Nonprofits Shouldn't Mistake Nonpartisanship with Neutrality in the 2012 Elections
The following op-ed was published in the The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
August 19, 2012.
By Peter Manzo and Jan Masaoka
As partisanship heats up in anticipation of the November election, some nonprofits, think tanks, watchdogs, and good-government folks are seeking refuge in the cooler climes of nonpartisanship.
But in doing so, many charity and foundation leaders are mistaking nonpartisanship with neutrality and sitting on the sidelines while important economic and social issues are under debate.
Over the next few months, nonprofits will hear frequent admonitions to stay out of controversies to avoid offending donors. They’ll also get completely inaccurate legal advice that they must steer clear of taking policy positions, even though federal law allows nonprofits to speak out on issues and policies to support and oppose ballot propositions, bills in legislatures, court decisions, or any public-policy measure. The only thing they cannot do is back a specific candidate or political party.
Nonprofits that heed those warnings and hold back on advocacy forsake perhaps their biggest opportunities to make a difference. In health, human services, the environment, education, social justice, and many other areas in which nonprofits work, the way to create large-scale change is to alter public policy.
If we want to prevent foster children from becoming homeless, for example, we have an obligation not only to care for foster children as effectively as we can but to seek policies that increase the odds that foster children will succeed. Nor is it enough simply to raise money to preserve wilderness areas: We must also push for policies that offer incentives to businesses, individuals, and others to preserve environmentally sensitive land.
As nonprofit leaders consider getting involved in the policy arena, here are some suggestions to keep in mind:
Take a stand. While nonprofits must be nonpartisan, that does not mean they can never take sides on an issue. True, those who disagree may disguise their opposition by attacking the nonprofit as partisan. But if a ballot measure or proposed law would significantly help or hurt the people and causes that a nonprofit helps, how can it stay neutral?
Mobilize the people who are most passionate about a cause. Volunteers, donors, and clients are a nonprofit’s best assets when it comes to influencing policy makers. Ask them to speak out to educate people about your group’s views. Encourage them to press for legislation that advances a nonprofit’s mission and enlist them to make their views known to government agencies that administer laws already on the books. And make sure that nonprofit supporters and staff members do everything they can get to out the vote. If everyone who cared about children’s health voted, America would have better children’s health policies.
Emphasize mission and values first and facts second. A person’s attitudes on issues and situations are affected instantaneously by intuition and emotion, as authors like Drew Westen explained in his book The Political Brain and Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. People have a gut reaction first, then they analyze later. Don’t throw facts at people until you have reached their hearts.
Acknowledge the other side’s views as legitimate. Understand the moral claim behind your opposition. It can be tempting to dismiss opponents’ views as misinformed, narrow-minded, or cynical, but that is a trap. If you’re trying to persuade people your cause is just, acknowledging their moral claim can make them more likely to hear yours. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers a good foundation for doing that in his book The Righteous Mind. Productively engaging likely opponents, and building a reputation for doing so, is particularly important in trying to build support from enough lawmakers to pass a measure.
Don’t wait until an election. Building support among volunteers and donors to advance a group’s policy goals is best done before anything significant comes up for a vote. Although elections receive all the attention, many very powerful policy changes happen quietly, within administrative agencies that translate legislation into action. Influencing those agencies can bring high yields. What’s more, because such advocacy doesn’t count as lobbying, it doesn’t affect the federal limits that restrict groups from spending a big share of their money on influencing lawmakers.
Look for allies. Collaborating with other nonprofits makes the leadership burden easier to handle and can shorten the learning curve for nonprofit officials, divide the workload, and multiply the energy of advocates. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has conducted a series of in-depth regional studies that quantify how nonprofits have made a difference and point out resources that can help. Other organizations that have information to show nonprofits how to stay within the law but still do a savvy job of influencing policy are Alliance for Justice, Independent Sector, National Council of Nonprofits, Nonprofit Vote, and OMB Watch.
So get involved. Some supporters may bow out, but far more will want to rally behind a group that stands up for what’s necessary and right. In the end, it’s worth the risk given the ultimate gains policy advocacy can achieve.
Peter Manzo is president of United Ways of California and Jan Masaoka is chief executive of the California Association of Nonprofits.