Executive Summary: Overview of Findings of Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project

See the press release. To download the report in PowerPoint format click here.

OMB Watch, Tufts University and Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest launched a multi-year research to action project, called the Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project (SNAP), to investigate factors that motivate nonprofit organizations to engage in public policy matters. The SNAP initiative aims to address the following four major questions:

  1. What language do nonprofit staff and volunteers use to describe public policy participation?
  2. What factors influence nonprofits' participation in the public policy process?
  3. How do nonprofits make decisions about whether and how they participate in public policy?
  4. What would be helpful and encouraging to nonprofits as they make decisions about public policy issues and decide whether and how they will get involved?

This report, an overview of the research findings, presents information needed to begin addressing these questions. The full overview report can be viewed here. A more detailed report on SNAP will be available in the fall of 2002 and analyses on different types of nonprofits and specific issues will be included in future SNAP reports. The findings are based on a three part research process including:

  1. A national survey of 1,738 nonprofit organizations -- tax-exempt public charities organized under Section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code -- conducted between January and June, 2000;
  2. Telephone interviews with 45 of the survey respondents (primarily executive directors) conducted from September, 2000 to February, 2001; and
  3. 17 focus groups with executive directors, board members, and foundation staff held in different parts of the country from February through September, 2001.

On the State of Nonprofit Public Policy Participation

  • Roughly three of four nonprofits say they have engaged at least once in key types of public policy activity such as direct or grassroots lobbying or testifying at a legislative or administrative hearing. This was considerably higher than predicted. For example 78% of nonprofits report that they have encouraged their members to write, call, fax or email policymakers; 74% report that they have lobbied on behalf of or against a proposed bill or other policy pronouncement; and 71% report that they have testified at legislative or administrative hearings.
  • However, the frequency of policy participation by nonprofits is generally low. For example, of nonprofits reporting that they lobby, roughly 3 out of 5 say they lobby with a low level of frequency. And the majority of these organizations actually report that they lobby at the lowest possible level on the survey. 63% of nonprofits report that they either have never encouraged others to write, call, fax, or email policymakers, or have done so infrequently; the same is true with 69% of nonprofits regarding lobbying and 77% regarding testifying.
  • Nonprofits say that public policy participation is essential to carrying out their mission. But that does not mean that they are involved on a consistent basis. Executive directors in focus groups and interviews repeatedly said being a policy advocate is a key responsibility of running an organization. Yet when probed, they note that spending time on public policy matters detracted from doing other work that they must do, such as fundraising, running direct service and public education programs, and handling day-to-day crises. The survey data underscores nonprofits inconsistent presence in attempts to influence public policy.
  • Even when nonprofits engage in public policy matters, they do not think of themselves as influencing public policy. For example, 46% of survey respondents who said they "never make any effort to influence government" also identify themselves as "participators," which means they have lobbied, encouraged others to lobby, or have testified. Generally, health and environmental groups report the most involvement in public policy matters. Arts and recreation organizations report the least involvement.

Language Makes A Difference

  • There is great variation in how nonprofits interpret words that are used to describe public policy participation, particularly the words "lobbying," "advocacy," and "educating." For example, roughly one-third of nonprofits (34%) on our survey report "lobbying" two or more times a month. However, when a different word was substituted on the same question, nearly half of the respondents report either "advocating" or "educating" government officials two or more times a month: 45% report "advocating," and 47% report "educating."
  • The "L" word-- Nonprofits do not like to use the word "lobbying," even when they are doing it. In focus groups, participants go out of their way to avoid using the word. One executive called it "impact analysis." Another described a lobby campaign to get a state spending bill passed, but claimed that they do not lobby. Many board members and foundations had a negative attitude toward "lobbying," but felt more comfortable with "educating" policymakers, even when it described activities that would be considered lobbying. This antipathy towards the word "lobbying" adds to the difficulty of measuring it. One result is that words like "advocacy" and "lobbying" are often used interchangeably, even though they may mean very different activities to the people using the terms.

There are Persistent Barriers that Need Addressing

  • Nonprofits report the top three barriers to policy participation as being limited financial resources, tax law or IRS regulations, and limited staff or volunteer skills.
  • Three of four (77%) respondents that receive government grants feel that government funding is a barrier to their participating in policy matters -- a significant difference from those who do not receive government grants. Moreover, as government funding increases as a share of the organization's revenue, so too does the perceived barrier to participating in public policy.
  • Many nonprofits that receive government money expressed fear of retribution for engaging in public policy matters. Stories of government grants to organizations being eliminated because of policy positions they took are apocryphal. One comment made during a Michigan focus group echoed what many others had said: "Government grants can dilute advocacy." An interview with an executive from a disability group in Pennsylvania clarified: "If you [receive] government funding then there are subtle ways government can coerce you."
  • Although 58% of respondents said that receiving foundation grants is not a barrier to policy participation, it proves to be a major barrier for certain types of nonprofits. Those that do not lobby see foundation funding as a statistically significant barrier to policy participation when compared to those that do lobby. As with government grants, as foundation funding increases as a percentage of the organization?s revenue, so too does the perceived barrier to participating in public policy.
  • In focus groups, nonprofits raised concerns that foundations do not support advocacy activities undertaken by nonprofits, and unnecessarily place restrictions on using grant funds for lobbying purposes. Additionally, an interview with a national organization reflected the feelings voiced in focus groups related to expectations when foundations do fund advocacy: "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."
  • Ironically, as government and foundation revenues increase, nonprofits tend to become more involved in policy matters despite the perception of it being a barrier. This trend is stronger regarding government funding.
  • Staff and budget size are also strong predictors of public policy participation. More analysis is needed on this as it may have implications for civic engagement: small groups may be too busy providing services or raising funds to stay in existence to engage in public policy matters, leaving their voice and those they serve out of public policy debates.

Nonprofits Lack Knowledge About Key Rules and Laws

  • There is a broad understanding of the general laws and regulations governing policy participation. For example, 94% of nonprofits report that they know they cannot use federal funds to lobby, and 91% know that they can talk to elected officials about public policy matters.
  • Interviews and focus groups revealed that the general understanding nonprofits have of the federal advocacy and lobby laws may be described as thin. Even among groups who claim they know the rules, most did not know the basic limits on lobbying or even the definition of what constitutes lobbying under IRS rules. The survey showed that only 72% know that they can support or oppose federal legislation, and only 79% know that they can support or oppose federal regulations.
  • Two areas that present potential major problems for nonprofits deal with federal grant rules governing lobbying and voter education activities, specifically candidate forums. Half of nonprofits incorrectly thought that they could not lobby if part of their budget comes from federal funds. While nonprofits know they may not use government funding for lobbying expenditures, most are unaware or uncertain of the legal opportunity to lobby with private funds even though their organization receives government funding for other services. Also, 43% of nonprofits incorrectly thought they could not sponsor a candidate forum or debate.
  • In focus groups, executive directors point out that others, such as elected officials, do not understand the rules that 501(c)(3) organizations must follow. Moreover, directors in several cities spontaneously described pressures from political candidates to have their organization endorse them or make campaign contributions, even though charities are prohibited from doing so. As a result of this pressure, many directors say they make personal contributions so that it helps the organization's relationship with current and future policymakers.

Decision Making Authority Has Implications for Policy Participation

  • Most nonprofits (58%) identify the executive director has having responsibility for government relations or public policy. And the executive director is perceived as having the most influence regarding decisions concerning government relations. Yet organizations where the executive director has responsibility for public policy are less involved in public policy than organizations that assign the responsibility to others.
  • Organizations most involved in public policy -- whether testifying before a legislative or administrative hearing, lobbying on behalf of or against a proposed bill or other policy pronouncement, encouraging members to write, call, fax or email policymakers, or releasing research reports to the media, public or policymakers -- have staff, a board committee or an outside lobbyist assigned the responsibility for public policy.

Addressing Barriers to Nonprofit Participation is Vital for a Robust Civil Society

  • Many nonprofits, including board members, need to better understand the importance of public policy participation. It is essential to help nonprofits understand that public policy participation is as important as other day-to-day program, management and governance activities. There is also a need to enhance and expand the recognition and support by foundations and government for the public policy roles of nonprofits.
  • The research points out the need for various types of capacity building activities, including training on lobbying restrictions under government grant rules, lobbying and advocacy restrictions under tax rules, how to be an effective advocate, and building internal organizational capacity. Training and technical assistance materials should be differentiated for the audience since not all nonprofits have the same needs with regards to public policy participation.
  • There is a need to simplify the rules governing lobbying, advocacy, and voter education in order to strengthen nonprofit public policy participation.

This initial set of findings is intended to begin a conversation among nonprofits and all institutions that work with and support nonprofits about ways to motivate policy participation, techniques and tools that facilitate involvement, financial resources and legal assistance needed to bring more nonprofit voices to the policymaking table.

See the full report and press release.

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