barrier is language. There is no common definition of public policy involvement, therefore, an activity defined as influencing policy to one group may not be to another.

For example, one nonprofit executive told a story of how they are active participants in the policy process because they inform their members of legislative outcomes through their newsletter.  When we told this story to other executives they said they would not consider such action to be participation.

Moreover, charitable organizations sometimes use different words to describe the same set of activities. For example, survey findings showed that nonprofit leaders avoid the word “lobbying” and gravitate toward the word “education” (and to a lesser extent “advocacy”) when describing how they attempt to influence public policy. Lobbying is a loaded word and its stigma affects how nonprofit leaders view policy participation. Executive directors openly shy away from the word for fear that their organization will be vulnerable to negative consequences from government, foundations and the media.

The second persistent barrier is limited time and financial resources. Interviews and focus group discussions with executive directors found that influencing public policy is sometimes viewed as a secondary activity–not an integral part of the overall mission, goals or program. An executive director of job training provider in Tennessee explained that since fundraising and personnel matters take up over 70 percent of her time, and staff is working with clients, there is no time in the day for involvement in policy issues.

Recognizing the limitations of time and money, it is clear that public policy work is not usually considered an important executive management function. Among organizations where the executive director has responsibility for government relations, the frequency of participation is lower than if either staff or board members hold primary responsibility.

The third barrier is staff skills. As stated before, lobbying is often perceived as a job for veteran politicians, business leaders, lawyers and union representatives who have made careers of shaping laws and regulations. Nonprofits report that they often do not have the know-how needed to be a player. Although nonprofits report that they respond to requests from associations regarding public policy matters, the requests are usually asking only for a phone call or letter to a legislator.

The fourth barrier is the tax law or IRS regulations governing public policy participation. Although most nonprofits did not rank the law and regulations as a powerful deterrent, it was one of the most frequently cited. Among nonprofits overall, knowledge of the law governing lobbying was better than expected–91 percent knew that they can talk to elected officials about public policy matters and 94 percent knew that they cannot lobby with government funds. However, only 50 percent knew that they can lobby even if some of their funding comes from government funds and 43 percent thought that they couldn’t hold a candidate forum or debate. Although nonprofits know that they cannot endorse candidates, far fewer realize that they can raise public awareness on the issues by holding a nonpartisan candidate forum.

Clearly, ongoing education about the legal opportunities for participation is indicated. With the enormous turnover of nonprofit staff and board members, and within the foundations that fund them, continual basic legal education about lobbying and voter education is essential.

A fifth set of barriers may be grouped under a tent called “the influence of funding sources,” including private foundations and government. The survey data found that as foundation-funding increases as a percentage of revenue, so does the perception that foundation funding is a barrier. This is not surprising because of the numerous occasions where foundation grant letters include language that unnecessarily restricts legal public policy activities. Executive directors also reported that they feel that advocacy is largely ignored as a legitimate program area.

Government funding may be one of the most challenging barriers for many executive directors when deciding whether to lobby for or against legislation and proposed regulation. The central question they feel they must answer is: Can we afford to bite the hand that feeds us?  Three out of four nonprofits receiving government grants or contracts think government funding is a barrier to their participation in policy matters.

According to an executive director of a health care provider organization in Massachusetts, “Literally, you take a position critical [of a policy], the next day the special audit team from the state, they’re in all your records… [I]t’s very hard to be an advocate when you’re dependent on state money.” An executive director of a disability group concurred, “If you [receive] government funding then there are subtle ways government can coerce you. When this happens our board begins to tremble.”

The degree to which nonprofits view government funding as a barrier increases as the percentage of their revenue from government increases. As nonprofits increasingly become an extension of government by providing public services, this funding poses a serious danger to the sector’s role in public policy.

“The more nonprofits deliver services, the more their important advocacy role may be compromised,” observed Surdna Foundation’s Edward Skloot. “They cannot sing two songs at the same time.”4 For those who think about nonprofit leadership in America, this is a clear and present danger.

There are several possible lessons, from the initial research findings that we hope will inform thinking about how to strengthen nonprofits’ public policy participation.

For individual organizations:

•    Motivation is everything. With almost every state facing a budget deficit resulting in cuts to social programs, executives and board members should be more motivated than ever to increase the frequency of their public policy participation. What could be more important than protecting community investments? The “Think Twice” campaign, an aggressive fight against state budget cuts launched by the Minneapolis Foundation and Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, is an example of a strategy for channeling motivation into effective advocacy. (See: www.mncn.org).

•    Build capacity for public policy in baby steps. The nonprofit sector can’t wait for the management gurus to realize that public policy is not only central to our effectiveness as organizations but inherently builds commitment to mission related goals–hence, social capital. Start by dedicating one person to work just three hours per week on public policy. Ask an articulate board member to be the public policy spokesperson. Create a new line item in your operating budget called “public policy” accounting for the time of a dedicated person plus a few dollars for expenses. It may sound expensive at first, but like physical exercise, once it is part of your operation you begin to realize the benefits over time. (See: “Make a Difference for Your Cause in Three Hours Per Week” by CLPI.)

•    Join a coalition. With limited time, staff and financial resources, coalitions offer arguably the most supportive environment for getting started in the public policy arena. In most coalitions, varying levels of experience with public policy offer mentorship possibilities and the potential for sharing resources. Moreover, coalitions can serve as political heat shields for individual organizations that are worried about being perceived as instigating a direct conflict with a government agency or elected official. (For more information about creating coalitions, contact CLPI or OMB Watch and to find out about coalitions in your region contact your nearest state association of nonprofits at the National Council of Nonprofits’ Web site www.ncna.org.)

For the nonprofit sector:

•    Foundations could be more supportive of nonprofits’ public policy role in two ways: first, by understanding and acting on the legal opportunities presently available for funding public policy participation, and expressing that understanding in grant letters; second, private and community foundations can protect their investments in communities threatened by the budgetary decisions of elected officials if they also invest in advocacy by coalitions and training for nonprofits to lobby.

•    Currently, 501(c)(3) nonprofits may only spend one-forth as much of their budget on grassroots lobbying as they can direct lobbying, limiting the extent to which they can involve the public in their lobbying activities. Urging Congress to simplify and index the current lobbying expenditure limits under section 501(h), will improve the legal environment for nonprofit involvement in public policy. Congress is now considering legislation that would remove the expenditure distinction enabling charitable nonprofits that have elected 501(h) to spend four times as much on grassroots lobbying. (To help, contact CLPI or the Alliance for Justice.)

•    Educate government about who we are and the power we can marshal. Ultimately, elected officials respond to voters. Due in part to time, lack of staff and highly restrictive federal laws, charitable nonprofits refrain from conducting permissible activities during an election season, including voter registration, issue advocacy, candidate forums, questionnaires and voter guides.

The public policy role of nonprofits is sorely underutilized but not unrecognized. If the nonprofit sector is to be a partner with government, then it needs the will and capacity to get to the policymaking table and strive toward a relationship as co-producers of public policy. Among the promising strategies for increasing the sector’s influence are the following two.
First, volunteers may inform candidates about the issues they care about. If nonprofits and foundations created civic education programs for volunteers they would be investing in an advocacy force ultimately far more powerful then their own staff could ever be. The Human Services Council of New York, led by Darwin Davis, has implemented a series of forums where nonprofits and government can meet and candidly discuss details of creating and implementing policy without the usual façade of official hearings and mandated public meetings. (See: www.humanservicescouncil.org.)

Second, the nonprofit sector needs to be clear with government about how policy decisions should be made. The SNAP research found that many nonprofits think that local commissions and advisory bodies are ineffective because only a few elected officials make the decisions. There is no playbook for breaking up consolidated power in government; however, the nonprofit sector should begin focusing on ways of changing the existing power dynamics of nonprofit-government relations.

For example, the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits developed a system of state agency liaisons with nonprofits in various program areas. The new system has raised the level of government’s understanding of how nonprofits operate, as well as the level of nonprofit input into the formation of policy, resulting in improvements in programs and the streamlining of government grants and contracts. (See: www.ncnonprofits.org.) Groups working on campaign finance reform to level the playing field serve as additional examples.

Nonprofits must embrace two ideas if they are going to realize this potential:  first, public policy work, including lobbying, is not an “evil,” but an honorable activity not to be compromised or apologized for; and, second, public policy activity is essential to effective management and governance–indeed, it is a leadership practice. What could be a sounder endeavor than improving the legal and operating environment for mission related goals?

Finally, institutions that invest in nonprofits can and should play a much greater role in motivating civic participation and creating a new standard of public policy readiness by helping organizations position public policy as a core function.

1. The SNAP methodology included a survey of 501(c)(3) organizations that filed a 990 tax return in 1998, approximately 45 interviews with executive directors, and 17 focus groups with executive directors, senior staff and board members in six states from 2000-2001. The preliminary findings of SNAP are located online: (www.ombwatch.org/snap).

2. An organization is defined as a participator if they indicated that they conducting any one of the following: direct lobbying, grassroots lobbying or testifying at legislative or administrative hearings.

3. The questionnaire asked about the frequency of lobbying using a colloquial definition, not the official IRS code definition.

4. Skloot, Edward, “The Nonprofit Sector and the Market: Challenges and Opportunities,” summary remarks at the August 14, 1999 Aspen Institute Nonprofit Sector Strategy Group, http://www.surdna.org/speeches.html.

Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest (www.clpi.org)
OMB Watch (www.ombwatch.org)
Women Vote (www.usavotenet.com)

David Arons is co-director of Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest, a national organization educating nonprofits about the importance of lobbying to achieve their missions. Gary Bass is the executive director of OMB Watch, a national organization promoting government accountability and a healthy nonprofit sector