In our politically polarized society, policy advocacy is all too often conflated with political activity. Recently, Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee asked the nonprofit community for feedback on whether nonprofits are being misused by foreign nationals and others to meddle in U.S. politics. While there are distinct campaign finance laws that already cover wrongdoing in this area, the role of nonprofits in larger Washington-based policy conversations and across the country remains a topic of debate.
Regardless of which policies nonprofits support, lawmakers should remember these organizations are simply voluntary associations of Americans joining together to reach a common mission. This is a constitutional right and a pillar of our democracy. Yes, these groups can and should speak out for the policies that matter to them.
Just as nonprofits drove social change during the abolition movement and every other major social movement in our history, they are the engine for ideas that tackle everything from homelessness to educational opportunities. They don’t all agree. That’s exactly why they matter in the world of policymaking. Very few of our complicated issues have easy, one-size-fits-all solutions crafted by government bureaucrats.
But both sides of the political aisle seem wary of nonprofits engaging in policy work. This reaction is based on a false conflation of policy philanthropy and political giving. Some lawmakers are concerned that nonprofits are abusing their legitimate role in advocacy and nonprofit work is leading too often to getting candidates elected. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. To the contrary, data actually show that nonprofit engagement in policy advocacy is declining.
In a recent study entitled “Nonprofit Advocacy & Civic Engagement Research,” published by the Independent Sector, findings indicated the number of nonprofits involved in advocacy or lobbying is down sharply. The analysis, compiled by both a nationally representative survey and a qualitative study, highlighted two main findings.
First, over the past 20 years, the number of nonprofits who report advocacy activity has plunged by 31%. Secondly, many nonprofits are unaware of or confused by their legal ability to lobby, undermining the ability of these organizations to participate in important debates.
Policy advocacy, as defined by the Independent Sector, “involves attempting to influence government policy at the local, state or federal level. This may include lobbying, but it also involves many educational and information-sharing activities.” Contributions made to charitable entities that engage in advocacy work are in the interest of shaping policy.
On the other hand, political giving directly bolsters a campaign, candidate or party. This difference is paramount in protecting a nonprofit’s right to advocate, civically engage and lobby. Nevertheless, nonprofit leaders are increasingly choosing not to participate in advocacy work – or simply don’t know they can.
In 2000, more than half of 501(c)(3) public charities (54%) were aware of their ability to endorse or oppose federal legislation. Now, merely 32% of nonprofit organizations know they can lawfully do so. This confusion deters nonprofits from fighting for transformative policy shifts within our nation’s systems. Ironically, while some nonprofits fear running afoul of the law by engaging in advocacy activities the study’s researchers say advocacy and civic engagement are, in fact, “critical” and “key determinant[s] of nonprofit and sector health.”
As this study reveals, many 501(3)(c)s are unaware of the advocacy activities they can, and arguably should, legally participate in. We respect and appreciate the investigations into potential illegal activities that should be prosecuted, but vilifying nonprofits as a whole will only deepen the decline of positive policy advocacy in the United States.