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The Sector is Big, but Are We Strong?

The sheer size of the nonprofit sector suggests that it should be highly influential. So why is it then, in recent decades, with rare exception, nonprofits have failed to win on major issues in the public interest such as strong gun control measures, campaign finance reform, and affordable housing for the poor?

This lackluster influence wasn’t always the case. The Grange Movement, with some 20,000 local chapters, played a major role in developing rural policy leading to the establishment of the rural extension service. Townsend Clubs, which at one point numbered as many as 5 million members, were largely responsible for the passage of the Social Security Act of 1937. During the aftermath of WWII, the American Legion successfully lobbied the Congress to launch the G.I. Bill, offering education benefits to returning veterans.

Today, only a handful of our million+ U.S. nonprofits and their legions of volunteers, donors and staff exer­cise such a disproportionate influ­ence on the politics of our country or states. The paradox of current sector growth is that, because it is so diverse, nonprofits increasingly divide into fields of activity that continually fragment it, thereby narrowing the vision of leaders and boards and paralyzing the potential of unified action on the major issues of the day. This fragmentation is exacerbated by funding that, despite recent moves by some to invest in operations, remains largely focused on program-specific funding. It is also stymied by a paucity of re­sources for supporting coalition building efforts that can bring different constituencies and organi­zations together for joint action.

The sector is not served well by continued fragmentation and organizational self-interest.

The lack of “budget room” to advocate is a huge issue. However, before we get too comfortable with that excuse, as leaders, a closer examination of what nonprofits spend time advocating for and, even more importantly, what motivates leaders to advocate, merits some attention. In a recent study of over 500 Georgia nonprofit executives, GCN found that, while the majority value advocacy and believe it is a major role of nonprofits, their organizations rarely do it. The singular exception was activism in the event that their own organiza­tional funding was threatened. In fact, we found this to be a signifi­cantly more motivating factor spurring CEOs and boards to engage in advocacy than policy shifts that would have a clear negative impact on those they serve or their cause.

The sector is not served well by continued fragmentation and organizational self-interest. We may build strong organizations, but we are not building a strong sector. We may build strong individual leaders, but we do not build collective influence. For example, organizations focused on poverty know that afford­able housing, poor health conditions, crime and drugs, under-performing schools and the lack of social services are all interconnected. Yet, their activities do not reflect this under­standing. When affordable housing issues arise, very few non-housing poverty groups lend a hand in active lobbying support. Similarly, housing organizations are rarely active supporters of health or child­rens’ organizations when those issue-specific legislative measures are being considered. The inability, or unwillingness, of some nonprofits to lend a hand to colleague organiza­tions is one reason why anti-poverty advocacy efforts in recent years have not been that impressive (nor have educational efforts, for that matter). So, to put it bluntly, we have a leadership issue.

That said, last year brought glim­mers of hope, as a group of leaders begin to emerge, coalesce, and demonstrate what can be done.

When we want to be, we are influential. It simply requires leadership.   

The 2011 Georgia Legislature’s efforts to reform the state’s tax code includ­ed measures that would have removed existing nonprofit exemp­tions. GCN rallied groups as diverse as hospice providers, community theaters, Girl Scouts, and humane societies to come together. The result: together, we successfully removed nonprofits from the threat. GCN and a large coalition of nonprof­its including arts institutions, Goodwill, and homeless shelters worked together to help Nuci’s Space, a small mental health pro­vider in Athens, win a Georgia Supreme Court case challenging the group’s property tax exemption that, if lost, would have impacted many other nonprofits’ exemptions as well. When we want to be, we are influen­tial. It simply requires leadership. 

For some time now, we nonprofits have been talking about operating like businesses; we’ve focused on the technical management aspects of our work; we’ve focused on building reserves, creating efficien­cies, program specialization, and increasing our output. It’s all posi­tive progression but, at some point, I fear the sector lost its mojo. We must not lose sight that the soul of the sector is about coalition-building and inspiring the hearts and minds of citizens to be active participants in the welfare of the community in which they live; in the causes that inspire and affect them; and in the nonprofits that support and sustain thriving communities.

The soul of the sector is about coalition-building and inspiring the hearts and minds of citizens.

When we don’t advocate, we diminish the scale of our impact. Nonprofits are a key mechanism through which citizens activate their leadership potential—as donors, volunteers and as professionals. That requires us, as nonprofit leaders and board members, to enlarge our dialogue and embrace advocacy and policy as a critical part of our work and leadership.

The issues confronting our society are too big and too complex to ignore just because they are not at the center point of a singular issue. In fact, they are big and complex because they intersect many issues at once. Resources are scarce and demand is up. The need to scale—to provide service to more people—is critical to our viability and effectiveness as a sector. Our sector cannot afford to stand by and grow weaker from further fragmentation. Nonprofit and foundation leaders must intentionally take steps to de-silo and fund the larger advo­cacy work necessary to scale impact—not just activity. Our sector, and the communities we serve, can afford nothing less.

Read more about "Finding our Advocacy Mojo."

Karen Beavor is President and CEO  of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits. 

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