Progress without Profit: Nonprofits as advocates

The mere mention of the word “politics” can fuel an argument, deepen stress or catapult a person head-first into despair. Despite the burnout surrounding politics, I can’t ignore the proximity and overlap between the government and nonprofit sectors. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about nonprofits is that they cannot get political without risking the loss of their tax-exempt status. According to Bill Shore from the Stanford Social Innovation Review, while it is true that the typical 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization cannot work on campaigns such as “donating to candidates, and engaging in lobbying beyond certain generously defined limits,” there is still a wide range of work nonprofits can do with advocacy.

Shore, the founder of Share of Strength, the national nonprofit to end childhood hunger in the United States, writes about his organization’s transition to advocacy. He explains that, at first, he stayed out of politics entirely, believing nonprofits could not engage in such activity.

However, Shore realized staying neutral was detrimental to the organization’s goals. He highlights five actions his organization performs in the political sphere: They educate, build internal political capacity, receive consulting help, take a long-term approach and team up with others. 

As Shore suggests, nonprofits can form coalitions to hold representatives accountable, advocate for certain legislation changes, and push for voter registration. For other organizations, advocacy is as simple as posting a statement showing support for a social movement. 

If politics and laws do not match their efforts, an organization cannot enact sustained change. For example, if a public education nonprofit does not participate in tangible action to change policies that create inequalities in education, what impact are they making? Omitting policy change from the agenda makes a nonprofit reactionary, rather than a tool to address the root of a problem. While nonprofits are a separate entity from the government, the two go hand-in-hand. Without the government, nonprofits operate in a closed ecosystem, incapable of addressing broad structural issues.

At a time of increasing politicization, a squeamish attitude toward politics is nonsensical. While politicization certainly occurred before the election of former President Donald Trump, his response to the coronavirus, the Black Lives Matter movement and climate change ignited further divide around topics that should not cause controversy. For example, a Brookings study found partisan affiliation to be the strongest indicator of behavior toward the pandemic. According to Pew Research, in September 2020, 16% of white Republicans supported the Black Lives Matter Movement, compared to 88% of white Democrats. Most hot-button issues are split along party lines when they shouldn’t be. 

It’s a harsh truth for this day and age: If nonprofits refuse to speak up about politics, most causes and issues would be considered off-limits. With partisanship infiltrating every aspect of daily life, a completely hands-off approach from politics would drastically reduce nonprofits’ capacity to work. By refusing to get involved with politics, nonprofits forfeit their voice and influence for important issues that should not be debated. 

I understand that political involvement scares nonprofit executives because it could alienate a donor on the other side of the political spectrum. But, by remaining neutral, many nonprofit organizations cannot fulfill their mission. If their mission is paramount, nonprofits should work to achieve that, regardless of pushback. If a donor stops funding because a nonprofit advocates for its clientele, that donor did not align with the organization’s values in the first place. 

When faced with an abundance of rules, nonprofits undoubtedly find it easier to keep a safe distance from politics. Some do not have the time to parse through laws that govern nonprofit activity to fully understand what’s allowed. However, by not taking the time to understand these laws, nonprofits harm the communities they serve through inaction and underutilize their role as an advocate. Nonprofits are tools for change and to be most effective at this role, they must speak up. 

Sophie Roppe is a senior writing about nonprofit organizations and social justice. Her column, “Progress Without Profit,” runs every other Monday.