Longer-Term Steps Nonprofits Can Take in an Era of Political Transition / Uncertainty.
The Importance of Advocacy
The National Council of Nonprofits recognizes “the work of charitable nonprofits will be affected – positively and negatively – by changes in the policy ecosystem,” which includes the three branches of government as well as federal, state, and local politics. How policy changes will affect the ability of nonprofits to advance their missions depends, in part, on how organizations work together to advocate for their constituents throughout the policy ecosystem. As noted by the National Council of Nonprofits, organizations must ensure “that elected officials understand the impact” of their policy proposals on those whom politicians and nonprofits both serve.
In the Chronicle of Philanthropy, renowned nonprofit leader and blogger, Vu Le, outlines how he thinks foundations also must think and fund differently. There, too, community mobilizing and advocacy are included as essential activities. He notes that advocacy is “often treated in our field like a luxury,” though all nonprofits must play a role in championing the issues that affect their communities. He encourages funders to overcome their discomfort with advocacy work in order to support direct service providers in creating system change.
More Board Business
Boards, too, must overcome that discomfort. Laws that restrict the “lobbying” efforts of charitable nonprofits are meant to define, not discourage, nonprofit activism. As ambassadors of their organizations and stewards of their missions, board members should be public champions of the concerns of their organizations and constituents.
Le offers a few other tips to foundations that seem equally applicable to nonprofit boards:
- Stop saving for a rainy day; it’s pouring right now – for foundations, that means don’t cut back on total giving, even as endowments earn less in a volatile stock market. For nonprofit boards, perhaps it’s a reminder to invest — in people and better practices — that will help the organization endure uncertain times. It means resisting the temptation to scale back to a row boat in order to save fuel when rough seas might require a tanker for survival.
- Greatly increase funding for leadership development – Le argues if there’s any hope of creating a “just and inclusive society, we must develop the kind of leaders we need.” The same is true for nonprofit boards in terms of cultivating board and executive leadership. The for-profit sector has long demonstrated a commitment to talent and leadership development, even through economic downturns, but the nonprofit sector’s obsession with keeping overhead costs extremely low sabotages boards’ ability to invest in people. The political landscape is new and nonprofit leaders need to gain knowledge, training, and/or coaching on how to navigate it.
- Be more flexible and take more risks – Le suggests that nonprofits, more than foundations, are accustomed to adapting to changing demands, but the new landscape requires foundations to “take risks, tolerate mistakes, and learn as (they) go.” Similarly, nonprofit boards can’t afford to conduct business as usual in the face of potentially dramatic change. To apply Le’s advice, they must drop old policies and practices that get in the way of progress.
Perhaps the silver lining in the cloud of angst and uncertainty throughout the sector is the opportunity – and obligation – to improve nonprofit governance. Nonprofit Quarterly reminds organizations to make time to get on the same page internally so that they are “nimble and ready for all the threats and opportunities” that come along over the next four years. “This is (our) job right now. Let’s not think small.”
To read the first post in this two-part series, please see Immediate-Term Steps Nonprofits Can Take in an Era of Political Transition / Uncertainty.