Charity Lobbying – Report from the John Hopkins Nonprofit Listening Post Project

A recent report from the John Hopkins Nonprofit Listening Post Project, authored by Lester M. Salamon and Stephanie Lessans Geller, shows that charities are not lobbying as much as they perhaps should: the vast majority of charities spent less than 2 percent of their budgets on either lobbying or advocacy activities. In 2007, the Project sampled 872 nonprofit organizations in the fields of children and family services, elderly housing and services, community and economic development, and the arts.

Why this trend? Most commonly, charities cited a lack of staff time (70 percent), lack of staff skills (45 percent), and a reliance on coalitions (36 percent). Far fewer cited worrying about violating laws (26 percent) or losing public funding (20 percent). However, nearly half of the organizations that engaged in some advocacy but no lobbying worried about violating the law.

The study produced many notable and some expected results. Charities supporting elderly housing services were most likely to engage in advocacy or lobbying (89 percent), whereas museum related charities were least likely to do so (46 percent). Not surprisingly, the larger the organization, the more likely it would engage in lobbying: About 92 percent of the largest charities (those with expenses over $3 million/year) engaged in advocacy or lobbying whereas only 40 percent of the smallest charities (those with expenses less than $500,000/year) were regularly involved in advocacy or lobbying.

What is the nature of the charities’ involvement? Though it varies greatly, from visiting government officials to releasing research reports, the most prevalent forms of involvement are less demanding types of advocacy such as letter signing campaigns. Charities were more likely to engage in those forms of advocacy several times per year.

These numbers correspond directly to the annual budget charities allocate to advocacy and lobbying activities. As mentioned above, the vast majority of charities devote less than 2 percent of their budget to advocacy, so it is no surprise that they would engage is the least demanding (and least costly) forms of advocacy. The fact that most charities focus on reaching out to local government officials, as opposed to federal officials, also corresponds to their limited budget. The report showed that most charities left federal lobbying to coalitions.

As to what would increase advocacy or lobbying, the majority of charities cited increased funding for a dedicated policy or advocacy specialist as well as a significant increase in general funding. The report suggests that an important next step is to alert nonprofit boards of directors and the general public of the importance of advocacy and lobbying; that awareness will increase support as well as funding for this vital but lacking role in nonprofit activities.

The Salamon and Geller report can be found on the John Hopkins’ website here.

– Taleen Alexander