Emmett Carson, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, delivered the opening keynote of the Independent Sector Public Policy Action Institute, focusing on the critical importance of advocacy and lobbying. Emmett reminded us that the democratic process involved conflicting opinions and speaking out courageously to advocate for important issues and reveal uncomfortable truths. He noted that direct services would not solve problems; advocacy is required. And he called out the nonprofit sector for failing to speak up on the most important issues of our time.
There are multiple reasons nonprofits (with notable exceptions) haven’t been active in advocacy:
- Nonprofits are afraid of lobbying because the Internal Revenue Code requires that 501(c)(3) organizations not engage in substantial lobbying. Uninformed lawyers help perpetuate this fear by advising their nonprofit clients not to lobby at all.
- Nonprofits are afraid of advocacy because they may offend a segment of their donors, funders and other stakeholders. But nonprofit leaders must consider that advocacy may be the most effective and efficient way for their organizations to advance their mission. And taking a very vocal position may result in building greater support for their organizations even if they should lose a few supporters who do not agree with such position.
- Nonprofits are discouraged from engaging in lobbying and advocacy because funders are increasingly emphasizing outcome evaluations, which favor quicker, measurable, quantitative results. Both Emmet and moderator Kelvin Taketa, Hawai’i Community Foundation, cautioned that outcome evaluation is antithetical to lobbying and advocacy, which takes time and steadfastness, particularly when working on the most difficult issues.
The theme of the panel response to Emmet’s keynote speech is the need for courage. Courage to move away from the status quo and need for consensus. Courage to raise their voices in opposition to those who disagree with their positions and/or strategies. Courage to invest in long-range campaigns to make changes fundamental to their missions.