Advocacy Is Not a Dirty Word

By Gary D. Bass, OMB Watch
Published in the November 1, 2007 edition of The Chronicle of Philanthropy
Reprinted with permission

Lobbying has increasingly become a dirty word. It is associated with backroom deals negotiated by those with lots of money. It is unseemly, made all the more ugly by the likes of the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Yet Americans have fought wars to defend our constitutional right to lobby. The First Amendment says it is "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." It is among the most cherished of democratic principles: the right to organize and advocate for policy changes.

In new research about charity advocacy conducted by Tufts University, the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, and my organization, OMB Watch, many charity leaders agree that being a policy advocate is a key responsibility of being an executive director. Echoing a refrain heard around the country, an executive director of a small human-services organization in the Northeast noted, "I try to sit on as many committees and commissions as possible so I can try to influence public policy."

Our research finds that while more than eight out of 10 charities surveyed say they have either lobbied or testified before a governmental body, most of them do so infrequently. For example, 69 percent of surveyed charities say either they never do direct lobbying or they do so rarely.

Many executive directors told us that spending time on lobbying and other advocacy activities detracted from doing the work that they should or must be doing, like fund raising or dealing with staffing issues and day-to-day crises.

"We simply don't do those types of things," said the leader of a religious group in San Antonio about advocacy.

"It is not our mission to engage in public policy. It is inappropriate to lobby," said an executive of a Sacramento organization that fights substance abuse.

Add to the mix that many board members do not fully understand the important role charities can play with regard to public policy or actually have negative views about them engaging in lobbying — or even advocacy.

There is some irony about this inconsistent policy behavior. During the 20th century, nonprofit groups played a leadership role in influencing public policies on civil rights, the environment, health care, social services, arts, and community development. While we have no longitudinal data to study, it does seem that nonprofit groups have become less involved in public policy over the past 20 or 30 years. This was a period when government support of nonprofit services increased sharply and some nonprofit leaders may have become concerned that advocacy could jeopardize their government aid.

One executive of a large voluntary organization said the group "lost 80 percent of their state grants because of lobbying." A director of a health-care provider in Massachusetts said, "Literally, you take a position critical [of a policy], the next day the special audit team from the state, they're in all your records. It's very hard to be an advocate when you're dependent upon state money." An official of a disability group in Pennsylvania said: "If you [receive] government funding, then there are subtle ways government can coerce you. When this happens, our board begins to tremble."

Our research shows that three of four recipients of government money believe that such support is a barrier to participating in public policy. Moreover, as government revenue increases as a percentage of a nonprofit organization's budget, the perceived barrier to participation also increases.

Given that the nonprofit world depends heavily on government aid, this view could have a profound impact. Yet our data also show that as government revenue increased in size, nonprofit groups tended to become more involved in policy matters. So behavior differs from perception.

Past attacks on nonprofit advocacy may have also played a role in chilling nonprofit advocacy. Since the early 1980's, government officials have made several attempts to silence nonprofit policy participation, particularly among organizations that receive federal or state money. While most of those efforts failed, they left a lasting legacy that may have discouraged advocacy.

Part of the problem is that charities and foundations do not have a good understanding of what they can and cannot do. Most charities know they can lobby under the tax rules, but their knowledge beyond that is very thin.

More than a quarter of nonprofit officials did not know they can support or oppose federal legislation, and 20 percent did not know they can support or oppose federal regulations. And half the survey respondents did not know that they can engage in public-policy matters even if they receive federal grants. Board members and foundation staff members were even less familiar with policies on lobbying and advocacy.

Our research found a pattern among charities: They get more involved in advocacy activities when they face a crisis — which is often the worst time to make a difference — and then drop out after the crisis. According to senior staff members at charities, the leading reasons that they get involved so infrequently is that they lack money and skilled staff members who can carry out advocacy activities, and they think the tax law limits their involvement.

In interviews and focus groups, nonprofit executives said that most training sessions and other efforts to provide guidance on advocacy focused on how-to issues along with background on tax law and rules. That suggests that people have plenty of access to information that could help them overcome their greatest obstacles. While expanding informational efforts is vitally important, it is not all that is needed to encourage nonprofit leaders to get more involved in advocacy.

Our research shows that the key to getting nonprofit groups consistently involved in advocacy work is rooted in providing strong motivation. Of those groups that already participate, 86 percent said that the key reason for their advocacy was to carry out their nonprofit missions.

Similarly, more than three-quarters of groups that conduct advocacy said that raising public awareness about important issues or protecting government programs that serve the organization's constituents or community were also high motivating factors for engaging in public policy.

The challenge, then, is to make sure that all charities come to understand that influencing public policy is often a key part of achieving their missions.

As Florence Green, executive director of the California Association of Nonprofits says, the nonprofit world needs to make the extraordinary — conducting advocacy — as ordinary as conducting fund raising. This calls for a strong campaign to demystify advocacy and to change the climate regarding policy involvement. It also calls for a more active role for foundations.

One role foundations can play is to support advocacy efforts. Yet most grant makers are reluctant to provide resources for meaningful policy participation. Charities complain about unnecessary restrictions that foundations place on lobbying.

As a human-services executive director from Tennessee said, "All the major foundations have a clause [in grant letters] that says you cannot do any lobbying with their money, every one of them."

Others complain that foundations will only provide support for advocacy when there is a crisis, instead of providing continuing support to prevent the crisis from occurring in the first place.

That leads to the most common refrain about foundation support: "Foundations will fund something for a few years. Unfortunately, two or three years is not how change works. They want instant gratification. Foundations think there is an instant solution for social problems."

Some foundations are stepping up with consistent support for nonprofit advocacy. David Arons's new book, Power in Policy: A Funder's Guide to Advocacy and Civic Participation (Fieldstone Alliance), provides numerous examples of foundations that have supported advocacy efforts. In the book, Emmett Carson, the head of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, concludes, "If foundations are to become more active in public policy, the change cannot be mandated by external pressures, but must start with self-reflection, which comes from self-interest in fulfilling their missions."

Inevitably, that means that foundation trustees and staff members, just like their counterparts at nonprofit organizations, need greater information about the importance of advocacy and how it should become the ordinary instead of the extraordinary.

Gary D. Bass is executive director of the advocacy group OMB Watch, an affiliated associate professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute, and a board member at the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest. He is a co-author of Seen but Not Heard: Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy, published by the Aspen Institute. The book is based on the research discussed in this article.

© 2007 Chronicle of Philanthropy

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