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United Way Blog

Determining Nonprofit Impact on Civic Engagement

Nonprofit organizations have been described as the backbone of American democracy. They drive political responses to many important issues, such as education, disaster response, and health. Perhaps it is inevitable that nonprofits, including United Way Worldwide, also emerge as sources of advocacy and expertise on these subjects. 

Currently, it is suspected that fewer than half of nonprofits report advocacy as a part of their organization’s strategy. Because nonprofits are on the front lines of so many social challenges, greater nonprofit advocacy could bring much needed expert perspectives on persistent public problems and policy solutions — by informing equitable policy approaches to social and economic problems and lifting up the voices of those who are not included in the conversation. Nonprofits can complement their efforts in service provision by speaking out about their needs, the needs of their constituents, and amplifying those voices.

The last time comprehensive national research was conducted to understand the extent nonprofits engage in advocacy was over 20 years ago! Since then, the sector has had to rely on outdated data to try to understand the barriers to nonprofit advocacy in a changing world. Even for large nonprofits like United Way, which has long advanced public policy advocacy, the current landscape is radically different from 2000, shaped by the ubiquity of social media, rapid advances in technology, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

In light of the lack of relevant data and these changing conditions, Independent Sector commissioned three researchers, Dr. Lewis Faulk at American University, Dr. Mirae Kim at George Mason University, and Dr. Heather MacIndoe at the University of Massachusetts Boston, to assess the status of public policy participation by nonprofit organizations. 

This research will help the sector identify where nonprofit organizations need help building infrastructure and capacity to increase collective advocacy. New data will inform the sector and individual organizations on how to leverage limited resources, invest in capacity building, and bring greater public attentionto the needs of nonprofits and the communities they serve.

As United Way has put it, civic engagement is part of the fabric of community, and part of what it takes to build stronger communities. United Way believes that coming together around shared purpose and collective action gives participants a sense of meaningful engagement, and is an important component of lasting community change.

We can work toward a paradigm where nonprofits co-produce the ways that create changes and lift up the voices of those who are missing from the conversation. While one research project may not change the world overnight, the new data from this research will provide fresh perspectives in the conversation about the current role of nonprofits in this changing world. If your organization is randomly selected and invited to be a part of this project, please take the time to share your thoughts and experiences with us!  

This blog is co-authored by Emily Rogers, policy research manager for Independent Sector, and Dr. Mirae Kim of George Mason University.