Don’t be afraid,” Duncan C.

This article comes from the winter 2020 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly.

History has proven that, in the absence of grassroots advocacy, policy can have significant, long-lasting destructive effects, especially on marginalized, disenfranchised communities. Nonprofits are well positioned to offer solutions and policies that address the spectrum of challenges our society faces—and in the current environment, it is imperative that nonprofits engage in policy advocacy, and that funders support them to do so.

While some may think advocacy simply means politics and protest, it encompasses a far broader variety of actions that nonprofits and funders can incorporate into their work, including the following:

  • Developing strategic partnerships and coalitions
  • Organizing, mobilizing, and creating spaces for communities to be empowered
  • Advancing education campaigns to ensure an informed public
  • Influencing through lobbying (yes, nonprofits can lobby) and sharing perspectives regarding laws, legislation, regulations, and government budgets being proposed, particularly at the state and local levels
  • Making use of impact litigation
  • Leveraging expertise to bring about change

Failure to engage in policy advocacy results not only in missed opportunities toward authentic solutions but also maintains the status quo set forth by others. A nonprofit that provides mental health services to students, but does not engage in the local city budgeting process to advocate against budget cuts to these services, helps to facilitate an environment where underfunding prevails, resulting in a dearth of vital services. An example of the opposite approach is the New York nonprofit Cypress Hills Development Corporation, which has used its platform to advocate against such cuts, and in doing so, enlisted the support of New York City Council member Mark Treyger to help advocate for support in the city budget.1

Here are six effective advocacy steps nonprofits and their funders can take:

1. Collaborate and Build Partnerships

We don’t like to talk about it, but the nonprofit sector suffers from extreme competition. Resources are limited, and nonprofits—even in (indeed, especially in) the same mission area—must compete with one another to stay in business. In this environment, collaborations are often inauthentic and ineffective. We need to break down the competitive silos in the sector and orient our efforts around collective action and shared power, and funders must work to eliminate this toxic dynamic. In other words, nonprofits build power in numbers and strengthen one another in an environment where systemic change takes time and where victories do not come easily.

Even though there is often a narrative about lack of or limited resources, the nonprofit sector wields a significant amount of influence and power, which as of 2017 (the latest data available) employed nearly 12.5 million people.2 Further, according to the Urban Institute, as of 2019 the nonprofit sector had total assets reaching $3.79 trillion dollars (nonprofits registered with the IRS); in 2018, charitable contributions reached $427.71 billion; and in 2016, the sector contributed an estimated $1.047 trillion to the U.S. economy, comprising 5.6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).3

And let’s be honest: the government often relies on human services nonprofits to provide vital services that government is responsible for providing. It’s up to nonprofits to recognize this, partner on common issues—through coalitions, strategic partnerships, joint ventures, and other informal and formal designs—and claim power as a united force.4

2. Stop the Fear, Be Informed, and Ask the Bigger Questions

In order to address what prevents so many nonprofits and foundations from engaging in policy, it is important to ask, “What/who are we afraid of?” Generally, organizations are most worried about upsetting their funders, donors, and board members, and this who connects to the very power dynamics that inhibit the use of policy as a strategy for increased equity and justice.

It can feel like too great a risk to jeopardize funding sources, as these enable nonprofits to do their work. However, now is a time for nonprofits and funders alike to strike while the iron is hot. Philanthropy is having a reckoning of its own, and is rethinking some of its old practices and who and how it funds. This is a perfect opportunity to push past the fear around funding and have honest conversations with funders, donors, and board members about what is needed to have true impact.

Some organizations also fear losing their 501(c)(3) status, or fear facing IRS penalties of excise taxes—but these fears are unfounded. There is an abundance of websites, experts, and organizations whose job it is to help support organizations with their policy efforts.5 Regarding the restrictions placed on the sector for its use of financial resources to effect political change, why this is the case is also worth a deeper conversation. It is interesting to note, for example, that in a five-year period (2007–2012), “200 of America’s most politically active corporations spent a combined $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions. A year-long analysis by the Sunlight Foundation suggests, however, that what they gave pales compared to what those same corporations got: $4.4 trillion in federal business and support.”6

Nonetheless, to be clear, as the National Council of Nonprofits states, the “prohibition against political campaign activity (defined as ‘supporting or opposing a candidate for public office’) is SEPARATE from lobbying or legislative activities, which charitable nonprofits ARE permitted to engage in.”7

At the end of the day, we must break through the mindsets and internalized ways of working that are motivated by scarcity and pandering to power.

3. Intentionally Build Advocacy into Nonprofit Work

What if, when a nonprofit was created, a strategy for policy work was expected along with the budget and