In Whose Interest: Do National Nonprofit Advocacy Organizations Represent the Under-represented?

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There has been considerable debate in recent years about whether nonprofit organizations should engage in advocacy to promote their interests and those of their constituents, but this discussion tends to focus primarily on the tactics that groups use for advocacy, rather than on what they are advocating and for whom. Of particular interest is whether national nonprofit advocacy organizations (NNAOs) that were established to provide grassroots citizens with a “voice” in the policymaking process continue to represent them in that arena.

During the past 30 years, a number of these groups, established largely with funding from foundations and wealthy donors, have become increasingly powerful in the policymaking process. Some believe this trend to be a positive force for democracy because it has opened up a process that had once been relatively closed to the average citizen, providing new forums for ideas and policies, and mobilizing a sagging electorate. But others maintain that these groups’ financial reliance on outside patrons such as foundations and wealthy individuals has transformed the organizations into “professionalized” entities with budgets in the millions of dollars, impressive rosters of paid staff, and a membership base of well educated and upper-middle-class individuals who tend to care more about what Ronald Inglehart, Jeff Berry, and others call postmaterialist or “quality-of-life” issues, rather than materialist or basic economic concerns that are, arguably, more of interest to under-represented groups.

These characteristics, combined with the power NNAOs have acquired, have raised questions as to whether they remain interested in championing the concerns of grassroots citizens—especially poor and low-income people who are traditionally under-represented in the policy-making processes—or whether their advocacy agendas reflect the interests of the donor base that sustains them.

From 2001 to 2004, I conducted a study that attempted to answer these questions by surveying 836 national advocacy groups. The organizations were identified as those that operate at a national level; focus on public policy, legislative, cause-oriented activities and goals; have an open membership; and have a 501 (c)(3) status. The study did not delineate between liberal and conservative.

The survey asked about whether organizations considered themselves to be membership groups; their primary membership; the primary requirement to be a member; their primary constituency; funding sources; activities; those responsible for carrying out activities in the organization (staff, board, or members/constituents); whether they conducted annual surveys of their members/constituents; issue areas on which the organization focused; and their primary issue and advocacy foci.

Approximately 368 surveys were returned, for a response rate of 44 percent. Statistical tests using variables from IRS Form 990 data to determine whether there were differences between respondents and non-respondents indicated that there were no differences between the two groups.

The survey’s findings reveal an interesting picture.

First, the majority of these national advocacy groups view “contributing money” to be the primary requirement to be a member, bolstering assertions by John Judis, Theda Skocpol, and others that these groups have largely “checkbook memberships” that value money more than direct participation in the organization’s activities.

Other findings revealed that the majority of funding for these organizations comes from foundation grants and major donors, rather than from membership dues or other such venues through which grassroots citizens might participate. Data also indicate a high level of “professionalization” in these institutions in that they cede control of nearly every major organizational function to staff or administrators, rather than to constituents. Analysis of the activities in which NNAOs are primarily engaged revealed a penchant for more sophisticated “insider” strategies such as media campaigns, policy analysis, lobbying, and testifying, rather than on strategies that directly engage the larger public (e.g., grassroots organizing, petitioning, or canvassing)—another indicator that these organizations tend to be “top-down,” rather than inclusive of the under-represented.

One critically important finding of the research was that NNAOs make a distinction between “members” and “constituents”—a distinction that has not yet surfaced sufficiently in discussions about representation and/or membership in these organizations and deserves further exploration. Specifically, NNAOs’ membership tended to be educated professionals who make financial contributions to their organizations, while their constituents—or those whose interests or concerns they said they represented—tended to be members of under-represented groups such as poor or low-income people, people of color, children, etc.

Whether viewed as “members” or “constituents,” neither group has much say in what NNAOs do, given additional data indicating that 80 percent of NNAOs do not survey their members (or constituents) to find out who these individuals are or what their thoughts are about the activities or agendas the organizations should be undertaking. One might assume that these organizations do have sensing mechanisms to discern when they have run afoul of their (checkbook) members since that affects their financial stability, but where might the feedback mechanisms be to determine the organization’s alignment with constituency views? This raises a question that is native to the nonprofit sector: If money tends to come from one economic/social group to serve the interests of another economic/social group, how can there be assurance that those constituency interests are being adequately understood and represented?

Some might argue that this is a necessary evil, especially if NNAOs are still able to use their power to advocate for the interests of those they say are their constituents—members of under-represented groups. But do they?

To answer that question requires objective analyses about NNAOs’ agendas, specifically, whether and to what extent they reflect the concerns of under-represented constituencies. This study attempted to answer this question by asking organizations to select their top priorities from a comprehensive list of potential issue areas and then select one they considered to be their primary area of emphasis.1 Data revealed that organizations with a materialist emphasis are less likely than postmaterialist organizations to have “money is a primary membership requirement” and to be staff driven. Although these results were inconclusive, the study revealed support for materialism as a rather strong construct (issues such as “economic development/poor and low-income communities” “health care/access,” “hunger,” “jobs/employment,” “poverty,” and “welfare reform” all fell under the category in a factor analysis series). An analysis of “postmaterialism,” in contrast, “fell out” over approximately nine distinct factors: environment, reproductive rights, education, science, consumer protection, gun control, money/taxes, First Amendment, and nuclear disarmament/peace. This may suggest a shift in NNAOs’ emphasis from building larger movements around a cluster of related issues (those reflected in the materialist construct) to championing single issues with a postmaterialist focus. In short, NNAOs may have adopted the same kind of “niche marketing” strategy that those in the private sector use to secure resources and funds.

This study raises serious questions regarding the legitimacy of the “representing the under-represented” argument for funding these groups. Answering those questions will require more sophisticated measures of NNAOs’ agendas and how they develop, rather than self-reports about their foci; more rigorous attempts to link those agendas with whom they regard as their members and constituents; and, most of all, assessments of how successful they have been in addressing policy issues of concern to those who depend on these organizations for their “voice” on those issues.


1. Issues that could potentially be seen as both postmaterialist and materialist were separated into two separate items. Reproductive health, for example, was separated into “access to services” (materialist) and “rights” (postmaterialist).

Cynthia M. Gibson, Ph.D., is an independent consultant based in New York City and a senior fellow at Tufts University.


Do Big Names Really Draw Big Bucks?

by Robert D. Herman and David O. Renz

Editors’ Note: Robert Herman and David Renz presented a study in progress at the 2005 conference of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA). Among the interesting elements of the study was a finding on a question that many of you will have struggled with: Does having influential/connected-to-money individuals on your board translate into greater revenues?

There is, of course, a related question: “Even if it did result in greater revenues, Is it the right way to go?” but that is for later…

Renz and Herman first looked at the 64 organizations in their sample in 1993 and then again in 1999. These human service organizations were sorted into two groups: those that were more dependent on earned income (“commercial organizations”) and those that were more dependent on contributed income (“donative organizations”). When they examined the relative levels of prestige of their boards, they found that the commercial organizations began with fewer influential members than did the donative organizations, but both groups increased the prestige of board members at approximately the same rates. Here is what Renz and Herman reported.

“Contrary to what we expected, those nonprofits with no or only small increases in board prestige had, on average, more gain in total revenue. . . For the total sample of 44 community-based organizations, those with large increases in prestige averaged total revenue increases of a little more than $642,000; those with no or small increases averaged gains of a little more than $941,000. The same held when we sorted the organizations into “donative” and “commercial” nonprofit organizations. Among the donative organizations, the average gains for the no/small increase in board prestige were almost $912,000 and a little more than $780,000 for those with large increases in board prestige; the respective gains for the commercial nonprofits were $1,010,000 and $469,000. Clearly, increasing board prestige was not instrumental in improving an organization’s financial outcomes.

“Why is change in board prestige for donative nonprofits unrelated to change in total revenues? Are the chief executives and fundraising officers of these particular nonprofits not successful at encouraging their somewhat more prestigious boards to contribute to raising more money? The period during which the data were collected was one of relative prosperity and increasing GDP. Perhaps attracting revenues was easier and boards were less needed as fundraisers? Given the research data we have, we can only speculate.

“One of the likely reasons why increasing prestige had no statistically apparent effect on total revenues is that the sample organizations reflected a fairly narrow range of prestige. The sample comprised community-based human services organizations and did not include the sort of nonprofits that often have the high-prestige boards—organizations such as major museums, symphony orchestras and other major performing arts organizations, hospitals, and universities. Many of the donative nonprofits in our sample did rely substantially on donations. However, it seems that, to the extent that board prestige is important in fundraising, these organizations were relying mostly on some kind of historical legacy from an earlier generation of board prestige.

“Nonetheless, it seems important to recognize that our results do raise the question: Is a strategy of pursuing increased board prestige likely to result in any significant increase in revenues (and thus secure more financial resources for programs)? This is a strategy that continues to be pursued by many nonprofits (indeed, many believe it essential), but our evidence suggests that, for some types of nonprofits, attracting more prestigious board members may not yield the increase in giving that they seek. Perhaps it is important to note, as most prescriptive guides to board development maintain, that smaller and community-based nonprofits should invest their energy in seeking diverse types of board members who can provide skills and community connections and be willing to contribute in line with their resources. We believe these results reinforce the soundness of such advice.

Those wishing to review the study in its entirety should contact Robert Herman at