October 03, 2011

Nonprofit Trustees Urged to Get Involved in Public Policy

Holly Hall, an editor at The Chronicle, is contributing guest posts based on her reporting from the annual meeting of BoardSource, an organization that seeks to help trustees to do their jobs better. The conference took place in Atlanta.

Trustees have many reasons to lobby against cuts in government support to charities and the people they support.

While the altruistic reasons usually get all the attention, one national nonprofit leader is blunt about the direct hit board members themselves will suffer if governments continue to slash spending to deal with deficit woes.

Proposed cuts in government support to charities are "a notice to nonprofit board members" that they must raise or donate more money for the charities they serve, Tim Delaney, head of the National Council of Nonprofits, an advocacy group that represents charities, told the conference here.

“You are in the target zone," said Mr. Delaney. "It’s in your self-interest to get engaged in public policymaking. Wake up and use your voice; it’s the right thing to do.”

To bolster advocacy by board members, he urged trustees to create special public-policy committees to focus attention on the big issues in government spending that affect their organizations. Such committees are not common, he said, but are increasingly needed at a time when governments are making such big changes in how they support charities and the people they serve.

Mr. Delaney said he hoped trustees would lead advocacy efforts that focused not simply on spending that affects their own organizations. For example, he said, they should ask elected officials to take action to slow the growth of  poverty.

He said he worried that many nonprofit trustees would be deterred from participating in advocacy because of bad advice from local lawyers. He said he has heard lawyers suggest that charities must refrain from any effort to influence lawmakers and other government officials.

Charities face limits to how much advocacy they can do, and they are not permitted to get involved in partisan politics, but there is still plenty of room for them to make their views known, notes Mr. Delaney, who served as solicitor general in Arizona and has had a long legal career.

Much of the job to be done in coming months, says Mr. Delaney, has nothing to do with the kind of arm twisting many people may associate with lobbying. Instead, it is more important to educate lawmakers about how nonprofit groups work and where their money comes from. Many don't understand the basics of how nonprofits will be affected by government cuts, he says.

“Policy makers think that nonprofits can just get more foundation grants,” he says.

While the polarization in politics, coupled with the difficult budget situation, has led to increasingly shrill conversations about spending, Mr. Delaney cautions trustees not to stoop to that level.

“Don’t demonize governments," he said. "We serve the same communities. Treat them with respect.”