April 24, 2012; Source: National Council of Nonprofits

This morning, a significant realignment of the national nonprofit infrastructure occurred. The National Council of Nonprofits (NCN) has just announced a plan to absorb the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest (CLPI). NCN is the nation’s largest network of nonprofit organizations, including 37 state nonprofit associations with some 25,000 members. Its unique voice reflects the input of a broad array of community-based nonprofits of all sizes, not just the big, well-heeled nonprofits and foundations. Integrating CLPI into its operations will be significant for the National Council. 

The national organization and the state organizations have long been exhorting nonprofits to ratchet up their advocacy and lobbying activities. Many nonprofits steer clear of lobbying in fear that it is forbidden for nonprofits. It’s not. Others may believe that they don’t know how to engage in effective lobbying in state legislatures because they are outgunned by special interests that have little or no appreciation for the nonprofit sector. By absorbing CLPI, the National Council adds the group’s nonprofit advocacy training programs, materials, and curricula to the support and encouragement that the National Council offers its state association members and their local nonprofit constituents.

CLPI traces its roots to the 1990s as a project and then a spin-off of Independent Sector’s fight against the notorious Istook amendment, which would have gutted nonprofit advocacy rights. It’s significant that CLPI has aligned itself with the National Council, which is far from invisible in Washington, having been a vocal participant in the debates around the proposed charitable tax deduction cap and a major proponent of Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s Nonprofit Sector and Community Solutions Act. A large part of the NCN’s advocacy agenda has been to strengthen the roles of state associations and their members in state capitals on issues such as efforts to tax otherwise tax-exempt properties, fees charged to nonprofits, government contracting and reimbursement systems, nonprofits’ access to federal program funds administered by states and localities, and overall state budget appropriations and deficits. If nonprofits aren’t fully geared up to take their rightful place in these debates in state capitals, the nonprofit sector loses.

If this turns out to be, despite expectations, simply a reorganization of two organizations into one, with no appreciable change in the scale or scope of what they do, that would constitute an opportunity lost. If the National Council uses its integration of CLPI’s resources to launch a new effort to significantly advance the advocacy capacity, skills, and network support of nonprofits around the country, to make their voices heard in state capitals where the decisions about the functions and funding of community-based nonprofits are made on a daily basis, then this merger will be much more than the sum of its parts.