A Voice for Nonprofits: How are advocating 501(c)3s different?

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.

18 responses to “A Voice for Nonprofits: How are advocating 501(c)3s different?

  1. Service and advocacy are two wings on the same bird flying for strong vibrant communities, social change and justice. Service without advocacy can only move the needle so far. Service and advocacy can change the world.

  2. Pingback: Four Years in Retrospect | Classroom to Capitol

  3. I absolutely agree that service and advocacy go hand in hand. There is always room for improvement of services and we do that by advocating ourselves or through advocacy of the clients we serve. All improvements are made through some form of advocacy and we must not forget that those things are intertwined. My agency does have a mission, thus we provide services based off the mission, but I believe it is clear in my agency that advocacy can not be left out of what we do. Its one of the hidden pieces to the treasure.

  4. I wonder if it might be possible to incorporate advocacy into your mission? A lot of organizations have, out of the belief that it keeps advocacy central to their work, and also articulates to their supporters (including funders) how the organization sees advocacy as driving towards accomplishment of their mission? What do you think that would look like in your context?

  5. Jessica Patterson

    I am willing to admit I was(and..well..often still am) confused by the many 501 designations and had thought at one time that lobbying was a job held by those conservative right wing-ers that I just despised, until I became more involved with Planned Parenthood. My volunteer work with this agency helped me gain an understanding of the mission of service and advocacy coming together. I was able to help with tabling events under their 501c3 designation but then during election completed an internship where most of my work was under another 501 designation. Hearing those in the agency I looked up to call what they were doing “lobbying” shocked me and now intrigues me enough to explore what it might look like for me to become what once was thought of as a dirty word..lobbyist. I can’t help but wonder how often it is that many agencies, especially the smaller grassroots ones, also get confused about the many rules of 501 designations and that hinders their advocacy decisions/actions. Who helps them figure this out and maneuver the terrain, you Melinda? If so, are there more of you out there to help? This just seems like it could be such a hurdle to jump and such a hinderance to success if gone without.

    • broadkawvalley

      That is some of what I do, and it’s not as complicated as it looks, when you’re staring at the alphabet soup of different nonprofit designations. The good news is that the IRS has deliberately created structures that make it possible for tax-exempt organizations to lobby and engage in other advocacy behavior, and agencies that get some help navigating this landscape can be empowered to shape policy discussions that matter to their constituencies. If you want, we can spend some of the time during our open class session in April talking through this; otherwise, I strongly recommend the resources from Bolder Advocacy (part of the Alliance for Justice). We can’t let ourselves be put off, either by confusion over the nonprofit designations or the stigma associated with the word ‘lobbyist’, if we are to be at the table when the important decisions are being made!

  6. Dawn Clendenen-Moon

    “It’s leadership, a decision that advocacy is, indeed, mission-central, and a willingness to navigate the restrictions to give voice to their causes.”

    After reading this and reflecting on my own experiences, I realized how much I agree with this statement. Your post made me think about an organization I once worked for where advocacy and its importance (for garnering support and funding) were often a part of agency dialogue. Our CEO was well known in the community for being an advocate for his organization and its mission. As employees, even though I really didn’t think of it as ‘advocacy’ then, it was a part of our jobs. Some of us gave presentations to groups at City Hall and in Jefferson City to talk about and promote our successful programs. Others went out into the community to do the same. On election days, all staff was given extra time over lunch to vote because it was clear that election outcomes would have an impact on our organization. Advocacy wasn’t formally written into the mission statement but it was definitely incorporated into our roles in the agency which I believe contributed to its success.

    Going forward, how an organization balances service and advocacy will definitely be something I consider as I agree that there is power and opportunity in doing both well!

    • Great reflections, Dawn. I think the reason that I tend to emphasize inclusion of advocacy within organizational missions is as sort of a crutch–an ‘easy’ way to tell if an organization is serious about making advocacy part of its operations, a shorthand version of the kind of deeper knowledge that can only be known through more exposure to how an organization’s leadership really functions, and what they really believe. Given your experience, what might you look for–short of explicit statement in a mission document or elsewhere–that could tell you if a particular organization will have what you’re looking for, in terms of orientation to advocacy? What clues might hint at the kind of commitment that you were so impressed with there?

      On Tue, Mar 18, 2014 at 3:31 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  7. I know that our upper management does some “lobbying” with the governor and representatives, but I am not real clear on what we are doing. I have heard our Director say that we have limits to what we can do with it, but I still am not clear on what the regulations are on it. I do wish that our direct service staff had a more active role in this as well. We see the clients daily and I feel like we should be advocating for them more. I know that our upper management tries hard, but the focus sometimes can be clouded if you don’t know what the issues are from the clients. I think it would be beneficial when we are working with families to teach them how to advocate for themselves. I know many people are told to write to their senators and representatives, but some clients need to learn how to do this. I think we need to consider how empowering this is for clients and to help them to take part in this as well.

    • Yes, Sasha–you as a direct service provider have such an important perspective to share with policymakers! And it’s a great point that advocacy within nonprofit organizations isn’t ‘all or nothing’–there are a lot of agencies that are doing some policy work, but not necessarily maximally utilizing their advocacy ‘team’ (I’m doing a workshop for local nonprofit service providers on May 15th on this very topic). Do you think that you could approach your organizational leadership to signal your interest in being part of your advocacy work and to see if there might be opportunities for you to play those roles? How could you best communicate your desire to complement their advocacy work, and to be a conduit for client concerns, to policymakers?

  8. I think that it is almost like the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing but in order for any organization to work there has to be that harmony not confusion. In this case, it is service and advocacy. There is always room to grow and improvement for the clients. The changes are made through advocating for what is in the best interest of the clients. You have the harmony in working the services and advocacy. I agree that we need to teach the clients to advocate for themselves.
    In my current job, we provide service and advocate for our clients. If we didn’t advocate at times our clients would go straight to prison. We have counselors that go to the courts, hospitals, and even in family care centers. I didn’t think of it as advocating but now I see it.

  9. The comments preceding mine are clearly from educated people that have exceptional experience and time in the field, so it was a pleasure reading through them! I have become familiar on a basic level as to how 501(c)(3) organizations and 501(h) organizations are nominally different, but I too was confused as to how an organization that has a clearly sociopolitical mission could justify NOT being involved in politics… in my opinion, they couldn’t afford not to!
    Issues that affect people are political and vice versa. I appreciated the agency that one of the commenters worked for allowing extra time at lunch to vote: that fosters a politically responsible environment. Why have the terms ‘lobbyist’ and ‘interest group’ acquired a bitter taste in dinner table conversations?

  10. Just to clarify, Jacob–501(h) organizations are 501(c)3s; they are just (c)3s that have taken a special election to signal to the IRS that they intend to lobby, and that they understand the legal limits associated with such activity. But, yes, your point that being engaged in the political process is a natural and necessary extension of an organization’s social change mission is a critical one…and, yes, anything that deals with access to resources, and people’s rights, is inherently political. We only hurt ourselves and our clients when we think it’s beneath us to engage there. What can you do to reshape how your colleagues see these issues?

  11. Jessica Facklam

    Before I began learning about advocacy and lobbying, I just thought it was someone else’s job because they were trained to do it, or just better at it than I would be. The more I learn about what social workers are doing in the field, the more I realize how much advocacy is done on a daily basis. My practicum field supervisor told me recently about a client who was having difficulty with coordination of care and was unable to get necessary medical equipment. This forced the client to be admitted into the hospital multiple times, and it wasn’t until my field supervisor got involved with the state Capitol about the struggle that any change was made. With her help, the client is now comfortable at home with the appropriate medical equipment. I am sure there similar things that happen weekly, or maybe even daily, that requires her to advocate for her clients. Even working in a non-profit, there are many ways to advocate for clients and it is crucial to do it well, for the well-being of those clients.

  12. I am so glad that you have this field instructor as a mentor and inspiration in this arena! This is a great example of how advocacy can be seen as part of your job, not a huge undertaking completely separate from it! Thank you for sharing this!

  13. As a first year MSW student, I felt very overwhelmed by policy, advocacy, and lobbying. This wasn’t something that I was capable of doing or even had the resources to do, or so I thought. I have spent many a supervision trying to “find myself” in the social policy and advocacy work world while serving the patients of a healthcare facility. With some support and emails to administrators, I found my voice in advocacy work within my field site. Now, this is not going to the Capitol building, but I do think that this is a start. Unfortunately, I have not been part of an agency that stresses advocacy from with in. There are great testimonies out there of employees that have time over lunch to go to city hall, or have support to lobby at the Capital ect. In my job search, that will start in a year or so, I hope to find an agency that values policy and advocacy work and gets people (like me) involved when they feel overwhelmed by this arena.

  14. Advocacy within our own organizations is CRUCIAL to promoting social change! I’m so glad that you have made connections with such great leaders who have role modeled ways of incorporating advocacy into their practices. I look forward to seeing where your social work–and your advocacy–takes you next!

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