Nonprofit organizations have been described as the backbone of American democracy. They define and drive political responses to many important issues, such as immigration, reproductive rights, health care, and education. Perhaps it is inevitable that nonprofits also emerge as sources of advocacy and expertise on these subjects, if only because they cannot fully meet the needs of their constituents simply by providing services.
Nonprofits can complement their efforts in service provision by speaking out about their needs, the needs of their constituents, and amplifying those voices. This is especially true of advocating for democracy itself. Nonprofit VOTE found that when nonprofits engage in nonpartisan civic engagement efforts, they increase representation and participation in the electoral process.
The Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project (SNAP), a multi-year research project of Tufts University, OMB Watch, and Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest, commenced in 2000 and is the most comprehensive national study to understand the extent to which nonprofits engage in advocacy. Since that project was completed over two decades ago, the sector has had to rely on 22-year-old data to try to understand the barriers to nonprofit advocacy in a changing world. Even for nonprofits that have long been dedicated to advocacy, the current national landscape is radically different from 2000, shaped as it is by rising tides of political polarization, corruption, and authoritarianism, as well as the recent racial reckoning and the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Research Project on Nonprofits and Civic Engagement
In light of the lack of relevant data and these changing conditions, Independent Sector recently commissioned three researchers, Dr. Lewis Faulk at American University, me (Dr. Mirae Kim at George Mason University), and Dr. Heather MacIndoe at the University of Massachusetts Boston, to assess the status of public policy participation by nonprofit organizations. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a current understanding of the impact of nonprofit organizations on public and civic engagement, and to help individual nonprofits expand their public and civic engagement capacity so they can more effectively work toward their missions.
This research will help the sector identify where nonprofit organizations need help building infrastructure and capacity to increase collective advocacy. The new data produced by this research will inform the sector and individual organizations on how to leverage limited resources, invest in capacity building, and bring greater public attention to the needs of nonprofits and the communities they serve.
Currently, it is suspected that fewer than half of nonprofits report advocacy as a part of their organization’s strategy. Because nonprofits are on the front lines of so many social challenges, greater nonprofit advocacy could bring much needed expert perspectives on persistent public problems and policy solutions — by informing equitable policy approaches to social and economic problems, and lifting up the voices of those who are not included in the conversation. This newly commissioned research will help diagnose barriers to nonprofit engagement in advocacy, identify opportunities to build advocacy capacity, and increase understanding of the role that equity plays in nonprofit advocacy, as well as nonprofit contributions to nonpartisan civic engagement.
Although this project is intended as a one-time comprehensive assessment of nonprofit organizations’ nonpartisan civic engagement, it will serve as a much-needed thermometer for nonprofit organizations’ role in democracy. The new data will help us better understand the role nonprofits play in empowering the communities they serve to participate in the policy process. It also will provide researchers with a current, comprehensive set of data they can use as a robust baseline in evaluating sector progress. The new data also will allow individual nonprofit organizations to benchmark their own activities against national averages, and help funders and nonprofit infrastructure organizations understand core capacities that need additional development.
A common objection to nonprofit advocacy is that nonprofit organizations should neither engage in nor work to influence public policy. Opponents to nonprofit advocacy describe such efforts as the work of special interest groups. This misrepresents the reality that nonprofit organizations must work to shift public policy and make their voices for the voiceless, rather than skewing the conversation for some special interest groups. Nonprofits can increase impact beyond social service delivery. We should work toward a paradigm where nonprofits co-produce the ways that create changes and lift up the voices of those who are missing from the conversation.
While one research project may not change the world overnight, the new data from this research will provide fresh perspectives in the conversation about the current role of nonprofits in this changing world.
Mirae Kim is the visiting scholar at Independent Sector.