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 m