Policy hurdles trip nonprofits

Helping to shape public policy is an important job for nonprofits but they are not prepared for it, a new report says.

Nonprofits and their boards need training to better understand the importance of policy work and increase their participation in it, and rules on lobbying, advocacy and voter education need to be simplified, the report says.

While roughly three in four nonprofits say they testify, lobby or mobilize the public to lobby, they participate only rarely, says the study by OMB Watch, Tufts University and Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest.

Continuing barriers to their participation include limits on time, staff, volunteers, money and complicated federally lobbying rules, says the report, which surveyed 1,700 nonprofits.

“It is troubling that at a time when we depend on nonprofits more than ever to educate policymakers and speak out on important community needs and national priorities, they are largely inadequately prepared, and inconsistent and infrequent in their level of policy participation,” says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, an advocacy and research group in Washington, D.C.

Nonprofits say taking part in policy work is essential to fulfilling their mission, the report says, but those that do take part don’t believe they have much clout.

Nonprofits say the biggest obstacles to taking part in policy work are limited financial resources, tax law or Internal Revenue Service rules, and limited skills among staff and volunteers.

Three of four nonprofits responding to the survey that receive government grants believe government funding is a barrier to their participation in policy work, and many fear retribution for taking part.

Nearly six in 10 nonprofits responding to the survey that receive foundation funding say it is not a barrier to taking part in policy work, but those that don’t lobby say it is a barrier.

As part of the study, nonprofits said in focus groups that foundations don’t support advocacy work by nonprofits and put needless limits on using grant dollars for lobbying.

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