- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “Ten people who speak make more noise than 10,000 who are silent.” Thirty years ago, nonprofit leaders were largely silent in the halls of legislatures, but now, as we debate issues such as environmental standards, the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind and health care reform, nonprofits have found their voice and are a growing political force.

After the passage of the 1976 Public Charity Lobbying Law, which clarified how nonprofits could advocate and lobby and set up regulations, more nonprofits opened offices in the District and state capitals across the country. In the 1980s, national organizations such as the American Heart Association, the Children’s Defense Fund, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the YMCA became actively engaged in important advocacy issues. They represented their constituents, who believed the government played a role in shaping public opinion as well as passing legislation that would advance their cause.

In the 1990s, more nonprofits joined the fight. For instance, the landmark Nutrition Labeling and Education Act set a record for the number of public comments by nonprofit organizations, which helped secure its passage. In the ‘90s we also saw a sea change in how the country viewed tobacco control. State after state passed tougher laws to prevent youth access to tobacco - in part because of the advocacy of anti-smoking groups.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations are classified as working to change public opinion and public policy and more than 75 percent were formed after 1970. Those organizations strive to monitor government decisions proactively, educate the public and develop policy solutions based on research. A recent study by the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy, using return-on-investment calculations, showed that advocacy efforts pay off - for every $1 spent on advocacy, organizing and community engagement, constituents received $89 in benefits.

To establish these results, the study evaluated a number of organizations in North Carolina engaged in advocacy efforts, including Senior PharmAssist, which helps low-income seniors get access to affordable medications. Following the passage of Medicare Part D, Senior PharmAssist led efforts to create a statewide coalition that appealed to North Carolina legislators to provide Medicare Part D premium assistance for low-income seniors. Through their efforts, they created NCRx and helped more than 5,325 low-income seniors afford prescription drugs.

Now, as the health care debate is waged in the nation’s capital, many nonprofits and coalitions of nonprofits, such as AARP, the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Partnership for Prevention, are weighing in to ensure that their constituents are represented. In fact, when AARP and the AMA endorsed the House Democrats’ bill recently, it made headline news.

Rich Hamburg, director of Government Relations for Trust for America’s Health, has worked on public health issues over the past 30 years. Looking toward 2010, he says he thinks the most successful advocacy organizations will continue to look at issues proactively, use research to define their policy positions, leverage technology to connect their constituents with policymakers, and engage the media in helping educate the public and policymakers about important issues.

As the adage says, “Silence is assent.” As many of the neediest Americans suffer in the economic downturn, it is important that we not only help them get back on their feet, but also serve them by being advocates for their future. If we don’t speak up, who will? During this holiday season, if it is hard to give dollars to support your favorite charity, consider lending your voice.

Christopher Gergen is the director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Initiative within the Hart Leadership Program at Duke University’s Terry Sanford School of Public Policy and writes regularly with Aaron K. Chatterji. Guest contributor Suzanne Steffens is founder and managing partner of Social Impact Architects and a Research Fellow at Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship. Send e-mail to au


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