Nan Aron

AFJ Weighs In: Independent Sector’s New Report

By Nan Aron, President of Alliance for Justice

With the release of an extensive new report, Beyond the Cause: The Art and Science of Advocacy, Independent Sector has started a conversation about how the nonprofit and philanthropic sector can increase its influence on public policy. As president of the Alliance for Justice –a leading national authority on nonprofit advocacy and the rules and laws that govern it — I am pleased at the attention being paid to the essential role of nonprofits in the democratic process.

The Independent Sector report is a well-intentioned effort to bring to the fore the often neglected subject of the importance of funder support for advocacy work, and to inspire greater activity by both grantmakers and the full range of nonprofit organizations themselves. However, from our reading we think the report has some weaknesses in its methodology and conclusions.

While we have written a detailed assessment of the report, our concerns fall broadly into five categories:

  1. AFJ believes that the central factor in the success of nonprofit advocacy is the presence of sustained, long-term funding for individual groups and movements, a principle reinforced, in fact, by many of the findings of the report. The report misses an opportunity to call for increased support for on-the-ground advocacy efforts, and instead focuses on raising large amounts to fund sector-wide policy work at the national level.
  2. AFJ fully supports the report’s findings that the sector is stronger when it works together, but the issues identified by the report as requiring sector-wide action were not based on widespread consensus nor are they the most likely to be those tackled by either the IRS or Congress in the foreseeable future.
  3. AFJ, which serves as a major national resource on nonprofit advocacy law and regulation, noted some significant misstatements of fact which may only serve to reinforce the widespread confusion which plagues the nonprofit community about what kinds of lobbying and political work are permitted. We are pleased, however, to hear that, after being alerted to the mistakes, Independent Sector intends to correct them.
  4. The report serves the laudable purpose of reinvigorating the national conversation about the vital role nonprofits play in our democratic process, but describes the sector in inconsistent, confusing ways.
  5. We agree that establishing and mobilizing a broad-based coalition can be a valuable advocacy strategy, but the report’s puzzling conclusion that a single group should take primary responsibility for managing sector policy and advocacy is not supported by the evidence presented.

A report of this nature couldn’t come at a better time, and there is much of value in its research. But the conclusions it reaches are inimical to enhancing the power of nonprofit organizations to shape public policy and advance the causes to which those groups are devoted.

Click here to read our detailed assessment of the Independent Sector report.