Barriers to policy engagement, Part 3

[Editor’s note: This series continues PJ’s look at the policy work of nonprofits and philanthropic organizations.]

Ret Boney

Charitable groups have a legal and constitutional right to speak out on issues that affect their organizations and constituents, and to work for policy change on their behalf.

But recent investigations by regulators, public perception and a lack of understanding are combining to create an environment that discourages many charities from becoming engaged, experts say.

Speaking out “is not only their responsibility but their obligation as representatives of their constituencies,” says Audrey Alvarado, executive director of the National Council of Nonprofit Associations, based in Washington, D.C.

“We’re being silenced in raising our voices on behalf of the people we represent,” she says. “So we’re not able to fulfill our full potential as watchdogs.”

Some of that is a result of a “general impression of mass confusion and lack of information” about what’s legal and what’s not, Alvarado says.

Nonprofits should work to understand their rights, then document the time and money they spend on policy and advocacy work, and might consider opting for the 501(h) IRS designation that provides clear guidelines on what is and isn’t permissible, she says.

“So go forth and do it,” she says.  “And don’t be intimidated or fearful of raising issues of concern.  Who else is going to if you don’t?”

Terry Knowles, registrar of charitable trusts for the New Hampshire attorney general’s office for the past 25 years, agrees and, as a regulator, encourages nonprofits to be more outspoken.

“If you don’t advocate for yourselves, you’re going to be done unto,” she says.  “When there’s a bill that will hurt charities, they should be there to testify about it, and our charities are often unwilling to do that.”

Knowles’ main focus right now, she says, is to break down the barriers between regulators and nonprofits, and in her role as the chair of the National Association of State Charity Officials, she is encouraging her peers to do that as well.

Much of charities’ reluctance to speak up began in the wake of the 1992 scandal involving the head of United Way of America, she says, an incident that raised questions about the sector as a whole.

“Instead of coming out and saying this is an isolated incident, charities have retreated,” she says.  “Charities must tell their stories and advocate for themselves because their silence appears to condones such scandals.”

A political component has exacerbated the problem in recent years, says Kay Guinane, director of nonprofit speech rights for OMB Watch, a federal-government watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

“Looking at what’s happened under the Bush administration, I’d say that’s an even greater factor these days” than it has been in the past, she says.

Guinane cites Advocates for Youth, a group that opposes the administration’s abstinence-only policy and was targeted for three audits by the federal government within one year.

“You can’t bow to a chilling effect,” she says. “If you let a bully get their way, they’re only going to get more aggressive.  You have to respond.”

She says nonprofits with public-interest missions have more of an obligation to speak up because the populations they represent don’t have any other voice.

Knowles says fear of public perception is another hindrance, and that she hears that many nonprofits would prefer to “fly under the radar” rather than risk alienating their donors, who often don’t like their donations to be used for advocacy.

She advises charities to start small in their policy and advocacy efforts, and encourages groups to hold informal events with policymakers in an effort to foster mutual understanding.

They can also work through their state or national associations to tell their stories, Knowles says.

And she says charities should not be afraid to talk to their regulators.

“We as regulators really want to go after the bad actors,” she says.  “We’re not interested in the small guys who have just made a mistake.”

“Ask the questions and I can explain what you should be doing,” she says.  “I believe the bulk of my colleagues feel the same way.”

Next: Reluctance by board members leads to timidity in policy work.

Other stories in this series:

Part 1: Tight budgets, lack of flexible funding deter many nonprofits.
Part 2: Lack of staff capacity and skills limit policy work by many nonprofits.
Part 4: Lack of understanding, fear can limit board support and action, experts says.

Stories in other series:

Part 1: Policy and advocacy should be part of nonprofit toolkit, experts say.
Part 2: Foundations can influence policy without hurting status, experts say.
Part 3: Advocacy critical to fulfilling nonprofits’ missions, experts say.

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