A Voice for Nonprofits is one of those books that I should have read a long time ago, that everyone assumed that I had read, and that I finally got around to reading on a trip out to western Kansas, in route to do advocacy capacity work with a safety-net dental clinic in frontier Rawlins County (thanks to my Dad, for driving me every time I have to work far from home).
It came out in 2005 and, because this is what I do all day, for me it wasn’t a revelation, as much as some powerful evidence to aid in my greatest professional mission:
To help nonprofits, especially social service agencies, claim their calling to change policies and transform social conditions, using the collective capacity we hold in our sector.
Towards this end, one of the most instructive parts of the book, for me, is the survey data about the differences between nonprofit organizations that take the 501(h) election (which, technically, just signals to the IRS that they want to be judged by a clearer standard about how much lobbying is ‘too much’, but, in practice, tends to differentiate between those organizations that do, or intend to, advocate on a more sustained and active basis than organizations that do not take the h election) and those that do not.
The authors suggest that studying the political behavior of nonprofits is complicated precisely because the organizations are founded for some purpose other than advocacy or political activity. They have a mission, and that mission is not policy change.
But I think that’s a false divide. I mean, if your mission is ‘ending homelessness’ or ‘creating educational and economic opportunities for families’, then that mission leaves wide open the possibility that policy change–and the political advocacy that must precede it–is one of the strategies the organization pursues to realize the goal. It’s only our instinctual aversion to advocacy, fostered by the rules that constrain nonprofit participation, that leads us to view advocacy as something apart, something separate from the ‘mission work’ we conduct through our programming.
There is no such divide inherent in the being mission-driven. Except the false one we construct.
Many of the nonprofit CEOs the authors interviewed for their study chafed at the description of the nonprofit sector as an ‘interest group’. Maybe we have bought into public perceptions that view lobbying as a ‘dirty word’ and that fear interest groups as unduly powerful in American politics. They were loathe to identify what they do as lobbying, even when it clearly was (and even though, in some cases, they were clearly quite good at it).
They didn’t want to claim their political power and influence, which means, of course, that they abdicated much of it.
They said things like, “We publish a newsletter…[and] We tell them to contact their legislators but we don’t tell them to urge them to vote a certain way.” Even though, really, that makes no sense, and it could burn through would-be advocates who, confused and disillusioned by the vague nature of such a request, conclude that there’s no real connection between their needs and the policies in question.
There is growing evidence, including much within this book, about the ways in which 501(h) adopting organizations, a proxy for those that advocate substantially, differ from those that do not. Electors are not only much more likely to claim that they take positions on legislation, but they also know a lot more about what 501(c)3 organizations can and cannot do, in advocacy, sometimes twice as accurate in their assessments.
We have to be careful with causation, though.
Having read many academic studies that attempt to figure out what influences whether an organization will advocate, or not, and reviewing the survey results here, I’m not sure that these factors make 501(c)3s more likely to lobby.
I think, instead, that there’s a good case to be made that it’s the other way around, that these organizations are more knowledgeable about advocacy and more engaged in its various forms because they have decided to do it, and, having thus committed, they dedicate themselves to doing it well.
That suggests that, in the final analysis, what separates advocating nonprofits from the rest isn’t some magic formula about number of FTEs or organizational history or sector within the field.
It’s leadership, a decision that advocacy is, indeed, mission-central, and a willingness to navigate the restrictions to give voice to their causes.
It’s an unwillingness to run from categorization as an ‘interest group’, and, instead, an effort to compete effectively in that arena, in recognition of all that is at stake.
And that may make all the difference.