Nonprofits Need to Invest in Public Policy

For the last couple of months, I have been posting a series of articles about investments that nonprofits need to make. This article nears the end of the series (see here) and focuses on the need of nonprofit agencies to invest in public policy.  For those nonprofits that are advocacy organizations, you can click here to go to a link of the Top 10 best Cat Videos of all Time! However, for those uncertain about the nonprofit’s role in public policy then keep reading.  The framework that I am building in this series is that to be effective, nonprofits need to think outside of the confines of delivering strong programs and services.  Investing in Public Policy matters more now than it ever has.

I argue that public policy is more powerful than programs will ever be at addressing community needs. One bad public policy decision can crush arts and culture funding.  A lack of effective public policies perpetuates a fragmented social service infrastructure.   Your nonprofit may have the strongest childhood literacy intervention in the world but if we lack educational policies that support achievement and access for all students, your efforts get buried.  I once had a conversation with a venture philanthropist supporting a successful college access program working with at-risk you. As supportive as he was of the access program he candidly stated that if the government did away with Pell grants, it would undue almost all the gains they had made with the kids served by the program.  Conversely, if Pell grants were doubled or tripled he argued it would more than double or triple the impact of the college access program. Yet, he went on to observe something like, “it’s too bad so many nonprofits and philanthropists are afraid of, or pay lip service to, the words public policy.”

The good news is that more nonprofits see the importance of public policy even if they might not have the confidence that they understand how to be effective at it.  At least that was the qualitative interpretation of the convenience data of the Northwest Nonprofit Capacity Survey that I referenced in my last article. So what does investing in public policy mean.

1.  Invest in Learning: In BoardSource’s 2015 edition of their primer Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards, advocacy and public policy are expanded and underscored as board member responsibilities. Investing in helping your board understand the dimensions of advocacy and public policy if a starting place. The Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy initiative is a good starting place for board training materials.

2.  Invest in Focusing: Another investment that nonprofits may need to make is to develop a strategic focus for public policy.  Where are the levers that will allow you to make a heavier lift in creating impact? For example, back in the days when I worked in a program with a focus of preventing youth smoking, our public policy efforts were designed to make tobacco and tobacco advertising less accessible to youth. Those public policy efforts, had way more impact on preventing and reducing tobacco use among youth than all of our direct youth education programs combined.

3.  Invest in Resourcing: If you do not have a line item in your budget for public policy then you will have a hard time reaching your policy goals.  Whether you are framing or researching an issue, using media to advocate for an issue, pursuing administrative or legislative change in support of a policy, your strategy to achieve success needs to be resourced. Period.

4.  Invest in Connecting: Public policy is more effective when it is connected to the efforts of a collective voice.  When agencies and groups work together, your voice is amplified and collective action makes policy change more accessible to even small nonprofits. The differing skills, connections, and resources that collaborative partners being to the table often accelerate change. Collaborative advocacy matters (great PDF primer here).

I will say it again. Advocating for public policy is increasingly important for a nonprofit organization’s ability to create change and make impact.  Change occurs at the service delivery level and true impact is won at the public policy level. Thinking about public policy is not enough. It is time for nonprofit leaders (and their boards) to be intentional about developing and implementing a public policy agenda alongside program and service delivery.  It requires investment, commitment, systems thinking, and action. Nonprofit organizations in a leadership role recognize this and invest accordingly.

As always, your thoughts are welcome


photo credit Ricky Kharawala

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.