July 30, 2008

Charities Devote Small Amount of Their Budgets to Lobbying, Report Finds

Nearly three-fourths of charities do some kind of advocacy or lobbying, but the vast majority of them devote less than 2 percent of their budgets to such activities, according to results of survey released today.

Limited money and staff time “seriously restrict the depth of involvement in policy work,” says a report on the survey, which was conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies, in Baltimore.

Researchers last year received data from 311 nonprofit organizations about their advocacy and lobbying activities in 2006. Three out of five of those that conducted such efforts did so at least once a month, and 31 percent did so quarterly.

However, the survey found, most groups relied on the easiest activities, such as signing a letter to a government official, and rarely got their clients or the general public involved. “Policy involvement tends to be concentrated in a narrow band of organizational players — chiefly the executive director,” the report says.

Among the charities that conducted no advocacy or lobbying activities in the previous year, 70 percent said staff members did not have enough time.

“This is a wake-up call for the sector,” said Larry Ottinger, president of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, in Washington, which helped design the survey. “Nonprofits need help if they’re going to be able to engage in any kind of meaningful advocacy that can help further their causes.”

Role of Foundations The researchers suggested that foundations — many of which have a “hands-off” posture toward advocacy work and civic engagement — should step up their grants to nonprofit groups for their work in “giving voice to the voiceless.”

When asked what factors would help them increase their advocacy work, 68 percent of the respondents said money to hire a dedicated specialist on public-policy issues and 65 percent said a significant increase in unrestricted money.

Some groups said they avoided advocacy because employees lacked the skills (45 percent) or because they relied on coalitions to play that role (36 percent). Only 26 percent worried that they might violate laws restricting their political activities and 20 percent that they might jeopardize their government money.

However, 48 percent of the groups that reported some advocacy but no lobbying said they were worried about violating the law, with some mistakenly believing they were barred from all lobbying, the report says. Federal law prohibits tax-exempt charities from supporting political candidates. But it allows them to conduct an unlimited amount of advocacy (promoting an issue or cause) and a limited amount of lobbying (efforts to influence specific pieces of legislation).

The survey, conducted as part of the Johns Hopkins Nonprofit Listening Post Project, looked at groups that focus on children and family services, housing and services for older people, community and economic development, and the arts.

It found that the organizations serving older people were most likely to engage in advocacy and lobbying (89 percent of those surveyed) and museums the least (46 percent). More than 90 percent of groups with budgets of more than $3-million reported such activities, compared with less than 40 percent of those with budgets of less than $500,000.

In lobbying on issues such as getting more government money or legislation affecting the people they serve, most charities focused on state and local officials, rather than federal ones.

The researchers suggested that coalitions or membership organizations representing specific charitable causes step up their advocacy and lobbying efforts to help “backstop” local groups.

Furthermore, they said, nonprofit groups should engage their board members and the people they serve in public-policy activities.

The report, “Nonprofit America: A Force for Democracy,” by Lester Salamon and Stephanie Lessans Geller, is available on the Johns Hopkins Web site.