In these tumultuous political times, the nonprofit community has started asking important questions: What is our responsibility to speak out on behalf of our staff, clients, and community? How do we advocate for them without violating our 501(c)(3) status, and while remaining an open and inclusive space for supporters of all political identities?
It's not just you - speaking out is scary!
In my experience working with nonprofits as an employee, volunteer, and board member, this reticence to speak out is typically grounded in a few common fears:
- Fear of losing members and / or donors
- Fear of misrepresenting the opinions of those members and donors
- Fear of violating our legal status as a 501(c)(3)
- Confusion over process. When should an organization speak? Who in the organization has the authority to write a statement? Who needs to approve it before it goes out - the Executive Director? The head of marketing? The board chair?
However, when we do not speak out, we fail to fully serve our clients. For example, a food bank that distributes meals, but does not advocate to increase access to affordable and nutritious food, never makes a dent in solving hunger or malnutrition on a systemic level. Though dipping our toes in the political water is fraught, it is the right, and most effective thing to do. While writing statements is only one way to get involved in systemic advocacy, it can often be a good place for organizations to start external advocacy after or concurrently with internal equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives.
Creating organizational policy for writing statements
At the 2017 YNPN Conference and Leaders Institute in Atlanta, GA, I attended a session on this topic, led by Lindsay Bachar, the Treasurer of YNPN Twin Cities. YNPN Twin Cities began speaking last year on events such as the police shooting of Philando Castile and the immigration ban. This is the process they used to begin issuing statements:
- Reach consensus on the issue areas you will speak out about. It is important that you are able to respond quickly, while the news is still relevant. Because of this, it can be helpful for the board and/or senior leadership team to pre-agree on which types of issues you will speak out on, and which ones you will not.
- Identify the messaging you are comfortable with. Are you comfortable asking your supporters to support specific candidates or pieces of legislation? Do you want to condemn hateful actions, and ask that your community take care of themselves? Agree on the messaging your organization will use when the issue areas you have agreed on have come up in the news.
- Decide who needs to approve statements. You want to limit the number of people who need to approve your messaging to allow you to respond quickly, but you also don't want to leave out crucial voices. Decide on this before the moment you need to respond.
- Understand your tolerance for risk. Are you willing to lose members or volunteers over your statement? There is no right or wrong answer to this, but you do need to be aligned on it. When you go from a silent organization to one taking a stand, you move your circle of supporters. This means you are likely to gain folk who did not previously know about or support your organization, but you also may lose others.
Okay, internal alignment is great...but are political activities legal for nonprofits?
Although 501(c)(3) organizations do have restrictions from participating in certain types and amounts of political activity, we actually have more leeway than most realize. This checklist from Nonprofit Votes, an organization that partners with nonprofits to help the people they serve participate and vote, and the list below from Jeffrey Berry, a professor at Tufts University, help to clarify restrictions and opportunities.
Practicing what we teach...YNPN Boston speaks out!
After attending Lindsay's session, reading YNPN National's statement, and learning about our organization's legal rights and restrictions, YNPN Boston decided to make our first public statement ever in response to the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville. As the Co-Chair of the Board at that time, I wrote the first draft, and the Executive Committee of the board and a leader of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee signed off on it - five people total. We sent the statement in an email to our leadership team, a separate email to our listserv, and posted the statement on our blog. Here are some of the considerations we made when creating the content:
- Our mission and vision. Because YNPN Boston is not an issue advocacy organization, we chose to focus on helping young nonprofit professionals figure out what they can do to make an impact, rather than supporting a specific piece of legislation or just condemning the act.
- Our identity. I am a white woman, and the actions in Charlottesville primarily targeted people of color. In response to this, I made sure to quote people of color in the statement and follow the advice that they were offering, rather than erroneously act as an expert.
It can be nerve-wracking and risky for organizations to speak up in an increasingly polarized society, especially when statements can lead to loss in funding, volunteers, or other resources. However, the day-to-day challenges most of our clients face - whether it is poverty, lack of access to health care, or discrimination - are directly impacted by the system that they live in. Nonprofits can no longer afford to remain 'neutral' - it is time to take a stand to actively create the more just world we all want to live in.
Alyson Weiss loves to wear multiple hats to make an impact. Currently, she oversees volunteer management at the Tufts University Office of Alumni Relations, and is an MBA Candidate at the Boston University Questrom School of Business and active alum of New Leaders Council and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Boston. At YNPN Boston, she served as the Co-Chair of the Board, the founding Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and the Co-Director of Communications and Marketing. She has presented on her Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion work at the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network Conference and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Conference. She has previously held programmatic and communications roles at workforce development nonprofits, and facilitates workshops and writes articles about the job search.