The Third Sector Report By Jeffrey Wilcox

Nonprofit Leaders And Public Policy: It’s Not A Spectator SportJeffrey Wilcox - The Third Sector Report

October 11 – There are a number of things that are uniquely American. And, for many people, baseball or the Apple computer would be shining examples of the impact American invention has had on the rest of the world.

Nongovernmental organizations put in business to provide a social benefit was also our invention. You and I would call them, “nonprofits;” and, believe it or not, this uniquely American invention predated both computers and baseball.

It was hard for other nations, then, and remains difficult for many countries even today to think that government should not be solely responsible for the health and welfare of its people. As America was being colonized, European observers witnessed with marvel how communities were being built in the new land from scratch and how diverse people were voluntarily sharing resources to take care of one another and protect their settlements.

Even today, I, and countless numbers of my colleagues in The Third Sector, receive invitations to travel abroad to show other nations how to create nonprofit organizations because of their government’s inability to sustain and advance their societies. In recent years, the most sobering discovery I have personally encountered is the radically different views Americans and Canadians have about the roles of government and nonprofits in communities.

Our nation has grown up since the days of colonization; but, the founding principle of the nonprofit sector has remained steadfast: Communities must have the ability to create and sustain initiatives aimed at enhancing the quality of life for its citizens, whether supported by government or not.

As a nation, we’ve reinforced that founding principle with many enhancements. Granting charitable tax deductions, separating church from state, and encouraging the community to be an heir of an individual’s estate are but three examples. American government has also placed a high value on the nonprofit sector as a bridge between the institution and its people. The nonprofit is a natural convener of citizens who share values on matters directly related to the quality of life in a community. Most policy-makers that I know like attending nonprofit events, standing behind their podiums, and receiving recognition from them for doing good things for the community.

So, if our country was built on volunteering, giving and encouraging private-sector initiatives to advance society; and, if nonprofits are a bridge between government and its citizens, why is the subject of public policy and government relations on so few nonprofit board room agenda?

My experience tells me there are three primary reasons and each is the result of misinformation and a lot of misdirected fears.

The first reason is not knowing the difference between a public policy committee and a political action committee. These are two different animals. In days past, most nonprofits, especially those who received any public funding, recognized that the board needed to be informed about policy being formulated, introduced, pending or approved along with the potential impact of the policy on the future of the organization and the people it serves.

The second reason is once a government contract is confirmed, the revenue source is mistakenly managed as “a given.” Whenever “entitlement” becomes the default setting in the board room and with the staff, unwise decisions can be guaranteed.

The third reason is the belief that lobbying and advocating are the same things. They are not. Advocating is at the backbone of the work of nonprofits. What a nonprofit does in and for a community gives legs to what it believes is right and necessary for a community.

As our nation takes to the battlefield for economic reform, responsible nonprofit leaders should be embarking on a process right now to outline their appropriate roles as it relates to public policy, advocacy and government relations. Forming a public policy committee to monitor and inform, removing the chains of entitlement thinking in the organization, and establishing an advocacy program along with setting advocacy policies are three options among many to consider.

Since the days of our colonization, building and assuring sustainable communities was never a spectator sport. As government now reshuffles the deck, let’s not teach the next generation of nonprofit leaders that, in fact, it is.

Jeffrey R. Wilcox, CFRE, is president and chief executive officer of The Third Sector Company, Inc. Join in on the conversation about this article on Facebook or drop us a line at jwilcox@thirdsectorcompany.com