The nonprofit sector is the second largest part of the private economy in the United States, generating almost close to 2 trillion dollars ( that is 12 zero’s) per year. This sector employs nearly 10% of the workforce and in many locations that number is even greater. With such a huge potential economic engine and political power base, why are nonprofit organizations rarely taken into consideration when key community and political decisions are made? Why aren’t nonprofits more engaged in advocacy and activism? This has to change. An old community organizer I learned from in Chicago, used to say that if we could gather just 1% of the population we could create a revolution of change.
Part of the answer, is that many nonprofit leaders are afraid of the political process and/or don’t think they need to get involved in lobbying and activism. Some of them are even afraid that if they lobby they will lose their funding and tax -exempt status. Why does it take a president of the United States that is undercutting the basic values of our democracy to engage our population? Why can’t people get involved in the huge variety of issues impacting our environment, health and child care, homelessness and poverty, hunger, etc.? The fact remains, that nonprofits can only gain strength and power (as organizations, alliances, and as a sector) if they become active in the activist process.
Here are some tips on getting involved as both an advocate and an activist.
- Every non-profit has the right and the responsibility to become engaged and involved in activism. The IRS permits a certain percentage of a non-profit’s income to be used to support lobbying around issues (not candidates). If you want to file as an actual lobbying organization your board of directors can easily pass a stipulation to the 501 (c) (3) called an H election.
- Of the almost 2 trillion per year going into the non-profit sector almost 75% billion comes from the government and public sector. This is a huge amount of money and the decisions on the use of the money are determined by the elected officials and the bureaucratic structures.
- Activism is all about leadership development. It takes an effective leader to testify in front of a house or senate committee, school board, city council , and to mobilize people to write letters and e-mails. Advocacy is a great training ground for the development of strong leaders.
- Be clear when it comes to voicing what you want. Make sure you are very clear and specific when you request something from a decision-maker.
- Research to make sure know what you are talking about. Before you begin to write letters or testify make sure you do your homework and know the facts. It is not okay to just have a lot of passion and compassion. You need to be competent as well.
- The media can become your best friend. A famous community organizer once told me that the “media is the great equalizer.” The media can help spread the word and help mobilize other people. But treat the media with respect and be prepared and careful when talking with a reporter.
- Don’t be intimidated by power. This is a big issue with many nonprofit leaders who feel intimidated by elected representatives and people of authority. Remember, these representatives work for you and it is important that they listen carefully to the people who are close to the issues and solutions.
- Don’t be afraid of power. One definition of power is “the ability to act.” Without this ability we feel helpless. In the middle of the word empowerment is power – we should all be working on helping people gain more strength, confidence, and power.
- Mobilize your constituency. The political establishment responds to people who are committed enough to express their opinions and become involved in the democratic process. We need to demonstrate democracy by having people become active in the issues they care about through letter writing, emails, testifying, phone calls, and personal visits.
- Have a “deep throat” working for you. When working on an issue try to have a friend “inside the system” provide you with information that will help you map out a strategy, or time the writing of a letter, or advise you as to when it will be a good time to testify.