Fear of offending giving-sector powerbrokers, and a lack of resources, are muzzling nonprofits.

But supporting nonprofit advocacy, policy and community-organizing work can yield big returns.

Those are the conclusions of two new reports that underscore the need for greater investment in helping nonprofits to be stronger advocates.

While supporting a cause is central to their mission, a lack of funds and staff, along with concern that speaking out will upset donors and board members, often keeps nonprofits from raising their voice on policy issues, says a new report by the Nonprofit Listening Post Project at Johns Hopkins University.

“Nonprofits are supposed to be the agents of democracy and give voice to the powerless,” says Lester M. Salamon, director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. “But their ability to do this is hampered by limited funding.”

Participants in a roundtable discussion on the topic suggested nonprofits take a more strategic approach to advocacy, integrate it into all aspects of their organization, encourage foundations to support advocacy, build long-term relationships with government, and use social-media tools to support their cause.

A separate report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy says $20.4 million invested over five years to support advocacy and community organization by 13 groups that work with underrepresented constituencies in North Carolina yielded over $1.8 billion in benefits, or $89 in benefits for every $1 invested.

An earlier report late last year found that $16.6 million in advocacy funding over five years for 14 groups in New Mexico generated $2.6 billion in benefits, or a payoff of $157 for every $1 invested.

“When nonprofit organizations and foundations tackle urgent issues in the state,” the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy says in its report on North Carolina advocacy, “they can achieve tremendous success – especially when they use public policy advocacy and engage affected constituencies in the problem-solving process.”

The report says “philanthropic best practices” to fund advocacy and community organizing in North Carolina include providing grants for “core support” and over several years, soliciting input from nonprofits and helping to build their “capacity,” exercising leadership on issues, and reaching out to other funders to expand available resources.

The giving sector can be much stronger advocates to address the symptoms and the causes of the social and global problems the economic crisis only is making worse.

imageTodd Cohen, a veteran news reporter and editor, is editor and publisher of Philanthropy Journal, an online newspaper published by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation in Raleigh, N.C. Cohen has taught nonprofit reporting and media relations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Duke University, and regularly speaks on the topics of nonprofit media relations and trends in the charitable world.