“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”  - Helder Camara, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil (1909-1999)

When training nonprofit leaders how to lobby legally, I always begin with this quote to remind them that if they are going to get involved in policy debates, some board members and donors will think they should shut up; and they will attract opposition, perhaps even enemies.  But lately I’ve wondered whether I should warn them instead that the worst thing they might face is being ignored. 

Many advocates in the nonprofit world believe deeply in the power of facts and analysis.  Most trained community organizers would dismiss this as hopelessly naive. 

To start, as one of my colleagues has observed many times, most public officials, and even their staffs, don’t read. They don’t have time (and some don’t have the inclination).  Add to that the kind of resources business lobbies can invoke to make legislators’ jobs easier, plus the power of “night time” lobbying through campaign contributions, and it’s clear what an uphill battle it is for advocates for the poor. 

Another colleague recently recounted a conversation that she had had a few years prior with a good progressive state legislator.  He had described to her his experience with a bill sponsored by the health insurance industry, which came to him wrapped as a package – draft bill written, a list of committed and likely votes from other committees and other legislators lined up, media strategy ready to go. Virtually all he had to do was show up and claim credit. (Thankfully, in this instance, the bill’s purpose was a good one.)  He contrasted that package with another bill that dominated his staff’s time for nearly a year. 

The challenge for advocates for the poor is to build the kind of tactical capabilities that the health insurance lobby showed in that example.  To be sure, advocates for the poor absolutely must have the ability to do strong data analysis and make forceful policy and legal arguments.  But this persuasive power needs to be combined with the kind of community mobilization that organizers can help bring. And ideally, it also needs to have the kind of logistical support that the business lobbies, with their armies of consultants, enjoy.  This last factor – the one that actually may enable a legislator to sponsor a change – is the one that is most difficult for advocates for the poor to pull off. 

Foundation grants fund lots of analysis, and a good deal of “public education,” but most funders shrink from funding those kinds of tactical expenses, which also bear the added stigma of looking like “overhead.”  How might things be different if grantmakers seeking to support social change more frankly embraced what their grantees need to do to exercise power? What else might we do to help nonprofit advocates build these capabilities?

imagePeter Manzo is the director of strategic initiatives for the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization, and a senior research fellow with the Center for Civil Society in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Previously, he was the executive director and general counsel of the Center for Nonprofit Management.