Upswell 2023: Decline of Nonprofit Advocacy & Public Engagement

Independent Sector commissioned research to fill a 20-year gap in data around nonprofit advocacy and civic engagement (i.e., nonpartisan voter engagement) activities through a nationally representative quantitative survey and complementary qualitative interviews of nonprofit institutions. The research, was presented in a workshop at Upswell 2023.

Workshop/Report Highlights

  • 20+ year data gap on nonprofit institutions advocacy
  • Only 31% of nonprofits report engaging in advocacy or lobbying over the last five years, which is less than half of the percentage of nonprofits that reported everlobbying in 2000 (74%).
  • Approximately 70% of policy-engaged nonprofits report their mission encourages their policy engagement. Among nonprofits that do not engage in policy, 56% report policy engagement does not apply to their mission.
  • In 2000, over half of 501(c)(3) public charities (54%) knew they could support or oppose federal legislation. Today, only 32% of nonprofits are aware of that fact.
  • Among nonprofits that advocate, 1 in 5 provide people with nonpartisan voter information. 
  • Of nonprofits that belong to local, state, or national coalitions, 57% advocate or lobby, compared to only 12% of nonprofits that do not belong to such coalitions. 
  • Although a majority of nonprofits have a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statement, only 36% engage in policy activities to create more equitable systems. However, policy-engaged nonprofits’ investment of time and resources in DEI activities is much higher than for non-policy-engaged nonprofits.
  • Of nonprofits that belong to local, state, or national coalitions, 57% advocate or lobby, compared to only 12% of nonprofits that do not belong to such coalitions.

Nonprofits today are less aware of the advocacy and lobbying activities they are legally allowed to do compared to 20 years ago. … [N]onprofits can and should consider policy advocacy as one strategic approach to advancing their mission and values. As a first step, nonprofits and those who work with them should be more aware of their legal rights to engage in policy issues and nonpartisan voter engagement. We also encourage nonprofits to join collaborative groups and associations of nonprofits with similar interests, invest in DEI activities, and promote nonpartisan voter engagement. By doing so, nonprofits can increase their mission impact, promote equity, increase civic participation, contribute to democracy, and drive changes in their communities that align with their values.

The Retreat of Influence: Exploring the Decline of Nonprofit Advocacy and Public Engagement

Speaker Reflections & Recommendations

  • There is a relationship between equity and advocacy
  • The decline in advocacy represents fear
  • Proximity to threat – physical, economic, social – grew after our first Black President
  • Narrative-changing, relationship building, and healing are necessary
  • In a segregated society, there is need to break down silos – our biggest challenge
  • 4 factors:
    • philanthropy (extreme power)
    • mission of organization (many operate with the goal of preserving status quo rather than systems change)
    • leadership
    • community (the foundation of a charity’s work)

Excerpt from Letter from Independent Sector CEO – Dr. Akilah Watkins

For individual nonprofits, stepping into your role as an advocate can:

  • Generate public support for your cause;
  • Increase your organization’s visibility;
  • Empower your stakeholders and the community you serve; and
  • Allow you to be part of the solution to systemic problems that challenge all of us.

This report compels us to act—whether that is by digging deeper into some of the questions the study raises, turning to advocacy practices we know work and deploying them pervasively, or partnering across the sector to innovate new, long-term solutions. I believe our success will be measured when we see more nonprofit leaders stepping into deeper civic engagement and public policy advocacy, and more funders giving nonprofit leaders the financial assistance to make a difference.

Editor’s Note

Public charities and private foundations can support advocacy in many ways. Public charities can lobby within certain relatively generous thresholds consistent with their 501(c)(3) status. For more information, see our past posts on Advocacy & Lobbying and the resources below:

Alliance for Justice Bolder Advocacy Resource Library

What is Advocacy? (BoardSource)