Research Examines Nonprofit Political Activity, Advocacy

September 19, 2012       Paul Clolery      

After interviews with more than 100 people, three surveys, examination of information from 528 nonprofits and an exhaustive review of existing literature, researchers have concluded that sector leaders have strong but varying opinions about whether organizations should engage in political activity around sector-wide issues.

And, they often can’t even agree on the definition of a sector-wide issue.

That’s among the information in a report released today by advocacy umbrella group Independent Sector (IS) at a news conference in its Washington, D.C. headquarters. IS’s goal was to identify how the nonprofit and philanthropic sector can increase its influence on public policy. Researchers set out to answer two questions:

1. What approaches and strategies shape consistently successful advocacy efforts?

2. How well does the community of organizations currently engaged in sector-wide advocacy perform?

The report, titled “Beyond The Cause: The Art and Science of Advocacy,” draws on lessons from detailed case studies of groups described by IS as highly effective organizations. Four coalition profiles and six issue analyses of federal, sector-wide public policy issues also were undertaken as part of this study. Insights from expert political strategists, seasoned advocates, and academic researchers informed the findings.

The report is two years in the making and more than 1,400 people were involved. The study was underwritten with $1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The lead author was IS President & CEO Diana Aviv with the project coordinated by Erica Greeley, IS’s vice president of networks and member engagement.

The detailed analysis of individual case studies of organizations and coalitions that consistently achieved their goals over time yielded a number of activities and characteristics common to these entities. The report examines how charitable organizations deal with broad policy issues common to the sector and reports on perceptions of their effectiveness in achieving their goals.

The report also offers recommendations for how the sector can increase its effectiveness in the public policy arena, particularly at the federal level.

For the purposes of this study, IS defined sector-wide issues as those that affect the entire or significant parts of the nonprofit and/or philanthropic community, such as tax issues related to nonprofit tax exemptions or charitable tax deductions.

In an interesting twist, the report examines both nonprofit and for-profit advocacy work, particularly in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission. The court ruled that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions.

With the flood gates of money opened, nonprofits are not able to compete against for-profits like GE for example. GE was part of the IS study.

Five strategic approaches emerged as the common ingredients in successful advocacy both for the corporate and nonprofit lobbying groups. While many factors can account for an isolated policy win, these components consistently were present in successful advocacy outcomes over time, according to IS. How and when they were employed, as well as in what combination or under what specific circumstances, often determined the outcome of an advocacy campaign. In large measure, the most effective campaigns picked a target and built backward to get a foundation and the necessary networks and collaborations.

1. Sustain a laser-like focus on long-term goals.

Time frames of 10, 20, or 25 years are common among groups engaged in advocacy in Washington, D.C. Little can be accomplished in a year unless there are either extenuating circumstances (such as a pressing national crisis) or if years of advanced planning have already taken place and a serendipitous opportunity is seized. The keys to achieving long-term goals are to work backward from the goal, be proactive, and alter tactics over time as necessary.

2. Prioritize building the elements for successful campaigns.

Successful advocates constantly invest in relationships with public officials, deepening their understanding of the issues and of the legislative process. Campaign activities are efforts related to promoting or blocking a specific policy proposal or law. The need to prepare for a campaign before its launch is not new. The findings revealed, however, that the most successful advocates were as active during the building phase as they were during the campaign phase.

3. Consider the motivations of public officials.

It takes time and resources to build relationships with public officials but few investments are more valuable to achieving success in the public policy arena, according to the report. Successful advocates invested considerable time in understanding the policy environment and the players, including a thorough knowledge of public officials’ backgrounds, family histories, connections, and the priorities of their constituents.

4. Galvanize coalitions to achieve short-term goals.

Coalitions can be very useful in aggregating the diverse voices, skills sets, and other assets necessary for an effective advocacy campaign. This is especially true when one organization does not have all the requisite components necessary to execute a campaign. However, the study showed that successful organizations did not always use coalitions as the only vehicle for advancement.

Over the course of a long-term advocacy effort, some organizations executed parts of their strategies alone or in collaboration with a limited number of partners depending on the circumstances. In each case, the goal and environmental analysis always shaped the strategy.

5. Ensure strong, high-integrity leadership.

Individuals who head successful advocacy

Sector leaders and former government officials had strong but varying opinions about whether organizations should engage in political activity around sector-wide issues. Most groups engaged in these issues are 501(c)(3) organizations that are subject to restrictions on lobbying and political activity. The question for sector advocates was whether to establish 501(c)(4) organizations or political action committees (PACs).

A number of sector leaders were opposed to engaging in political activity. They responded that such activity would taint the non-partisan image of charities and that charities could never outspend corporations. They did agree that any political activity would require significant resources both to manage the (c)(4) organization and to enable support of candidates. Those interviewed were asked to identify the most significant public policy threat or opportunity facing the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. There was little consensus. While almost all interviewees identified issues related to the federal budget and national deficit, perceived implications of these challenges for their own organizations and the sector at large varied widely.

Responses generally fell into one of four categories:

1. An expressed need to revisit the social compact and better define the responsibilities the federal government has to people;

2. The far-reaching impact of significant, across-the-board spending cuts that are expected;

3. Threats to nonprofit tax exemptions and/or the charitable deduction; and,

4. The need to secure government funding for specific types of nonprofits serving vulnerable populations.

More than half of those interviewed referenced a distinction between prioritizing policy issues that supported society-wide issues often referred to as “the common good,” and issues that supported nonprofits specifically. Leaders concerned about promoting the common good implored the organizations engaged in sector-wide issues to be visionary, not protectionist. They argued that the sector should engage in a values-based public discussion on likely budget cuts, which likely would have a far greater impact on the sector’s bottom line than tax-exemption issues.

In contrast, others asserted that protecting the self-interest of the nonprofit sector is an important way to promote the common good; they did not distinguish between the two. Aviv said she found interesting the finding that often the most effective advocacy campaigns were when organization stepped away from their networks and coalitions and did the work alone.

For more information, go to www.independentsector.org