Nonprofits and policy, Part 1

[Editor’s note: This is the first in series of articles looking at the policy work of nonprofits and philanthropic organizations.]

By Ret Boney

When working to help the people or issues they care about, nonprofits and foundations should make use of all available tools, including public policy and advocacy, experts say.

“If any nonprofit looks at their mission statement, the vast majority will include a vision of some kind of systemic change,” says Elizabeth Heagy, president of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, based in Washington, D.C.

In addition to providing direct services, such as meals for the homeless or exhibition space for new artists, involvement in public policy is critical, she says.

“It can’t be just about providing direct services,” she says, “but seeking solutions for the long term.”

While there are laws that govern what foundations and nonprofits can and can’t do within the realm of public policy and advocacy, there’s plenty of room to work for change in the underlying laws and regulations that affect society, she says.

Tom Ross, executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C., agrees.

“Nonprofits and foundations all have at the core of their missions to make life better for people,” he says.  “For some, the opportunity to have an impact is increasing in a dramatic way through policy change as opposed to other methods.”

The Reynolds foundation feels an obligation to help all North Carolinians, Ross says, but lacks the resources to help everyone in need, one person at a time.

By focusing “a significant part of our resources” on addressing policy, he says, the funder leverages its impact in areas including the environment, public education and domestic violence.

To combat domestic violence, for example, the foundation is working to identify additional streams of federal funding and is working with the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission to potentially change funding methods, Ross says.

It’s also pushing for a uniform data -ollection system that will provide more accurate statistics about incidents of domestic violence.

“Our efforts are designed to improve the field as a whole in addition to supporting individual programs,” he says. “We still do that.”

The foundation is also finding success in forming coalitions with other groups to advocate for change in areas including lobbying reform.

“We’ve worked together with conservative and progressive funders to support the same efforts,” he says.  “That’s an important step for North Carolina.”

In addition to changing laws that affect a nonprofit’s constituents, some policies could be hampering nonprofits’ abilities to provide direct services, says Heagy.

Some nonprofits are working to change regulations that prevent prompt payment under government contracts, for example, so charitable groups don’t have to stop providing services while they wait for government funds.

Advocacy and policy work have side effects as well, she says.

“If you become consistently engaged, you will be seen as an expert in your issue,” she says.  “And foundations and individual donors pay attention to who is out there trying to make change happen.”

And nonprofits can use advocacy as a way to involve individuals in the public policy process and in their organizations, creating new loyal supporters, Heagy says.

Bill Schambra, executive director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, says it is “hard to imagine anything that foundations and nonprofits do that isn’t somehow linked to public policy.

But too much time spent on advocacy could damage the nonprofit sector’s public image as “small volunteer groups doing work to solve the problems right in front of them,” he is quick to add.

“If you sacrifice that and become simply advocacy-oriented groups,” he says, “then you’ve thrown away the thing that makes the sector itself in the eyes of the American people and historically as well.”

But for many, policy and advocacy remain an important part of the toolkit for change.

“Our mission is clear – to make life better for all North Carolinians,” says Ross of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. “Policy is one place we can do that effectively.”

Other stories in series:

Part 2: What foundations can and can’t do related to public policy.
Part 3: Advocacy critical to fulfilling nonprofits’ missions, experts say.

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