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Public Policy Advocacy: The Case for Nonprofit Engagement

In 2008, as candidates for public office court traditional voting blocks on the path to election victory, the nonprofit sector has enormous potential as an untapped political force to shape the nation's future. The nonprofit sector—our ever-expanding asset of "social profit" organizations focused on serving the public good—is creating the most job growth, the best new ideas, and the most effective solutions to the toughest chronic social problems that are plaguing communities throughout the country.

Though unknown to many state and federal lawmakers, the nonprofit sector—if called upon by the nation's leaders—holds a rare opportunity to unleash the full force of America's entrepreneurial spirit with a drive and commitment that can solve our nation's most challenging domestic problems. Through this effort, the nonprofit sector would be clearly recognized for what it truly is, a thriving and indispensable component of America's economy.

But to produce such sea change results, nonprofit innovation and solutions must be applied on a national scale. And achieving this result will take a bold and enterprising merger of governmental and nonprofit sector forces and resources. To ignite and achieve this transformational merger, the nonprofit sector must focus on a range of steps, particularly its full engagement in the political process. The nonprofit sector must engage in political action at a level that matches the sector's substantial economic muscle or its $660 billion dollar annual contribution to the U.S. economy.

Transformational Moments in American Social History

In the past, U.S. political leaders have responded to difficult national challenges and driven distinct cycles of change in policies that reflect America's social priorities. In response to the Great Depression, FDR created the New Deal—a new and innovative social contract with the people of America that required the country to act as a community to care for those who could not care for themselves—and to provide health care and social services to those too poor to afford it themselves. The War on Poverty, which introduced the modern-day safety net programs of medical and income support, was LBJ's attempt to renew the social contract with America as a response to the glaring problem of domestic poverty. Finally, the Reagan Revolution created a vanguard of conservative activism and a new social agenda as Reagan tackled welfare reform, urged safety net program rollbacks, eliminations, and tighter eligibility requirements.

America today stands at the onset of another transformative change in the social contract between government and the people it serves. In the next decade, America will become more diverse, and older (the over-65 population will double), and will face greater global economic competition. The bottom line—from environmental risks to economic inequality, the challenges before us will be more complex, and the consequences of not addressing them more severe. A transformation of the social contract is due.

The New Era: Nonprofit-Driven Transformation

The question, however, remains: will the nonprofit community rise to the challenge and fulfill its responsibility to help transform America?

It's been done before. In 1989, community-based nonprofit organizations capitalized on a transformational moment in American history—the domestic AIDS epidemic—to effect social change. At the time, American politicians could talk about AIDS research but they couldn't move out of the "white coat" safety zone to recognize how the disease was affecting gay men and drug users, let alone how it had the potential to collapse America's weak public health system. AIDS came into the public forefront when city health systems became over-burdened with patients, and the crisis provided an opportunity to push ahead with a bold solution—a partnership agreement between the HIV/AIDS nonprofit sector and the existing public health system emerged. There was an opportunity to revamp "traditional services" in response to an emergency. At that moment of crisis, a bipartisan leadership team—Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch—organized support on Capitol Hill for passage of the Ryan White Act and created a program that has saved millions of lives.

Across issue areas, a few nonprofit organizations recognize today's unique turning point in history and are stepping out into the policy arena with sophisticated initiatives. The American Cancer Society, for example, has created a bold new model of government affairs engagement by housing its advocacy work under a 501(c)(4), allowing the organization to be more aggressive in holding public officials accountable for cancer policies and budget allocations. Although environmental groups have historically used this model, the American Cancer Society is the first disease-focused advocacy group to stake out a policy position so boldly; for ACS, this policy includes health care reform as a major goal for the next decade.

In addition, a coalition of nonprofit organizations called America Forward is advocating for policies that encourage government to act as a catalyst for nonprofit best practices, rather than the entity that controls or delivers public services and assistance. The 60 members of America Forward propose, for example, the creation of a Social Investment Fund that would combine public, private, and nonprofit efforts to leverage private-sector dollars to encourage innovation, competition, and expansion of successful programs. Some of these themes and policy ideas have already been adopted by the presidential candidates.

Nonprofits' Responsibility for Advocacy

The success of these groups need not be unique, and there doesn't need to be another health care crisis before the nonprofit community flexes its muscle again. The American Cancer Society, America Forward, and organizations and coalitions like them recognize that policymakers cannot act on the experiences of the nonprofit sector unless they are made aware of them. All nonprofit leaders have a responsibility to bring their innovations to government and contribute to the nation's policy discussions. With an effective advocacy effort, the very best nonprofit practices can grow to scale. As the next administration and Congress look for fresh ideas to help inform public problem solving, innovation in the nonprofit sector should be a major source of inspiration for programs and policies that can address the country's most intractable domestic problems.

There are a number of sources for good counsel on advocacy activities that are permissible under a 501(c)(3) status. It is important to understand and work within the legal guidelines of what is allowable, but it is also vitally important to our political process that nonprofit organizations fully capitalize on the range of activities that are permissible. There are more opportunities than many (c)(3)s realize. Some good sources for information include:

  • Alliance for Justice. Alliance for Justice offers a wide range of services to the sector, including professionally planned and executed workshops, publications, technical assistance, and public education activities. Alliance for Justice's program provides information and training on the legal parameters of nonprofit and foundation advocacy, plain-language legal guides to refer to as advocacy campaigns are planned, and real-time technical assistance to answer questions about advocacy projects as they are implemented.

  • Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest (CLPI). CLPI promotes, supports, and protects 501(c)(3) nonprofit advocacy and lobbying in order to strengthen participation in our democratic society and advance charitable missions.
Although often not widely recognized, the nonprofit sector can have enormous influence on those who would shape domestic policies for the next four years and beyond. Effective advocacy has a rich tradition in the sector, and a few, bold advocacy organizations are today leading the way for a new generation of leaders to seize the reigns and make history.

Tom Sheridan, The Sheridan Group
© 2008, The Sheridan Group

Tom Sheridan is founder and president of The Sheridan Group. The Sheridan Group provides government affairs, political strategy, and public policy services to nonprofits and social enterprises dedicated to achieving social change.
Topics: Policy