Nonprofits can do a lot more to help shape the public policies that affect their work and constituents. Working to fix flawed policies at the root of social problems is a key role nonprofits should play.
But far too many nonprofits fail to play that role because of concerns that the law limits their advocacy work, and because they lack the resources to be effective advocates, says a new survey by the Nonprofit Listening Post Project at Johns Hopkins University.
Among nonprofits that engaged in any lobbying or advocacy, for example, fewer than 15 percent devoted as much as 2 percent of their overall budget to that work, the report says.
And while roughly half of nonprofits surveyed undertook limited forms of advocacy or lobbying, such as signing correspondence to public officials or distributing materials on policy issues, only a third engaged in more involved forms of participating, such as testifying at public hearings or organizing a public event.
The survey says nonprofits may shy from lobbying, compared to advocacy, because of existing laws limiting their involvement.
Lobbying consists of voicing a position to a legislative official on a specific piece of legislation, while advocacy consists of voicing a concern or information about policy without expressing a position on a particular piece of legislation.
The Johns Hopkins report recommends foundations invest more in nonprofit policy advocacy, that nonprofits be encouraged to get more involved in advocacy, that small and mid-sized nonprofits receive more training and other assistance to encourage advocacy, and that more resources be made available for policy work to “intermediary” groups in specific fields of interest.
“Our nation’s nonprofit organizations are widely expected to play a key role in helping to promote democracy and civic action, and our survey results indicate that they are making strenuous efforts to fulfill this expectation,” Lester M. Salamon, author of the study and director of the Center for Civil Studies at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, says in a statement. “However, financial and other constraints are limiting their ability to do so.”
Compounding the lack of resources, support and expertise for policy work, as well as the concern about legal constraints, are other hurdles nonprofits face, including rising demand for services, ongoing pressure to sustain their organizations, and fears that policy work could result in a loss of funding from foundations, givers and government.
To clear those obstacles, nonprofits should work to educate their boards and funders about the importance of policy work, and to secure their support to equip their organizations to be more effective policy advocates.
Todd 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.