When nonprofits are boxed into corners

This is, for now, my last post about the Center for Evaluation Innovation’s framework for public policy.

It is inspired, again, by a conversation with nonprofit advocates–mostly also executives in their organizations–with whom I was talking about some of the challenges that their organizations face in adapting to changing political climates by incorporating new strategies and engaging in new advocacy arenas.

One Executive Director spoke bluntly about the boundaries she confronts, in trying to make these shifts, because of funding sources that constrain her ability to, for example, move from policymaker education to building political will (because that looks like lobbying), or translate policy analysis and research into champion development (by explicitly reaching out to make information resonate with decision makers).

And I know this isn’t the first that I (and others) have written about nonprofit lobbying rules (those leveled by the IRS and those more artificially imposed by foundations/donors and Boards of Directors), but I guess it’s the first time that I’ve thought about them in such clear terms:

Sometimes, these restrictions just compromise our effectiveness and form barriers that make it really, really hard for us to be effective.

It’s like we confront a fence when we get to a certain point in the framework and have to stop before we can get to the impact that we seek.

In my head, I see one of those cartoons where the character hits the invisible glass wall.

Only it’s not funny.

It’s frustrating and kind of disheartening.

I think that there are ways around most of these ties that bind us:

  • Organizations should take the 501(h) election, so that they are held to a clear, dollar-amount cap, instead of the amorphous ‘insubstantial parts test’.
  • Organizations should always, assertively, compellingly educate foundations and other donors, not just about the legality of nonprofit advocacy, but also about its expected outcomes, and why it deserves investment.
  • Organizations should build strong networks and use a ‘field frame’ to determine where they have allies with complementary capacity and, perhaps, not all of the same limitations on lobbying.
  • Organizations should maximize their capacity in the unrestricted areas, knowing that some of that strength will spill over into other parts of the framework.

Still, for me, the epiphany in this conversation was that we can’t always maneuver around these obstacles.

There are organizations whose funding primarily comes from the federal government, and they have very little ability to engage in activity with decision makers, beyond the most ‘neutral’ education. There are organizations with very small budgets, for whom even the 501(h) test gives few resources to dedicate to lobbying. There are organizations in contexts with few funders who are supportive of advocacy of any kind.

And all of that means that it’s harder for us to work a plan, to lay out a logic model that would move us from input A to outcome B in anything like an expected trajectory.

It can mean that we do pretty irrational things, like invest in a lot of community education and expect it to neatly lead to policy change.

It can mean that we feel stuck in a corner.

And, as a child of the 80s, I know that’s not good.

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One response to “When nonprofits are boxed into corners

  1. Reblogged this on The Political Social Worker and commented:
    Some insights on restrictions placed on nonprofits plus a Dirty Dancing reference.

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