The Power of Nonprofits

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Groups arise as they are needed, as citizens come to understand that their interests are at stake in some emerging policy debate.

--Jeffrey Berry, in A Voice for Nonprofits

The Nonprofit Sector’s Proud Tradition of Serving America

Advocacy is deeply-rooted in nonprofits’ DNA. From before the time our nation was formed through today, citizens – recognizing there is power in numbers – have assembled in groups to influence public policy.  

Our involvement in the public policy-making process is firmly grounded in our Nation’s bedrock principles and founding documents. When declaring their independence in 1776, our country’s founders observed that governments receive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” Then to convey their consent to a government, the people of the United States established a Constitution that protects the people’s core rights to both assemble (freedom of association) and petition their government (lobby). 

As early as “1793, popular associations sprang up in the new republic to debate public questions, criticize government, and influence public policy.”1 Alexis de Tocqueville marveled how “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations … religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very particular, immensely large and very minute.”2

These associations eventually “developed strong political agendas. It began in the churches. Out of the churches emerged groups to … end drinking, to abolish slavery, to work for peace.”3 For instance, more than a 1,000 abolitionist societies brought pressure to free slaves, ultimately leading to the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Following the Civil War, farmers – concerned about the exorbitant fees being charged by railroad barons – formed the National Grange. As a result of their collective efforts in the late 1800s, “[m]any state legislatures enacted what were known as the Granger Laws lowering freight rates and establishing state railroad commissions to regulate railroads and eventually other public utilities.”4 

The National American Woman Suffrage Association toiled for decades leading the struggle to formally secure for women the right to vote. With the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the Association then transformed into the League of Women Voters.  

During the Great Depression, five million Americans formed local “Townsend Clubs” to support Dr. Frances Townsend, who had urged President Roosevelt to create a government-supported pension plan. At the time, it was regarded as “the mightiest issue in the political history of our nation. Before [then], old-age pensions in America were limited to supreme court justices and their widows; police, firemen, war veterans and other such organized pressure groups also received pensions.  The little people were not organized as a pressure group, so were left out in the cold. … In 1936, three years after the Townsend [Club] wave had begun swelling toward Washington,” Congress passed the Social Security Act.5  

In 1939, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People created its Legal Defense & Educational Fund “to take advantage of new laws granting tax-exempt status to nonprofit organizations that did not have a lobbying function as their principal purpose.”6 The Fund’s efforts ultimately led to the victory in the landmark 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education.

In 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as head of the nonprofit Southern Christian Leadership Conference, eloquently called for social justice and racial equality in his inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech.  Surrounding him were countless nonprofits – in the forms of churches, the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  Soon thereafter, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination in employment practices and public accommodations, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect the right to vote.

In these and other ways, America’s nonprofits have been the safe place where people have gathered to save and serve lives.  Indeed, these examples are just a tiny sampling of the longstanding tradition of Americans coming together through nonprofit organizations to influence public policy.   

Hardly an aspect of American life is untouched by the efforts of past generations who assembled through nonprofit organizations to, among other things:

  • lobby for health and environmental protections that produced cleaner air to breathe and purer water to drink;
  • launch campaigns to secure government investments in research to eradicate devastating diseases;
  • push for enforcement of drunk driving laws to protect innocent people on roadways;
  • pass child labor laws; and
  • enact food safety laws.

That tradition lives on today as citizens have banded together through nonprofits to continue to influence public policy. But the voices of regular Americans can get left behind if we don’t step forward to amplify our voices through nonprofits.

All Americans need to reach back and consider the core bedrock principles in the founding documents that Abraham Lincoln reached back to when challenging all Americans to be dedicated “to the great task” of ensuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

1. Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life (The Free Press 1998) at page 55.  
2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, ch. 5 (1840).
3. Schudson, The Good Citizen at page 102
4. Charles Gilliam, “History of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry – The National Grange” (1999)
5. Dr. Frances Townsend, New Horizons (An Autobiography), ed. by Jesse George Murray (Stewart Publishing Co. 1943), from excerpts at
6. Richard Kluger, Simple Justice (Vintage Books 1977) at page 221.

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