by Jessica Seward, Marketing Manager, Salsa Labs
Trying to impact policy change in Washington? It’s not getting any easier. While national leaders continue to spar over political ideologies, nonprofits are finding it harder than ever to be heard over the din of competing interests and legislative head butting.
But a very real opportunity to ignite action and drive change exists much nearer to home.
In his book, A Voice for Nonprofits, author Jeffrey M. Berry makes a solid argument for nonprofits to walk away from Washington and focus instead on grassroots campaigning at the state and local level.
Consider the following:
- The feds discourage nonprofits from interacting with legislators. Despite the fact that nonprofits are held in real reverence in our culture and history and have a unique ability to tackle the problems that government can’t solve, Berry observes that “…in official policy and actual practice, the federal government discourages nonprofits from interacting with the legislators that ostensibly represent these nonprofits’ clients.” Berry sees a much different relationship between the government and nonprofits at the local level.
- There are few opponents at the state and local level. “In their role as advocates, most nonprofits have no active opposition. At the state and local level nonprofits working on behalf of their constituents generally encounter few, if any other organizations offering policymakers an opposing point of view,” notes Berry. But what about those with policy agendas that are political, like environmental groups? As expected, opposition to these groups comes largely from businesses with ties to state legislators –often the very organizations and agendas that nonprofits lobby against.
- You’re not alone, American communities have a high density of nonprofits. In Indiana, for example, Berry cites a study that found that there are about 100 nonprofits for per 10,000 population. In Chicago’s South Side, a block-by-block study of an extremely poor neighborhood of 36,000 residents by a research team at Northwestern University revealed 319 nonprofits. Berry insists that “…the nature of interest group politics in local communities offers nonprofits (of all sizes, membership and non-membership alike) an enormous opportunity.
With relatively thin lobbying networks and few opponents, Berry insists that local nonprofits with the right political instincts have a chance to exert real influence.
In comparison to interest groups in Washington, Berry outlines four important advantages in lobbying city hall and state agencies:
- Unlike Washington, the doors to city government and state agencies are already open, so fewer resources need to be devoted to getting a foot in the door. Berry references several surveys and interviews from nonprofit leaders who find it relatively easy to gain access and get phone calls returned.
- City and state agencies that deal with social service and health care providers don’t worry as much about showing favoritism or safeguarding proceedings.
- In certain sectors, a lack of opposition or competition makes partnerships with government easier.
- Policy initiatives aren’t typically stymied by lobbying groups pushing for completely opposed agendas.
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