Nonprofits & power in public policy

February 16, 2017

Nonprofits & power in public policy


As a nonprofit, are you aware of how much power you have in the public policy process? Because nonprofits are mission-focused, our voices are incredibly valuable in public policy conversations, as Beth Uselton of The Healing Trust explains in this Q&A conversation with CNM.

Beth says that it is more important than ever to get involved in advocacy work, and we agree! That's why CNM has partnered with The Healing Trust and The Sycamore Institute to present the free session "Legislative Update: How Could Your Mission Be Affected & What Can You Do About It?" on March 3 from 8:30-11 am.

Read more in this Q&A:

Q: How can nonprofits get started in advocacy work?

A: I think there is a critical role that nonprofits can play in this field because nonprofits are on the front lines and they know their clients; they know what works and what doesn’t, and they have a front-row seat to understanding the effects of public policy or programs for the communities they serve.  Nonprofits can be creative, nimble, and innovative in ways that government or for-profit sectors cannot always be, and because of this, there are things that nonprofits can do in terms of piloting new programs or trying out new service delivery systems.  Also, because of their direct, trusted relationships with individuals, families and communities, they are in a key position to provide important constructive feedback.  

One of the very first steps nonprofits can take is understanding some of the processes and avenues of engagement. Once nonprofits understand this, they can understand the decision points that they might be able to affect. This upcoming session at CNM will be a helpful opportunity to learn what pending legislation could affect nonprofits, and how to track the process.  It will also introduce strategies that nonprofits can employ to get engaged.

Nonprofits are in a unique position because they also have channels to influence public policy, but something that I often see and hear is that nonprofits aren’t aware of their access to these channels or the power they have to use that appropriately.  For example, one of these channels is through state funding. For nonprofits who receive some sort of government funding to administer a program, it is helpful to remember that the department funding the work wants it to succeed – in the most efficient and effective way possible. If there are barriers or room for improvement, nonprofits are in a unique position to communicate that and make suggestions to that department.  Frequently, it seems that nonprofits are unaware that their feedback is welcome or warranted, or even allowed.  But, nonprofits have something very valuable to offer.  They are the eyes and ears on the ground and if they establish themselves as trustworthy partners, their recommendations are heard and honored more often than they may realize.


Q: As nonprofit writer Vu Le recently said in this blog post, “Our sector embraces love, but facing injustice we must now also embrace power.” How do you see this intersection between love and power playing out in nonprofit advocacy work?

A: I think nonprofits should do some soul-searching to ask themselves where they have hands on levers of power, because we have more power than we might give ourselves credit for! We should start with intentional conversations about what opportunities are available or what power you already have that you could embrace in order to make broader changes.  Power can be found in the knowledge you have about an issue, the relationships you have with decision-makers or community leaders, the credibility you have earned through your work, or the creative tenacity that you tap into to pull of an incredible event.

I also think nonprofit humility plays a role in this conversation, because many of us are used to seeing ourselves in the work of service to others.  But service and leadership, humility and power are not conflicting concepts.  The people I know that can embrace all four are those that I have met through my work in the nonprofit sector. 

In talking with local nonprofit organizations, I hear all the time how nonprofits shy away from power and I think that mindset is one of the biggest barriers to advocacy. And yet, nonprofits are seen as honest brokers in the world of public policy and our credibility is one of the biggest sources of our power. People are so sick of politicians fighting back and forth, and legislators themselves will say that they are tired of the system of “scoring” political points. Policymakers need insight from people and organizations they trust, and in my experience, they have welcomed that from agencies that are not seeking credit, attribution or profit from the outcome.  A legislator told me once that, “I trust you because you are the only person involved in this issue who is trying to work yourself out of a job.”  Nonprofits can use the fact that they are mission-focused in order to make an impact on policy for the people they serve and represent.


Q: Why should nonprofits get involved now, in this current time of political turmoil?

I think it is more important than ever because nonprofits have the power to bring people together in safe, neutral spaces. By always staying grounded in mission, nonprofits have the capability to facilitate respectful, constructive conversations.

When a nonprofit is seen as a virtuous broker, it has the opportunity to elevate the conversation. People switch to their best behavior when nonprofits enter the conversation – I’ve seen it happen many times! It changes the political food fight. So it’s up to nonprofits to embrace the fact that we have roles to play in brokering conversations between two sides that might not always be on their best behavior with one another.  We are used to speaking about values and articulating a shared vision for the future.  We can use those skills to help foster conversations that build bridges between stakeholders.


Q: How did you personally get involved in this type of work?

A: I served as an AmeriCorps member right out of college and through the National Civilian Community Corps, I worked for a variety of nonprofits with different missions and services. Throughout this broad experience, I saw a lot of systemic issues that at first seemed intractable when we were trying to address them with direct services on the ground. But, I like to step back and ask why from a different perspective; I guess that has always been a part of my personality. My degree is in cultural anthropology, so I tend to put on those glasses and look at the big picture of systems and relationships. I’ve also been told that I have “an overdeveloped sense of justice!” But I think this comes back to the fact that nonprofits are incredibly innovative and visionary, so the people attracted to this work are wired that way.

Click here to register for the "Legislative Update: How Could Your Mission Be Affected & What Can You Do About It?" on March 3.

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