State governments and the federal government can be your nonprofit’s allies – and also your adversaries. Governments can provide funding to supplement your programs, for demonstration projects, to direct attention and volunteers to your aid, and to create a supportive web of laws and regulations that advance your organizational mission. On the other hand, units of government can craft laws and write regulations that hamper your mission. Your projects, once funded, can be de-funded. It is essential, therefore, to work with government to support your work while also protecting your nonprofit against regulations that harm your organization or constituents.
The four steps that follow can help you create/increase your organization’s capacity to engage in public policy.
Often attributed to Tip O’Neil, The Frederick News (Maryland) in 1932 first coined the phrase “all politics is local.” For the nonprofit sector, this truism provides great opportunities to strengthen volunteering, giving, and service through shaping public policy. Communities represented by public policy makers are awash in nonprofit services — scouting, other youth service organizations, community development, the arts, religious organizations, service organizations, environmental groups, health related nonprofits, hospitals, libraries, and museums. The list is long and affects all aspects of the local community. Mobilizing these local voices helps policy makers understand the issues of interest and concern to their constituents.
While nonprofits have a powerful position for shaping public policy, they are frequently reluctant to use their power in a coordinated fashion. Fear of regulations related to lobbying, lack of experience, and reluctance to engage in the policy making process often leaves nonprofits sitting on the sidelines. Frequently, it is the state association of related nonprofits (hospital association, mental health association etc.) that takes the leadership role for the specific interest area of nonprofits.
“We realized that if we did not be proactive and have a counsel that could meet with the office of the attorney general on a regular basis, that we might fall prey to regulatory activity that would not be mean-spirited, but which would be really uninformed … The good news about it is we have been able to do some things together which individually we could not have accomplished.” —Robert Collier
Local nonprofits with different missions that are working on the same complex issue (such as alleviating poverty, or protecting the environment) can come together to work with their representatives at the local level.
As in other areas of discussion – there are two major categories for public policy development for nonprofits. The first is advocating for the philanthropic sector. The second relates specifically to the mission of the nonprofit.
The Michigan Nonprofit Association leads the public policy work for nonprofit organizations (which includes fundraising foundations) in the state of Michigan. The Council of Michigan Foundations leads the public policy work for the grantmaking (non-fundraising) foundations. MNA and CMF work closely together in considering a policy agenda supportive of the whole charitable sector and the best way to work with their representatives.
It should be noted that the Michigan Community Service Commission is a part of state government responsible for managing federal and state volunteer and service programs, with its commissioners appointed by the governor. As a part of government, it is prohibited from advocating for public policy related to the sector although, as a part of government, it provides critical information to policy makers when requested. The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy is a part of Grand Valley State University (a public university) and also does not engage in public policy advocacy. The Johnson Center is actively involved in politically neutral social and nonprofit research, providing information to both the charitable sector and legislators regarding issues addressed by nonprofits to assist in their deliberations.