Going upstream: Engaging nonprofits in public policy issues

Suppose there is a river with a strong current that washes people downstream if they fall into it.  Upstream is an old bridge with broken railings.  You could spend a lot of time and effort pulling everyone who falls into the river to shore.  Or you could fix the railings so that fewer people fall into the river in the first place.

Pulling people out of the river, which is absolutely critical, is similar to what many nonprofits that provide direct services do.  Fixing the railings so that fewer people fall into the river in the first place is analogous to enacting more effective public policies.

Merle Chambers, a noted Denver philanthropist, uses this simple example to illustrate the importance of going upstream to change public policy as a way of addressing community problems.

Public policies often have a significant effect on the lives of many of nonprofit clients and the resulting demand for services nonprofits provide. With their unique insights and knowledge about how current policies are working, nonprofit organizations can help craft more effective policy solutions to improve the lives of their clients and, in the process, enrich the policy debate.

Yet many nonprofits shy away from getting involved in the public policy process. Oftentimes this is due to the controversial nature of public policy debates and the complicated and messy process of setting public policy. However, if approached with care and solid planning, nonprofit organizations can successfully navigate the public policy process while avoiding most of the downside risks.

Over the past four years, the Bell Policy Center has had the opportunity to work with a broad coalition of groups to change the public policy around payday loans.  This coalition included more than 40 nonprofit organizations, including the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Colorado Catholic Conference, Habitat for Humanity and The Gathering Place.  These groups serve many low-income Coloradans – the primary customers for payday lenders.  Actions taken by the nonprofit groups to support the legislation including their clients testifying were critical in enacting these policy changes.

As a result of the payday lending law enacted in 2010 and preserved in 2011, we estimate that payday borrowers will save $52 million per year in loan charges.  These savings will have a broad and lasting effect on the low-income people served by the coalition’s members and will reduce the demand for many of the services they offer.

While the payday lending legislation is an example of a positive outcome with a big payoff, nonprofit organizations need to be aware of the risks involved in engaging in public policy debates.  First, public policy issues can be controversial and result in push back or negative reactions from donors and supporters.  It is possible that people may come to see the nonprofit in a different light – instead of being viewed as a friendly soup kitchen, the organization could be perceived as just another “special-interest group” down at the capitol fighting over funding.  Taking stands on public policy issues could win supporters, but it also could turn others off.

Second, effectively engaging in policy making requires time and resources.  Identifying, understanding and deciding which issues to engage in requires staff, board and volunteer time.  Taking action such as writing letters, calling lawmakers, monitoring the status of issues takes additional time.  Nonprofits might have to develop or enlist new expertise, such as someone to testify at the legislature or lobby policymakers.  If issues are not selected with care or if policies adopted are ineffective, the time spent could be viewed as wasted.

However, if chosen wisely and carried out effectively, efforts to change public policy can have an impact far beyond what nonprofits might accomplish through direct services.  Said another way, by taking steps to fix the bridge, you often can help far more people than can be fished out of the river.
In addition, by engaging in highly visible public policy issues related to their mission, nonprofits can gain new supporters and help the broader community work to solve problems.

In terms of the public policy process, nonprofit groups bring real-world experience in how policies affect their clients.  Legislators, for example, always want to know how programs are “really” working and what can be done to improve them. Many times, nonprofits can involve their clients in the policy making process – allowing people in need to join the discussion.  These actions enrich the debate and provide policymakers with a wider range of viewpoints and information they can use in shaping policies.

The following actions can help nonprofit organizations more effectively engage in public policy issues:

1. Examine thoroughly the costs and benefits of engaging in public policy issues and proceed forward only with broad-based support from the organization’s donors, board members and staff. It is important that donors and others are comfortable with the organization’s involvement with public policy issues.

2. Know what you can do as a nonprofit in terms of public policy advocacy and scrupulously adhere to these rules.  The Colorado Nonprofit Association provides excellent materials and training on public policy advocacy that clearly lay out the legal guidelines.

3. Determine which types of public policy issues to engage in.  For example, an organization might limit its involvement to those issues that directly affect its clients and its ability to fulfill the organization’s mission.

4. Use board members and senior staff to assess public policy issues including identifying your positions on them and the actions you will take in response and report this information regularly to your board.

5. Require super majority approval by the board before deciding to engage in a public policy issue. This ensures that the organization weighs in on matters only where is there is broad agreement among your major supporters.

6. Participate in coalitions or join other groups that work with similar clients or face similar policy challenges. This can help reduce the time and costs of assessing issues, plus it can expand your reach and influence.

7. Identify a current supporter or donor that has expertise in the public policy process, such as a lawyer or lobbyist, who would be willing to provide their service as an in-kind donation.

8. Engage clients in the public policy process by eliciting their views on how current policies affect them and how they would like to see the policies changed.  Hosting tours of your facilities, having clients talk with lawmakers and even having clients testify before legislative committees are powerful ways of getting your message across to policymakers.

By working to improve public policies, nonprofit organizations can significantly help the people they serve and improve the overall quality of life in Colorado. If we can fix the bridge, there will be fewer people to fish out of the river.

See also:

The One-Hour Activist

Forces for Good

Do More Than Give

Image credit: Kimberly Kingsley



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