Government regulations and laws have a significant and powerful impact on every nonprofit organization and the people it serves. This makes it imperative for board members to become involved with policymakers at the city, county, state and national levels who affect their organizations and constituencies.
No social service agency can ignore the rules that affect those it serves and still be effective. Art and culture organizations know that without public support many groups would flounder and great opera houses would be difficult to build. Environmental organizations realize that the public must be energized if the earth is to be preserved. The list goes on. While services are critical, so is speaking out on the issues that concern those in need.
The Alliance for Justice (http://www.afj.org), a nonprofit advocacy organization, gives a compelling argument for why nonprofits should be involved in changing or affecting public policy: Nonprofits traditionally serve constituencies and issues that have a limited voice in the policy process. Nonprofits providing services frequently have the best-- or only-- information on the social needs they exist to address. In addition, these nonprofit organizations are less subject to self-interested motivations, driven instead by a commitment to a broad community of people or common interests. Many more board members can, and should, be aware of what is happening in your community that will affect your ability to carry out your mission.
Over the last ten years the nonprofit sector has come under great scrutiny by state and federal officials. New federal and state laws have been passed affecting the nonprofit sector (such as Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the California Nonprofit Integrity Act). Some of these new laws are helpful but many create additional administrative paperwork and expense that are difficult for nonprofits, especially small- to medium-sized nonprofits, to absorb. Some are harmful, such as the recent change in IRS tax code for car donations that resulted in a large drop across the country in such donations. The nonprofit sector has not been effective at advocating on its own behalf for regulations and resources that would help rather than diminish effective services.
Public policy advocacy within the nonprofit sector has grown tremendously in the last ten years. A sea change has occurred; it is no longer limited to a few specific groups. If there was any doubt this sea change exists, try putting "nonprofit advocacy" in Google and see 20 million hits appear! Today, with well over one million organizations in existence, there is a much greater understanding that "service alone" is not enough to assist your constituency and fulfill your mission.
is Public Policy Advocacy?
A simple example of this type of public policy involves a parent who sits on the local board of the Little League and whose child just sprained his ankle by stepping in a crack in the field. The parent board member might ask, "If our goal is a safe playing field, what can we do about these holes? Whom can we talk to at City Hall who can ensure the fields are maintained properly? Who else might be concerned about this issue? Perhaps if we can get the boards of both the baseball league and soccer league to sign a letter to the city manger, he or she can have the park and recreation department fix the field." This is public policy advocacy.
Advocacy can also involve educating others about a policy or law that is affecting your constituency, or calling a government official you know about a concern to your agency. It may involve a new rule about the schools your children attend, and you as a member of the PTA are called upon to let others know about the change. Or perhaps you sit on the board of a local senior citizen center and the county is proposing to cut back on rides for seniors. Community organizing, media campaigns, educating the public, researching and reporting on problems facing those you serve, working on voter registration or get-out-the-vote campaigns, and even protesting are all legitimate roles for nonprofits to pursue.
Have Many Nonprofits been Reluctant to Get Involved in Public Policy?
Nonprofits can and do engage in lobbying. Most of what is involved in public policy advocacy is not even considered lobbying, but rather education. The fear that it might be illegal has for years stopped many from doing all that they should to carry out their missions.
For an example of a model policy see the one drafted by the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, a nonprofit technical support center (www.pano.org - see Standards, Advocacy and Public Policy in Nonprofits), which covers many of the above considerations.
You Lobby On Behalf Of Your Nonprofit?
Lobbying involves talking to public officials about a particular piece of legislation. Within specific state or federal guidelines' nonprofits are permitted to spend up to a million dollars on lobbying. There are however no limits on educating policy makers, the public, your members or constituencies about a particular policy! It is important to understand what you are doing, so you can determine if you are lobbying or providing education. There is ample room for organizations to educate the public about public policies and, in effect, make better rules and laws that can create a more healthy, just, and fair society.
For more detailed discussion of nonprofit advocacy and the rules on lobbying see the following resources:
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