Johns Hopkins Gazette | April 27, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 27, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 32
Nonprofits Seek Increased Support for Lobbying, Advocacy

Concerns over offending donor base and board members cited as barriers

By Mimi Bilzor
Institute for Policy Studies

Supporting a cause is central to the mission of most nonprofit organizations in the United States, but a lack of resources often forces lobbying and advocacy to the back burner, according to a roundtable of leaders and experts gathered by the Johns Hopkins University Nonprofit Listening Post Project.

Besides having limited funds and small staffs to devote to lobbying, nonprofit leaders also worry that taking strong stances on the issues will offend their donors and board members.

"Nonprofits are supposed to be the agents of democracy and give voice to the powerless," said Lester M. Salamon, director of the Listening Post Project and 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."

The roundtable brought together experts in nonprofit advocacy and practitioners representing both service organizations and intermediary organizations. Participants explored nonprofit involvement in the policy process and identified steps that might be taken to boost the scope, scale and effectiveness of policy advocacy.

Issues raised by participants included:

A lack of funding for nonprofit advocacy and lobbying efforts.

Concerns that policy advocacy efforts would be frowned upon by their local community, offend their donor base or encounter board disapproval.

The need to strengthen and underwrite the activities of advocacy coalitions and intermediary groups, which are increasingly important in nonprofit advocacy efforts. Concerns that while nonprofits can be somewhat effective in "playing defense" by responding to a proposed policy or legislative cut, they often lack the resources or sophistication needed to develop new policy proposals.

Participants also identified steps that might be taken to boost policy advocacy including:

Take a more strategic and inventive approach by encouraging board members to tap into their social networks, or by bringing the people whom the organizations serve directly into lobbying efforts to build greater credibility.

Integrate advocacy into all aspects of an organization by including it in mission statements, strategic plans, staff and board job descriptions and budgets.

Encourage foundations to support nonprofit policy advocacy and invest in local, state and national nonprofit advocacy coalitions and intermediary organizations.

Learn to act strategically and build long-term positive relationships between nonprofits and government officials.

Rely on a wide range of tools, not just e-mail but also blogs and social networking sites.

Educate legislators and the public about the nonprofit sector's critical role in public service and advocacy in order to build recognition of the value of engaging nonprofit organizations in the policy arena.

This roundtable grew out of a 2007 Listening Post Project survey on nonprofit advocacy that found that:

Eighty-five percent of responding organizations spent less than 2 percent of their budget on advocacy or lobbying.

Nearly three-fourths reported undertaking some form of advocacy or lobbying, such as signing correspondence to a public official. However, when it came to more involved forms of participation, such as testifying at hearings or organizing a public event, the number reporting any involvement fell to about a third.

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

The full text of a report summarizing findings that emerged from the Roundtable on Nonprofit Advocacy and Lobbying is available at:


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