This post first appeared in the Corridor Business Journal.
Nonprofit organizations play important roles in communities as experts in their areas of service. It is therefore problematic when nonprofit organizations shy away from advocacy and policy work.
Admittedly, a nonprofit organization must be clear about what its board members and employees can and can’t do when it comes to political advocacy, but our communities miss out on vital perspectives on the issues when our nonprofit experts are not participating in the conversation.
Nonprofit organizations have the ability to give voice to those who might not otherwise be heard. From artists to children to those struggling with life’s challenges, nonprofit organizations can aggregate the stories of their clients, talk about the issues affecting them, and propose solutions and approaches that add richness to our communities by better meeting the needs of all residents.
It is part of the leadership role of nonprofit organizations to serve as advocates and provide expertise. We need nonprofit organizations in our community conversations. When nonprofits neglect their leadership roles and fail to amplify the voices of the people they serve, community policies and visions become short-sighted because we miss these important perspectives.
Our false understanding
Nonprofit leaders commonly believe that nonprofit advocacy and lobbying are prohibited. This is false.
Internal Revenue Service regulations have specific guidelines regarding nonprofit lobbying activities, but such activities are not prohibited. Grant funders may restrict use of their funds for lobbying activities, but this does not generally prohibit the organization from using other funds to engage in lobbying or advocacy.
In most cases, much of the advocacy work that a nonprofit organization does is provide information to educate community members and policymakers about a particular issue. When your board and staff leaders discuss advocacy, it is important to clarify the distinction between advocacy (providing information and supporting or recommending positions on specific issues) and lobbying (working to influence specific legislation) to ensure that everyone is on the same page during the discussion, and so there aren’t misunderstandings regarding current or proposed activities.
The first step in determining how your organization should approach advocacy activities is to fully understand the types of activities that are allowed, that are regulated and that are prohibited.
It may be easiest for the board and staff leadership to first review information or articles from an organization like the Independent Sector (www.independentsector.org) that has publications on nonprofit advocacy. The topic can then be added to a meeting agenda for an initial discussion to develop additional questions and considerations.
Once the board has drawn up a list of questions and concerns, it may want to engage its attorney or someone from the Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center at the University of Iowa to address any legal questions. The board should schedule time on the agenda to discuss them, as well as other concerns about advocacy activities.
Once the board and staff have thoroughly discussed the issues involved, the board should draft an advocacy and lobbying policy for the organization. The policy should outline the criteria and process used by your organization to determine advocacy positions and who should serve as spokesperson for those positions.
The policy should also be clear about staff and board members’ abilities to speak out as individuals within the community. As with all policies, it should be succinct and clear, and reviewed by the organization’s attorney.
The balancing act
Advocacy and participation in policy discussions raises your organization’s profile in the community. This, in turn, provides more opportunities to engage more people in your work and helps establish your organization as a community leader.
That said, it’s important that your organization be judicious about determining its advocacy activities. Like its other communications, an organization’s advocacy message should be focused and clearly linked to the organization’s mission.
Nonprofit boards tend to be risk averse; speaking out on issues can feel like a very risky act. It’s important that the board balance its risk management role with its duty to advance the organization and the issues that concern it. Organizations must be leaders in their communities regarding their areas of service and expertise. This involves speaking out and advocating for issues that affect the organization and its constituents. To do anything less is a disservice to the community and the organization’s mission.