The nonprofit sector has been the seedbed for an impressive list of major social movements. Emancipation and Womens Suffrage were major causes supported by voluntary association in the last century. Civil rights, the environment, womens rights, abortion and anti-abortion rights, and many more have emerged in this century. The nonprofit sector functions as a "safety valve" for expressing public concerns and is a vehicle for public action devoted to matters of great importance.
Much of advocacy takes place through the 501 (c) 4 nonprofit political action organizations but at least one quarter of the nations nonprofit human service agencies are involved at least to some extent in advocacy such as research, information sharing, identification of problems, work with the press and other media, and such. This is "ok" under the law so long as it does not constitute a "substantial" part of the organizations activity and so long as it does not involve effort to influence specific legislation or to elect a candidate for office.
Recent good work in this area by Bob Smucker, Vice President for Government Relations, and John Edie, General Council, at Independent Sector, has provided important guidance in this field.
Bob Smuckers book, "The Nonprofit Lobbying Guide: Advocating Your Cause and Getting Results," provides guidance for volunteers and staff of nonprofits so they can take advantage of new, more liberal rules for lobbying by nonprofits. John Edies material is titled: "Foundations and Lobbying: Safe Ways to Affect Public Policy."
Brian OConnell, commenting on the subject, says "it is fortunate that such authorities as Bob Smucker and John Edie are teaching us our rights and how to execute them. The basic point is that our organizations have a right and often a responsibility to represent the views, needs, and where necessary, the outrage of the citizens who have banded together to serve people, causes and communities."
Advocacy in some cases may be an organizations best service.
John Gardner, past President of the Carnegie Corporation and founding Chairman of Independent Sector speaks to this in the forward to Brian OConnells book, "Americas Voluntary Spirit." He writes: "Perhaps the most striking feature of the sector is its relative freedom from constraints and its resulting pluralism. Within the bounds of the law, all kinds of people can pursue any idea or program they wish. Unlike government, an independent sector group need not ascertain that its idea or philosophy is supported by some large constituency, and unlike the business sector, they do not need to pursue only those ideas which will be profitable. If a handful of people want to back a new idea, they need seek no larger consensus."
- "Our pluralism allows individuals and groups to pursue goals that they themselves formulate, and out of that pluralism has come virtually all of our creativity."
- "The sector is the natural home of nonmajoritarian impulses, movements and values. It comfortably harbors innovators, maverick movements, groups which feel they must fight for their place in the sun, and critics of both liberal and conservative persuasion."
- "The sector enhances our creativity, enlivens our communities, nurtures individual responsibility, stirs life at the grassroots, and reminds us that we were born free."