When the Colorado Association for Recycling was approached to endorse the No Child Left Inside legislation, they didn't know WHAT to decide, but they did know HOW to decide (see what they decided at end of article). They already had a procedure in place for deciding which public policy stands to take. But many nonprofits aren't as prepared:
Would it support your cause or help your constituencies if your organization took an official stand on a public policy issue? Is it legal to do so? And how would you go about it? Your board may be thinking of taking a stand on an international issue, on FDA regulations, on public school policies for students with disabilities, on a proposed hospital closure, on pending legislation, or on whether dogs should be allowed in a local park.
The worst time to decide on how to take a policy position is when an issue suddenly erupts. Having a policy or procedure in place before a controversy develops. Eliminate the need for the board to make two difficult decisions at the same time: HOW to take a stand, and WHETHER to take a particular stand.
We'll look first at a sample procedure for how organizations take stands, then offer a questionnaire that one organization uses when asked to sign onto letters, and finally, provide some links to additional information.
First, is it legal for a nonprofit to take a stand on a policy matter? Answer: Yes! What IS prohibited for nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organizations is supporting or opposing candidates for election. But it is completely legal for a nonprofit to take a stand on US foreign policy, on local zoning codes, on Social Security, on air quality standards, on tax issues and on proposed regulation of nonprofits. In fact, some of our country's most important social gains have been won through nonprofit policy work, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving on blood alcohol limits, the ACLU on discriminatory hiring practices and Communitiesfor a Better Environment on air quality standards. (A caveat: in an election season, if the policy issue is strongly identified with a candidate, it might appear that you are actually advocating for the candidate.)
Don't forget, too, that holding a discussion on a policy stand is one of the best ways for the board to learn about an issue and what the organization already does (or doesn't do!) on the matter.
[The fine print: nonprofits are not prohibited from lobbying, but we are prohibited from using "substantial" amounts of our resources on lobbying, including calling on the public to take a stand. If you believe that your organization is using significant staff time, volunteer time, or money in lobbying, you can apply -- it's not difficult -- for a "501 h" election, which provides a clear and mathematical test for what level of activity exceeds the proscribed limits. For more information, see the Alliance For Justice's excellent set of fact sheets available online.]
Sample Policy on Taking Public Policy Stands
Introductory statement: We believe that taking stands on appropriate policy matters, and promoting those positions, are important ways in which we serve our constituents and our cause. We must not only serve our communities, we must advocate for our communities. We will use our voice strategically and thoughtfully. The following outlines the principles by which we will consider taking policy stands, and a process to follow when making such a decision.
1. Only the board of directors, by a majority vote, can decide on an official policy stand by the XYZ Organization.
2. Suggestions for taking a policy stand can come from anyone. These suggestions should be sent in writing to the Chair of the Board of Directors and to the Executive Director.
3. The Chair and the ED can bring the suggestion to the board meeting for discussion, or can refer the issue to a Public Policy committee or task force.
4. The criteria used by the board and committee/task force will be based on the following. We will consider taking an organizational stand IF all of the below are the case:
- The issue directly or indirectly affects our constituents and/or our organization.
- The issue draws on our expertise and knowledge as an organization. (For example, if we are an environmental health organization, does this matter draw on what we know about how environment affects health?)
- Along with the policy stand, we develop a realistic plan for how to communicate our stand to the appropriate people and what we will do to implement the stand. (For example, in some cases an organization will want to take a leadership role on an issue, and assess its ability to play that role. In other cases a board will decide that taking a stand will be heartening to clients and to staff, but undertaking a large campaign is not realistic for the organization.)
5. Letters to officials, letters to editors, and open letters to the public on this stand will be signed by the Chair of the Board of Directors and the Executive Director.
6. Public policy stands will be posted on our website.
7. Public policy stands expire after one year from adoption unless the board acts to extend the period. (This keeps an organization from having positions on stale issues or ones where a new stand might be required.)
8. If we foresee that public policy stands will use significant time or financial resources, or if this is an election season, we will consult with an attorney to be sure that we are in compliance with regulations.
If You are Frequently Asked to Sign Onto Letters and Petitions
Some organizations receive requests from others in their same movement to sign onto letters and petitions -- sometimes as often as weekly. How to manage? One organization, the Northwest Women's Law Center, sends people with such requests a questionnaire for them to complete. It's a smart way to weed out the blast emails, and to tee up an issue for the board:
Request for Endorsement
The Northwest Women's Law Center, as an advocacy organization dedicated to advancing women's legal rights, engages in litigation, legislative and administrative advocacy, and education about issues that concern women and their families. The Law Center is part of a community of organizations working for social justice and progressive change in Seattle, Washington State, the Pacific Northwest and the nation. The Law Center is frequently asked to endorse or support initiatives and campaigns on a variety of issues.
The Northwest Women's Law Center endorses only initiatives, actions or campaigns that relate to its mission of advancing legal rights for women. To facilitate our decision-making about endorsements, the Board of Directors asks that you answer the following questions:
1) Why are you seeking the endorsement of the Northwest Women's Law Center? What will our endorsement add to your effort?
2) What will be the effect of the proposed action, campaign or initiative on women? Please be specific, including describing the population(s) of women that will be affected.
3) What resources (money, staff time, volunteer time, etc.), if any, are you requesting that the Northwest Women's Law Center provide to your effort?
4) Please give us information about your organization: how long has it existed? Is it a 501(c)(3) organization? Who are your members? What other organizations have endorsed this effort?
NOTE: As a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization, the Law Center is prohibited from endorsing
any candidate in any election. Please return this form to ____.
And as for the Colorado Association for Recycling? Executive Director Marjorie Griek reports: "One recent policy stand was for our organization to support the No Child Left Inside coalition. We were asked to support a bill that was drafted at the national level that would provide grants to ensure that teachers have the necessary knowledge and skills to teach environmental education, and provide grants to enhance state and national capacity for environmental education. States that create environmental literacy plans, detailing how all graduates will be environmentally literate, will be eligible for this funding.
"Our board thought it important to support this as part of the education covered would be about recycling and waste diversion issues. We signed on to the group, and sent information to our members about it, and will send letters of support as needed."
For more information on nonprofits and taking policy stands, see:
- Alliance for Justice: free online Fact Sheets
- Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest: FAQ sets
- Independent Sector on Nonprofit Advocacy and Lobbying
- OMB Watch is a national nonprofit watchdog with excellent information on legislation, the federal budget, citizen participation at all levels of government, and nonprofit advocacy
Special thanks for assistance in this article to attorney Michael Schley of Santa Barbara, to Lisa Stone of the Northwest Women's Law Center, and to Marjorie Griek of the Colorado Association for Recycling.