Good management is all about using resources strategically toward greatest effectiveness. Within this context, public policy advocacy is a vitally important tool to use to the best advantage of our constituencies and our organizations.

As we have traveled around the country in the last few months, we have found a growing consciousness about our sector’s relative lack of clout in public policy. There is, likewise, a growing sense of frustration with the defensive posture we take on policy issues. Fortunately this frustration is coupled with a strong drive to change that status. The theme of this issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly, public policy advocacy, reflects our understanding and appreciation of the role played by the “nonprofit” sector in creating and sustaining a sense of social interdependence or community. We are, among other things, the conveners and mobilizers of people who are under-represented and powerless. We are the identifiers of and advocates of overlooked issues. We are the place where ordinary people can consider, and participate in the implementation of, new and innovative ideas promising a better future for communities and our nation.

The public stage is the context for our work: it is where the laws that bind and protect us are made and where the policies which underlie and operationalize those laws are shaped. It is where local, state and national tax frameworks and budgets are set. If we don’t focus more of our attention in this arena, we will never escape the mostly reactive mode–which we have largely accepted–as well as its consequences. The recent battles in Congress over proposed legislation curbing advocacy efforts by 501(c)(3)s revealed our vulnerability to well-organized campaigns orchestrated by groups with an opposing vision of society. We need to alter this stance.

Collectively, we may think of ourselves as activists working for a better society. Indeed, activism is central to the work many of us do. Should we not focus some of that activism on the larger issues that affect all of us?  In moving toward this goal, we should keep these principles in mind:

  • Measured against the “public good” standard, public policy advocacy must be responsive and informed by the perspectives of those most directly affected. This assumes that other organizational competencies exist that directly draw constituents into policy activity. This is not a minor point: inclusiveness may be the critical value that distinguishes us and makes us credible participants in the public debate. There is too much public policy out there divorced from peoples’ daily-realities–let’s not add to it.
  • There are many good examples of effective public policy advocacy in the nonprofit sector—often on the part of vastly under-resourced groups. There should be a greater acknowledgement among funders of the importance of public policy advocacy, of its need to be developed from the ground up. In our experience, unfortunately, most funding for public policy work supports academic think-tanks that are insulated from an actual living, breathing and aspiring constituency.

Advocacy, per se, is not a virtue. It is a tool to be used carefully, responsibly, and backed by solid data and analysis. The value of advocacy will depend on the standards and morality demonstrated in building and pursuing an inclusive policy agenda. However, we should never confuse being inclusive with being indiscriminant–as a sector, we need to understand the inextricable links between many apparently distinct policy questions; at the same time, we need a sharper appreciation for strategies that will advance our immediate concerns while also laying the foundations for our vision of a more active and inclusive democracy.

We join the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, the National Council of Nonprofit Associations and other indefatigable voices calling for an enhanced political self-awareness in the sector. We argue for greater attention to building the skills and the will for advocacy–and, yes, lobbying–around the issues of most importance to those who least heard in public policy circles. Finally, we argue for our adherence, as we walk this path, to the principles that should distinguish us: our commitment to involving ordinary people as participants in designing and changing the systems that affect their lives.