Seen but not Heard: Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy

Seen but not Heard: Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy
Aspen Institute
Gary Bass, Kay Guinane, David Arons and Matthew Carter
February 12, 2010

The following is a summary of the book, Seen but not Heard: Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy. You can buy the book from the Aspen Institute site ($15).

Seen but not Heard: Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy paints a clear picture of just how frequently nonprofits actively engage in public policy. In addition to documenting the frequency of nonprofit advocacy, Seen but not Heard also provides a detailed analysis of the current barriers and incentives for nonprofits engaging in various types of policy activities. Co-authored by OMB Watch's Gary D. Bass and Kay Guinane, along with David Arons and Matthew Carter, assisted by Susan Rees, Seen but not Heard offers several recommendations on how the nonprofit sector can increase its participation in public policy and specific recommendations for staff within nonprofits to strengthen advocacy. With a comprehensive justification for nonprofit advocacy, Seen but not Heard inspires readers to move from contemplation to action.

About The Multi-Year Study SNAP:

OMB Watch, Tufts University and Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest launched a multi-year research to action project, called the Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project (SNAP). Seen but not Heard: Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy is the culmination of the SNAP project. SNAP aimed to answer the following questions:

  1. What language do nonprofit staff and volunteers use to describe public policy participation?
  2. What factors influence nonprofits' participation in the public policy process?
  3. How do nonprofits make decisions about whether and how they participate in public policy?
  4. What would be helpful and encouraging to nonprofits as they make decisions about public policy issues and decide whether and how they will get involved?

Seen But Not Heard compiles the major findings of these four questions by condensing survey responses from 1,738 nonprofits across the nation, as well as interviews from 45 respondents (primarily executive directors) and 17 focus groups (with executive directors, board members and foundation staff in different parts of the country).

A Few Highlights:

  • While roughly three in four nonprofits say they have engaged in at least one key type of public policy activity (such as direct or grassroots lobbying or testifying at a legislative or administrative hearing) the frequency of such policy participation is generally low. For example, of nonprofits that reportedly lobby, approximately three out of five say they lobby with a low level of frequency. Of these nonprofits which lobby, these organizations reported lobbying at the lowest possible level.
  • 63% of nonprofits report never encouraging others to write, call, fax, or email policymakers or have done so infrequently; the same is true with lobbying (69%) and testifying (77%).
  • Nonprofits say participating in public policy is essential to carrying out their missions, however, this does not mean they are consistently involved.
  • Language makes a difference. For example, only 34% (roughly one in three) of survey respondents reported lobbying, while 45% reported "advocating" and 47% reported "educating."

Barriers to Nonprofit Advocacy:

  • Participating nonprofits report the top three barriers to advocacy as: limited financial resources, tax law or IRS regulations and limited staff or volunteer skills.
  • Three out of four survey respondents felt receiving government grants were barriers to participating in policy matters. As government funding increased (as a share of an organization's revenue) so too did the perceived barrier to participating in public policy.
  • Many nonprofits expressed fears of retribution for engaging in policy matters. One participant stated: "If you [receive] government funding then there are subtle ways government can coerce you."
  • Although 58% of respondents receiving foundation grants reported that receiving a foundation grant is not a barrier to policy participation, nonprofits that do not lobby see foundation funding as a statistically significant barrier to policy participation (when compared to those who do not lobby).
  • Focus group findings revealed concerns about foundations not supporting advocacy activities undertaken by nonprofits. One focus group participant highlighted another major concern about foundation funding: "Foundations will fund something for a few years …Unfortunately, two or three years is not how change works. They want instant gratification…Foundations think there is an instant solution for social problems."
  • Staff and budget size are strong predictors of public policy participation.
  • Nonprofits lack knowledge about key rules and laws governing policy participation. Only 72% know they can support or oppose federal legislation, and only 79% know they support or oppose federal regulations. Half of participating nonprofits incorrectly thought they could not lobby if part of their budget came from federal funds.

 Addressing the Barriers:

  • Nonprofits, including board members, must better understand the importance of public policy participation.
  • Capacity building is needed in the following areas: training on lobbying restrictions under government grant rules, lobbing and advocacy restrictions under tax rules, effective advocacy and internal organization capacity.
  • The rules governing lobbying, advocacy and voter education need to be simplified in order to strengthen nonprofit public policy participation.

Key Recommendations:

  • Promote both a deepening and a widening of policy participation
  • Funders need to put up the resources and provide other forms of encouragement
  • Educators need to expand public policy curricula and develop skills and leadership for policy work. They should also encourage nonprofits to think about advocacy, lobbying and other forms of policy participation as tools for achieving their missions.
  • Management support organizations need to broaden their training content and pay attention to how policy can support organizational effectiveness and how organizations can be structured to make ongoing policy participation an essential function.
  • Nonprofits need to: make the time to advocate, join coalitions, monitor policy developments and alert their members.
  • Government procedures and public laws and regulations should be tailored to encourage more policy participation.
  • Foundations could fund and otherwise promote their grantees' participation in training workshops and coalition activities that build skills or provide information on public policy and the policymaking process
  • Foundations could shift their emphasis from special project grants for advocacy related activities to core operating grants.
  • Nonprofits should be conscious of how internal characteristics and processes can influence participation in public policy (including: staff and resource allocation, board responsibilities and development)
  • Nonprofits should move from a model of occasional advocacy to a new nonprofit business model that places policy participation co-equal with other management, governance, and service responsibilities.


The nonprofit sector is a vast reservoir of untapped expertise that should be harnessed to help policymakers with legislative decision making. When nonprofits become more consistently involved in public policy matters, the nonprofits sector's sphere of influence will grow. With more influence, nonprofits can finally grab a hold of the highly coveted yet rarely attained aspiration of proactively shaping the systems in which they operate, instead of merely responding.

Reprinted with permission from

You can buy the book from the Aspen Institute site ($15).

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