Friday, January 27, 2012

Multiple Perspectives on Nonprofits and Advocacy

Nonprofits engaging in public policy advocacy has often been a controversial topic, and a recent mix of reports and articles indicate that there are still widely divergent perspectives on the wisdom, benefits, and costs of such advocacy.  Here are some notable examples:

  • ARNOVA's Finances of Nonprofits and Public Policy:  Focused on the financial challenges now facing nonprofits and related emerging public policy issues, this report is from a June 2011 symposium and describes "the challenges now facing nonprofits in the realm of public policy, especially as they pertain to the financing of nonprofits presently and in the future. The report outlines an agenda for research needed to develop a better understanding of these challenges and issues."
  • NCRP Report on Foundation Funding of Advocacy:  Titled "Leveraging Limited Dollars: How Grantmakers Achieve Tangible Benefits by Funding Policy and Community Engagement," this report asserts that even modest financial support for nonprofit advocacy can lead to large benefits for marginalized groups.  Based on a study of 110 organizations, it concludes that for every $1 invested in such advocacy a $115 in benefits flowed to such groups or over $26 billion in total.

This study explores the metamorphosis of three major voluntary health agencies — American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and American Lung Association — from charities supported primary by donations into lobbying organizations seeking taxpayers’ funds and grants from commercial enterprises in exchange for supporting private or political initiatives only peripherally related to their charitable missions. Prior to the 1980s, lobbying was all but nonexistent, limited to seeking increased funding for disease research. Fearing loss of tax-exempt status, health charities largely avoided political advocacy. The AIDS movement revealed that vast sums could be acquired from government by intense lobbying, and this advocacy evidently did not threaten tax-exempt status. All three of these charities copied the AIDS movement and targeted tobacco tax revenues at the state level. The American Lung Association, in particular, has acted as a public relations flack for both government agencies and corporations — selling its charitable reputation as a selfless entity concerned only with public health for self-interested purposes. The implications of this transition for both the charities themselves and the public interest are analyzed and discussed.


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It is well known that the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and American Lung Association are leaders in the fight against tobacco use and for a healthier environment. What may not be as widely known is that the author of the above “research” paper, which attacks these organizations, applied to RJ Reynolds Tobacco in 1990 for a $150,000 grant “to discredit the voluntary health agencies in the minds of the public so that they are forced to return to their charitable ‘roots’ and abandon political advocacy.” (

Voluntary health organizations consider first and foremost their mission and serving their constituents in all decisions. In many cases, activities that fulfill an organization’s mission cannot be accomplished as well alone as they can be through collaboration and alliances among like-minded organizations and businesses, or in concert with local and national government offices. It is for this reason that patient organizations seek to forge appropriate and productive collaborative relationships with other entities.

The National Health Council (NHC), a unique organization made up of the nation’s leading patient advocacy organizations and national health-related associations and businesses, created Standards of Excellence in 1996 to provide guidance for voluntary health agencies, including the need to thoughtfully and carefully consider their working arrangements with industry and government.

Patient advocacy organizations provide a legitimate voice for people whose interests might otherwise be overlooked and ignored. The relationships they have forged have advanced public health, discoveries of new treatments, and improvements in public policy to the betterment of all people in this country.

Nancy Hughes, APR
Vice President, Communications
National Health Council

Posted by: Nancy Hughes | Mar 6, 2012 8:06:31 AM

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