From the Outside In: A fresh perspective on nonprofit advocacy

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As I walked in the office on the Tuesday after a long July 4th weekend, I felt excited -- and nervous -- to start my first day interning for the National Council of Nonprofits. My knowledge of nonprofits (not non-profits or not-for-profits, I quickly learned) was fairly limited, but I was eager to jump in to start work on a worthy cause: to strengthen nonprofits nationwide.

Prior to my work here, I associated nonprofits with good-hearted people working for the community, yet I could not see how that work would be sustainable without the traditional for-profit business model. I clung to stereotypes and stories that perpetuated the idea that nonprofits paid low wages and were mostly doing work that would help, but not work that was absolutely necessary. Since working at the Council of Nonprofits, my perspective changed completely, and I was exposed to just how essential nonprofits are to their community. Not only do nonprofits fill the void government services cannot provide, they also connect people on a larger level.

Emily Perkins, Intern, National Council of NonprofitsTake Girl Scouts of the USA for example: The organization provides leadership training and practical skills to young girls across the country. With their new cybersecurity and STEM badges, girls are given the opportunity to explore computer technology and learn how to make safe choices in an increasingly technological world. Their cookie program teaches girls business practices while their outdoor adventure camps expose girls to unique experiences in the great outdoors. Their program starts by giving girl scouts the resources to develop agency and build confidence while simultaneously opening the doors to their nationwide network.

More examples: Feeding America and Meals on Wheels provide meal assistance to children, seniors, and hard-to-reach communities while also pushing to solve hunger nationwide. Statewide, national, and international nonprofits, like the National Council of Nonprofits and those previously mentioned, connect their affiliates across the country, share information with partners, and advance missions on a grander scale to help the sector thrive.

Returning to my first day on the job, I worried I would be out of my element working at the Council of Nonprofits. My expertise lies primarily in government work, and I had just finished an internship for Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) on Capitol Hill. However, I quickly realized that the knowledge gained from that experience is easily transferable to the work taking place at the Council of Nonprofits, and perhaps more charitable organizations. For example, in all offices on Capitol Hill, keeping track of legislation is a key part of any staffer’s job. The network of the Council of Nonprofits similarly relies on legislative tracking of issues that will affect nonprofits on the ground. Communicating and breaking down the complexities of the law for their members is another one of their top priorities. I also was tasked with explaining policies and responding to constituents affected by the newest developments on the Senate floor. Further, government staffers have to find ways to bridge partisan differences in order to garner support and pass legislation. The same is true for charitable nonprofits that have to stay nonpartisan to maintain their tax-exempt status, thanks to the longstanding Johnson Amendment. Having had the opportunity to attend meetings on Capitol Hill for Senator Kaine as well as on behalf of a nonprofit, I appreciate the optimism both sides bring to the table, and learned how advocacy can make a difference for organizations trying to make a positive impact. 

I witnessed nonprofits sharing their stories with Senator Kaine’s staffers, but I did not fully comprehend nonprofits’ ability to advocate for themselves as tax-exempt organizations. I now understand advocacy as a spectrum of targeted actions ranging anywhere from talking with your neighbor to finding a champion on Capitol Hill and asking for votes. As a Senate staffer, I understood advocacy through a one-dimensional framework in which organizations talked with their Members of Congress and asked them to make changes on specific issues. Here, I learned that advocacy is so much more than meetings and “asks”; it’s about advancing the nonprofit’s mission.   

The initiative and determination from the Council of Nonprofits and its network showed me the many ways in which advocacy is carried out. After reading factsheets on the Nonprofit Relief Act, a universal charitable deduction, and taxes on nonprofit transportation benefits, I was exposed to the information sharing produced by and shared across the network of the Council of Nonprofits. I was able to listen in on calls about the Census 2020, Alaska’s budget crisis, and the status of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. I was even able to conduct my own research into the status of Habitat for Humanity’s new nationwide advocacy campaign as a starting point to lift up grassroots advocacy work. Every day I was able to explore all the ways in which the network is working to strengthen nonprofits, and every day I was impressed by the resolve of the nonprofit state associations when trying to solve issues confronting their communities.

Being in Washington, DC can cloud your vision when it comes to advocacy. Capitol Hill’s prestige can be easily confused with “inaccessible to the general public,” but ultimately, the change starts from the outside in. Without groups pushing to advance their mission, would problems ever get solved? Would progress actually be made? Without the monthly status update calls, new toolkit releases, and biweekly newsletters, would nonprofits still have the information they need to stay afloat?  Without the nonprofits on the ground serving their communities, would our neighbors be able to survive? Being in a space where federal policy seems to be paramount, it’s important to be reminded of the crucial work nonprofits are doing at the state and local levels.

Ultimately, nonprofits and their impact surround us even if we can’t always see it, and advocacy can be a way to make those nonprofits seen and heard. Legislators value stories from people on the ground, and you should feel compelled to share yours and make your mission well known. Whether in the halls of power or on the corners of your block, advocacy can and should be a tool used by all.

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