In this edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, we throw caution to the winds and step out onto the turbulent terrain of public policy. Our feature contributors examine the factors and conditions, knowledge and practice, opinion and myth-understanding[1] shaping the realities of the nonprofit sector in this country. We believe that nonprofits can and must become at least as aggressive as the business sector in advocating for its particular public policy interests–and that our risk-adverse stance toward such advocacy is ill founded.

Ever since Locke (1690) opened the box, government’s role in administering to the public good has remained at the center of heated debate over the proper relationship between individual liberties and obligations to the community. Public policy, articulated in the form of laws, executive orders, court rulings, or regulations, is a product of political agreements intended to mitigate this tension by defining the public good, and delineating the responsibility of government. For this reason, professor of political science, John Portz of Northeastern University in Boston, portrays the process as “part of the political game . . . [its function] is at once to explain, to describe, to recommend, and above all, to persuade.”

Defining the problem is the crucial first step in formulating a public policy agenda. This problem-definition is the expression of dissatisfaction with an existing situation or condition, usually at least implying some preferred policy outcome. However, problem definitions should not be confused with value-neutral accounts of objective conditions; rather, as contributor William Gamson of Boston College explains, competing interest groups struggle to frame the way an issue is understood and discussed. A successful issue-frame will shape subsequent policy outcomes with respect to whose interests get priority, how cause or blame will be attributed, and the preferred of choice among various alternatives. Nonprofit practitioners Max Bartlett, Scott Douglas, Daniella Levine and Marilyn Miller reinforce this essential point, speaking from their own direct experiences of the effects of racism, class interests and corporate influence on the actions of public decision-makers.

As we put this issue of the Quarterly to bed, we are mindful that American voters are deciding whether compassionate conservatism or progressive centrism is the lesser evil. Though the outcome of the election is still uncertain at this writing, it is safe to assume that the winners will claim the outcome as a mandate for their particular policy agenda. Sadly, we also know that those most affected by the election’s outcome are least likely to participate in the process. If voting is an important measure of a people’s confidence in their political institutions, what does a 30-year trend of declining voter turnout levels tell us? In 1996, the presidential contest was decided by less than half of the nation’s eligible voting age population, and that 1998 Congressional races attracted a mere one-third of eligible adults.[2]

Under these conditions, it is little wonder that engaging, challenging and holding elected and appointed public leaders to account for their decisions has fallen to the nonprofit sector–presently the most diverse and organized expression of civil society. We maintain that, despite efforts at creating market-driven solutions for social problems, the public arena remains the stage on which the public good is debated and where the most important questions are who benefits and who gets to decide? We predict that public policy advocacy will become a core competency, if not a litmus test, for tomorrow’s nonprofit leaders. Yet, with few exceptions, the sector has been conspicuously ineffective in exerting a major influence on the policymaking process.

David Arons, co-director of Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest and Karen Paget, a Soros Open Society Institute fellow, scrutinize the controversy and confusion surrounding the notion of nonprofit advocacy. Growing out of what Paget terms “a two-decade campaign to defund the left,” social conservatives, with allies in Congress and some state legislatures, have repeatedly attempted to chill the public interest activities of nonprofit organizations through intimidation and misinformation. Asserting, “public policy advocacy may be viewed as part of the broader concept of civic participation,” David urges us to defend the right to participate from a burgeoning legislative and regulatory threat.

Veteran activist and social critic, Pablo Eisenberg insists that overcoming our own myopic, and frequently parochial, approach to public policy is the major source of weakness within the nonprofit sector. In our haste to defend individual programs and services, we have failed to confront the inequitable arrangements of status, wealth and power making these programs necessary in the first place. Echoing Pablo’s concern for cohesive and effective policy advocacy, Audrey Alvarado, with the National Council of Nonprofit Associations (NCNA), evokes the progressive history of the sector in her call for a “united front” of nonprofits actively involved in national, state and local policy deliberations. Audrey also shares a recent scan of advocacy initiatives taken up by nonprofit state associations across the country.

Finally, reconstructing the current debate among funders over pay-out issue, Rick Cohen of the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) asks what, beyond not being invited, is keeping nonprofit leaders from voicing their opinions on “critical issues in philanthropy”? His argument cuts to the Sisyphean reality of sustaining the organization while engaged in the uphill pursuit of social justice.

In the final analysis, public policy is nothing more or less that the recognition that, like the rain in the proverb, social problems will, inevitably, touch all members of the community. We trust that you will find the selection of articles informative, thought-provoking and inspiring.

[1] Our thanks to Marcia Avner of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits for this term describing the unfounded beliefs about public policy and nonprofit advocacy that serve as an barrier to effective practice. Editors.

[2] Federal Elections Commission (no date), “National Voter Turnout in Federal Elections: 1960-1996