Seen But Not Heard: Book Calls For More Advocacy by Nonprofit Oragnizations

August 28, 2007  • Institute Contributor

Seen But Not Heard: Book Calls For More Advocacy by Nonprofit Oragnizations

Washington, DC, August 28, 2007— Despite negative perceptions of lobbying in the wake of several recent scandals, lobbying by nonprofits as part of their advocacy work is vital to a healthy democracy, according to a new book published by the Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Sector and Philanthropy Program.

Seen but not Heard: Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy concludes that if nonprofits want to pursue their organizational missions effectively, they need to be actively engaged in public policy. The challenge to the nonprofit sector is that advocacy, which should be an ordinary organizational activity, remains extraordinary, according to the authors. They say a cultural change is needed that returns the country to an earlier time when nonprofit advocacy, including lobbying, was a more frequent activity.  The authors contend that lobbying is an honorable activity, one that should not be compromised or apologized for, and one that is an essential component of our constitutional system.

Seen but not Heard was researched and written by Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, Kay Guinane, director of the group’s nonprofit advocacy program, David F. Arons, former co-director of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, Matthew F. Carter, a former OMB Watch staff person and now technology director and outreach coordinator at the Adoption Network in Cleveland, Ohio, and Susan Rees, a consultant. Additionally, Bass teaches advocacy and social change at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute.

The book compiles the findings of a multi-year research project called the Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project (SNAP), started by OMB Watch, Tufts University, and the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest. The findings suggest that nonprofits should not only engage in advocacy, but do more of it on a consistent basis.
 
“Lobbying has become the dirty word that people don’t like to utter anymore,” says Bass. “However, this book has shown that there are more benefits that can be gained from policy participation, especially by nonprofits who usually advocate for those who often do not have a voice, including the underserved and disenfranchised communities.” He adds: “Given recent lobbying scandals, mostly involving illegal transfers of money, distrust of lobbyists is high. But advocacy and lobbying for the common good, which the nonprofit sector does, is as American as apple pie and is highly valued.” 

The book concludes that increased and consistent participation by nonprofits in policy matters provides a much-needed balance to for-profit lobbying and “immeasurably improves the quality of decisions that government makes.”

A total of 1,738 nonprofits were surveyed, and three out of four said they have participated in some form of advocacy. However, the participation has been sporadic and infrequent, many said. For example, of those who said they lobby, three out of five said they do so at a low level, with great infrequency.  Most nonprofits said that policy participation assists them in carrying out their missions. But they said limited financial resources, lack of qualified staffs, and IRS regulations are some of the factors that hinder them from lobbying.

The book offers specific suggestions that nonprofit leaders can take to strengthen advocacy activities within their organizations, including those related to board structure, staffing needs, and more.  There are also recommendations for strengthening advocacy throughout the sector, including changing the climate toward advocacy, encouraging more consistent support in funding from philanthropic institutions, and improving capacity-building and support systems.

For more information on Seen but not Heard, please contact Winnifred Levy, communications manager at the Aspen Institute, at [email protected]; or Brian Gumm, communications coordinator at OMB Watch, at [email protected]. The book can be ordered for $15 at www.aspeninstitute.org.

The Aspen Institute’s Nonprofit Sector and Philanthropy Program seeks to improve the operation of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy through research and dialogue focused on public policy, management, and other important issues affecting the nonprofit sector.

The Aspen Institute, founded in 1950, is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue. Through seminars, policy programs, conferences and leadership development initiatives, the Institute and its international partners seek to promote nonpartisan inquiry and an appreciation for timeless values. The Institute is headquartered in Washington, DC, and has campuses in Aspen, Colorado, and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Its international network includes partner Aspen Institutes in Berlin, Rome, Lyon, Tokyo, New Delhi, and Bucharest, and leadership programs in Africa, Central America and India.

OMB Watch was founded in 1983 to increase government transparency and accountability; to ensure sound, equitable regulatory and budgetary processes and policies; and to protect and promote active citizen participation in our democracy. The organization envisions a more just and democratic society, one in which an open, responsive government protects people’s health, safety, and well-being, safeguards the environment, honors the public’s right to information, values an engaged and effective citizenry, and adequately invests in the common good.

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