New Study Shows What Nonprofits Miss When They Don’t Advocate

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Mirae Kim: ‘This finding puzzled me and made me realize we must provide more education around what nonprofits can do to advance their mission.’

A new study finds a significant decrease in nonprofit advocacy and lobbying over the last 20 years, an indication that nonprofit organizations are failing to leverage their influence “to drive systemic change, educate community leaders, and give voice to their missions and those they serve compared to 20 years ago,” according to a statement by the Independent Sector, the national membership organization of nonprofits and foundations that sponsored the study.

Schar School associate professor of nonprofit studies and Master of Public Administration program director Mirae Kim was coauthor on the report, The Retreat of Influence: Exploring the Decline of Nonprofit Advocacy and Public Engagement, which included researchers from the American University and the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

“One of the key determinants of a nonprofit's ability to deliver its mission is its organizational ability to shape their environment through advocacy and civic engagement,” said Kim, who is on the faculty of the Schar School’s Center on Nonprofits, Philanthropy, and Social Enterprise. “Given the pivotal role of advocacy and civic engagement in advancing nonprofit missions and community needs, it is important to understand the current status of nonprofit advocacy.”

The report, she said, “answers questions including but not limited to the extent to which organizations participate in these types of activities: What types of organizations advocate? What motivates or prohibits them from advocating? What resources do nonprofits need to increase impact and create more equitable systems?”

Some of the findings took Kim by surprise, particularly “the retreat of the [nonprofit] sector as the systems changer,” she said. “We found that a significantly lower proportion of nonprofits report advocating or lobbying compared to 20 years ago, and that significantly fewer nonprofits know the advocacy activities they can legally do, compared to 20 years ago.

“As a faculty member who teaches nonprofit management, this finding puzzled me and made me realize we must provide more education around what nonprofits can do to advance their mission.”

Kim and the other researchers hope their work inspires nonprofit leaders to join with others “to strengthen nonprofit influence and ensure that they can provide voices for the people that they serve.

“More importantly, I hope the sector gets an alarming call that nonprofits are missing one of the key ways to address their missions and make sure that nonprofits play as a key stakeholder in policymaking area.”