Inside Philanthropy

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

May 11, 2009

Giving-sector should raise its advocacy voice

By Todd Cohen

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 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.


  • At 9:00 PM, Anonymous Barbara Talisman said…

    I couldn't agree more. David Gergen wrote a great piece in Stanford Social Innovation Review on this. I think some non-profits view advocacy/lobbying as an evil they don't want to get involved in. Your post is great about integrating it and educating donors/constituencies. Thanks for taking the time to put all this research in one place!
    Barbara Talisman

  • At 6:43 AM, Anonymous Scott said…

    Nonprofits are suppose to advocate for gaps in service that are left unfunded and untouched. It is the core of were the passion lies.

    Most nonprofits are spending so much time being like for profits that they forget their place in society.

    It's time nonprofits were run with fire and passion again. If the big donors don't like the exposure, well maybe it should be more a grass roots movement.

    Enjoyed your post, hope the message sticks.

  • At 12:25 PM, Blogger Vicarella said…

    While I agree with the idea that npo's could be better advocates for themselves, they must be careful, from a legal standpoint, as well. Too much political activism can change the tax-exempt status of an organization, away from being a 501c3 public charity. Additionally, many grants, especially those provided by government entities, such as the DOJ and HUD, won't permit political activism by indivuals whose salaries are being paid, with their funds.

  • At 10:40 AM, Blogger jc said…

    While the legal concerns are real, they are overhyped in the discussion re. advocacy, and a core reason why many nonprofits (mistakenly) believe they cannot advocate. Typically, a 501c3 is allowed to advocate with non-federal dollars up to roughly 5% of their total budget, and up to 20% if they take the 501h election, which can be done with a simple form. RARELY will even the most strident organization reach the 5% cap, but fear of the cap has bullied many nonprofits into total silence. You CAN and SHOULD advocate.


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