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5 Strategies for Nonprofits to Influence Washington

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The philanthropic and nonprofit sector is likely to come under close scrutiny in the next Congress through tax reform, in an environment that makes it hard for nonprofits to get their voices heard.

A study released last week by Independent Sector examines the approaches and strategies that shape consistently successful efforts by organizations currently engaged in sector-wide advocacy, and how well these have performed.

Independent Sector—a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of more than 600 charities, foundations and corporate philanthropy programs—based its report on three surveys, three case studies, four coalition profiles and upward of 100 interviews.

It identified these five essential approaches of a successful advocacy framework:

  1. Sustain a laserlike focus on long-term goals. “Little can be accomplished in a year unless there are either extenuating circumstances (such as a pressing national crisis) or if years of advance planning have already taken place and a serendipitous opportunity is seized,” the report says.
  2. Prioritize building the infrastructure for an effective advocacy campaign. “Successful advocates constantly invest in relationships with public officials, deepening their understanding of the issues and of the legislative process,” the group says.
  3. Allocate resources based on answering the question: What activity is most likely to motivate this particular public official?
  4. Galvanize coalitions to achieve short-term goals. “When coalitions were successful,” said the report, “they tended to form around a specific issue at a given moment in time and disband once their goal had been achieved or retool for the next issue.”
  5. Ensure strong, high-integrity leadership. “The most important role of leadership is to master the art of (the political) process,” the report says.

Insights provided by the case studies of Human Rights Campaign, Americans for Tax Reform and General Electric showed how these organizations had been successful over time in attaining their public policy agenda. Each had had an effective long-term goal, often with a 20- to 25-year time horizon, and had worked backward to shape its strategy.

The second part of the study examined the sector’s track record and approach to public policy advocacy on sector-wide issues—such as tax issues related to nonprofit tax exemptions or charitable tax deductions.

It found notable gaps between the sector’s strategies and those of the organizations that consistently achieved their public policy goals. The study analyzed in depth six of the 50 sector-wide issues identified, including tax-related matters, rules governing lobbying and government-nonprofit contracting.

The recommendations included in the report of how the sector as a whole might improve its practices draw from the essential approaches of successful advocacy.