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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 4, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 41
Nonprofits Face Constraints on Policy Involvement

Charities widely engaged in advocacy work despite limitations, survey finds

By Mimi Bilzor
Institute for Policy Studies

America's nonprofit organizations are widely involved in efforts to influence the public policies affecting them and those they serve but are constrained by tight budgets, limited staff time and confusing legal restrictions, according to a new survey by the Johns Hopkins University Nonprofit Listening Post Project.

Seventy-three percent of responding nonprofit organizations said they had engaged in some type of advocacy or lobbying in the year prior to the survey, with three out of five of those organizations engaging in public policy efforts at least once a month. The researchers found, however, that the depth of organizational involvement is often limited to the executive director and rarely engages the general public or even the organization's clients or patrons.

A major reason for this lack of depth appears to be the limited resources nonprofits have available to support advocacy activities. Fewer than 15 percent of organizations that engaged in any lobbying or advocacy reported devoting as much as 2 percent of their overall budget to this function. Lack of time and resources was the principal reason cited by those that reported no advocacy or lobbying activity.

"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," said Lester M. Salamon, study author and director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. "However, financial and other constraints are limiting their ability to do so."

Larry Ottinger of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, which partnered with Johns Hopkins on this survey, said, "Nonprofit advocacy is a critical strategy for solving our society's most challenging problems. This important survey should serve as a clarion call to the nonprofit and philanthropy sector to boost the resources and training devoted to this crucial function."

Additional findings from the survey include:

♦ Large organizations and those involved in family, children and elderly services are most extensively engaged in policy advocacy. Arts organizations are least involved.

♦ About half of all responding organizations reported undertaking relatively limited forms of advocacy or lobbying, such as signing correspondence to a public official, responding to requests for information on policy issues or distributing materials on policy matters. When it came to more involved forms of participation, such as testifying at hearings or organizing a public event, the proportion reporting any involvement fell to about a third.

♦ State and local governments, not the federal government, are the principal focus of advocacy activity for most (two out of three) organizations.

♦ Receipt of public funding seems to encourage advocacy, but reliance on private philanthropy is negatively related to advocacy.

♦ Only a quarter of the organizations reporting no involvement in lobbying or advocacy cited worries about existing laws as a reason. Among those that refrained from lobbying but not advocacy, however, nearly half cited worries about violating laws as a reason. This indicates a continued constraining influence of existing laws limiting nonprofit involvement in lobbying (expressing a position on a specific piece of legislation to a legislative official) as opposed to advocacy (conveying a policy concern or policy-relevant information without expressing a position on a particular piece of legislation).

♦ Associations and coalitions play a considerable role in nonprofit lobbying and advocacy, both as a substitute for the involvement of some organizations and as a spur to involvement by others. Nearly 90 percent of respondents reported belonging to at least one coalition or intermediary organization, and most of these had some involvement in advocacy or lobbying.

♦ The vast majority (90 percent) of surveyed organizations agreed that "nonprofits have a duty to advocate for policies important to their missions," and a comparable proportion agreed that organizations like their own should be "more active and involved."

♦ Reflecting the survey responses, the report suggests a number of steps that could help charities carry out what it describes as a critical democratic responsibility. Among these are increasing the resources available to field-specific intermediary organizations for policy advocacy work, expanding foundation support for nonprofit policy advocacy, encouraging greater board involvement in nonprofit advocacy and providing more training and other assistance to encourage advocacy activity by small and mid-sized organizations.

The full text of the report "Nonprofit America: A Force for Democracy?" is available online at:


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