A new study asks: Should the nonprofit and charitable sectors engage in political activity?

Should nonprofits engage in political activity on issues that broadly impact the nonprofit sector?

That’s one question posed by a new study, Beyond The Cause: The Art and Science of Advocacy, and the conclusion is, well, inconclusive. It turns out that there just isn’t much consensus across the sector on this very basic – if difficult – question.

What Makes For a Successful Political Advocacy Strategy?

The study, which The NonProfit Times reported on in some depth last week, did reach some other interesting conclusions. For example, the report does a useful job of identifying some of the common elements among successful political advocacy efforts. They include:

  1. “Sustain a laser-like focus on long-term goals.”
  2. “Prioritize building the elements for successful campaigns.”
  3. “Consider the motivations of public officials.”
  4. “Galvanize coalitions to achieve short-term goals.”
  5. “Ensure strong, high-integrity leadership.”

None of these results are surprising, but it’s nice to a list like this include some clear implications for both short-term and long-term priorities. The inclusion of item #3, “Consider the motivations of public officials,” is especially welcome because that step – understanding how the decision-makers themselves make decisions – is so often overlooked or undervalued when crafting political strategies. If we don’t understand who they are, and how they make decisions, it’s really tough to craft a successful advocacy campaign.

Why Not Engage in Political Advocacy?

Among those nonprofit sector folks who argued against political advocacy on sector-wide issues, one major concern seems to be about the resource implications. Effective political advocacy does, indeed, require considerable resources, and nonprofits have very compelling reasons to focus all of their resources on their core mission rather than risk dilution through an expanding range of advocacy fights.

A second concern, also understandable, is that sector-wide advocacy fights “would taint the non-partisan image of charities.” It’s very easy to see how the nonprofit sector as a sector would open itself up to sharp attacks by political opponents if it were to engage in a focused way on federal or state level policy debates.

Threats to the Nonprofit Sector

But the largest threats to the nonprofit sector, as identified by study participants themselves, highlight just why I think larger-scale sector advocacy is going to be critical in the years ahead.

Those threats? In addition to overwhelming specter of the federal budget and national deficit issues, participants in the research identified four other key challenges:

  • Threats to the idea that the federal government has a meaningful role and has meaningful responsibilities around social issues.
  • Threats posed by the potential for deep federal spending cuts to nonprofit sector issue areas.
  • Threats to nonprofit tax exemptions and charitable deductions.
  • Threats to government funding for specific types of nonprofit activity, especially around vulnerable populations.

Why Those Threats Justify a More Assertive Nonprofit Sector Political Strategy

All of these are likely to grow in coming years as pressure to tackle federal budget and deficit issues continues to escalate. Engaging on policy issues that impact the nonprofit sector broadly clearly does carry some risk. It will be more difficult to defend the reputation of the nonprofit sector as non-partisan, and some of the sector’s strongest alliances really do cut across partisan lines and might come under pressure as a result. But the risks of not engaging seem even greater. The nonprofit sector is too easy for deficit hawks to target, for example: tax exemptions, charitable donations, preferential treatment, federal funding for programs that generally benefit people who are less politically franchised. Sidestepping state and federal politics won’t insulate the nonprofit sector from attack, and guarantees that we won’t be able to make sure of what should be an enormous political strength: the huge political, geographic, and religious diversity that makes up the nonprofit sector.

You win political fights by defining yourself more quickly and more effectively than your opponent, by building strong coalitions, and executing a smart, proactive political strategy. The nonprofit sector is well positioned, with a powerful “supporting people and communities everywhere” brand and with an enviable degree of diversity.

We won’t avoid becoming political targets simply by not engaging, and our latent credibility and strength won’t be enough to protect the values and needs of the nonprofit sector if we don’t proactively use these assets in a smart, strategic, assertive political strategy.

Defending the Value of the Nonprofit Sector

I’ve always found it a bit frustrating that the nonprofit sector is so apprehensive about advocating for its own needs as a sector (nonprofit tax exemptions and charitable deductions are two of the most obvious and important examples) and asserting its political strength in defense of those needs. It’s as though we think our inherent value as nonprofits will always carry the day. That may have been true in decades past, but it’s not as clear now that it will be true in the years ahead.

Defending Their Turf: Nonprofits Pushing Back Against Social Entrepreneurship

Photo by flickr user Pete Reed.
You know an organization, or a sector, is starting to have problems confusing the instinct for self-preservation with advancing their mission when you come across stories like this: “Defining Social Good: Nonprofits Worry About Calif. Bill” in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Two bills that would give social entrepreneurs more corporate structure options are apparently gaining steam in the California legislature, and the California Association of Nonprofits is worried that more socially-minded business ventures might harm nonprofits.

Sean Stannard-Stockton of Tactical Philanthropy made this point really clearly:

“Some nonprofits worry that a California push to recognize for-profit social businesses will undermine the nonprofit sector. That’s the wrong question. The question should be about maximizing social impact, not protecting specific corporate forms.”

While there may be more to the story (there usually is), I think Sean is dead-on, and I think this conflation of self-perpetuation and mission runs deeper than just a nonprofit association’s reactionary response to legislation that might enable other types of social change organizations to do more social change work. In some ways, this is the same “not knowing when to wrap it up” problem that many nonprofits have. Either they lack a clear endpoint, so self-perpetuation actually becomes hard-wired in the DNA, or when they arrive at the clear endpoint they just come up with a new mission. The result, in either scenario, can be organizational behavior more oriented toward organizational preservation and protection at the expense of the mission or the cause itself.

But this also has hints of the dying-industry problem faced by institutions like the publishing, newspaper, and music industries. Their business models are basically dead, and while they can all milk their legacy networks for a while they are on an inevitable downward slide (if not tailspin). The energetic effort to suppress alternative business models (e.g., newspaper paywalls and the absurdity that is the Denver Post and other newspapers suing bloggers who link to them, record labels suing fans for sharing music) might buy them some time but won’t change the outcome. The smart ones – I think of O’Reilly Media, the Huffington Post, and Pandora as examples – are figuring out very different models, and are poised to thrive in so doing.

I don’t think the nonprofit sector is in any danger of dying, but attacking efforts to widen the range of social change organizational structures sure smells like prioritizing self-protection over enabling social impact. State nonprofit associations ought to be leading the charge in this brave new world, helping everyone make sense of the range of organizational structures for changing the world, maybe even helping to do some of the innovating themselves.