Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

December 14, 2009

Policy work critical in giving sector

By Todd Cohen

The collapse of the economy has underscored the need for the giving sector to invest more in raising its voice on public-policy issues.

Accounting for roughly five percent of the U.S. economy and 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, the giving sector has economic and civic clout it has not begun to recognize or tap.

The sector serves the most vulnerable populations and should be the strongest voice for efforts to address both the symptoms and causes of the most urgent social and global problems.

But the giving sector faces internal hurdles that keep it from becoming the policy advocate it should be.

A new study conducted for the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest finds that nonprofits can do a better job advancing their causes through effective advocacy and lobbying.

The study is based on over 200 responses to a survey by Innovation Network of over 1,200 nonprofit leaders who received advocacy and policy training between 2004 and 2008 from the Center.

It found those leaders improved their policy skills and confidence, increased their nonprofits’ visibility and funding, and improved their organizations’ program service.

“With the fiscal crisis and shrinking foundation portfolios, there’s never been a more important time for nonprofits to be at the public policy table,” says Larry Ottinger, president of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest.

“In today’s climate, policy is an increasingly important tool in the strategic nonprofit and philanthropy toolkit,” he says. “Charities that effectively combine service and advocacy can have greater impact and a competitive advantage for limited resources.

The two biggest groups of respondents surveyed received training through capacity-building grants from the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul, Minn., and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Maimi.

Through those grants, the study says, those funders increased their impact in their targeted communities on their priority issues, such as reducing poverty.

Of those who received training, nonprofit board members reported the biggest increases in their knowledge, confidence and motivation on policy work.

“Given the importance of nonprofit boards in governing and approving organizational direction,” the study says, “targeting more policy trainings toward board members may be an effective strategy.”

Nonprofit leaders who received training said they increased some policy activities but not others, including those related to elections or involving more time and resources, such as conducting a media or public-education campaign.

But 60 percent of more of respondents to some extent increased their efforts to contact a legislator, participate in a coalition or ask constituents to take action on a policy issues.

Nonprofit leaders responding to the survey said limited time, staff and funding were the main barriers to getting more involved in policy work, along with constraints of government funding and insufficient knowledge and skills.

Funding advocacy training for nonprofits in targeted communities “can make a real difference for affected constituents and causes,” the study says.

Increased funding and “connecting policy involvement to constituent needs and organizational mission,” it says, “are critical to deeper and sustained nonprofit involvement” in policy work.

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