Nonprofits: The DNA of Democracy

This article is from the Winter 2008 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Building the Power Grid.”

Recently, a prominent consulting firm asked several nonprofit leaders for feedback on the advocacy strategy that the company had developed for a large foundation. The meeting opened with one consultant asking, “Is it really necessary to involve the public in advocacy, and if so when? Wouldn’t it just be easier to get the one guy working for the legislator to move the bill in the way we want?”

The assumptions behind these questions are mind-boggling, among them the notion that public participation in community problem solving is optional rather than necessary; that “one guy” is enough to move policies into law; and that lobbying is the only form of advocacy. Compounding the surreal nature of the meeting was a set of decision-making trees the firm had designed to help foundations assess when in the process public participation would be most productive.

Funders, however, are not the only ones who believe that public participation in problem solving is optional. At a gathering of nonprofit leaders from some of the country’s major nonprofits, an executive director declared that while the organization’s affiliates would be willing to host public forums on community issues, ultimately they would be “pro forma” because “our experts know best what to do and how to do it.”

Public Weigh-in and Buy-in Are the Keys to Success

All this might be humorous if it didn’t involve the allocation of millions of dollars to initiatives that, without public participation and buy-in, will most likely fail. History has demonstrated the danger of decoupling nonprofits in their role as democratic actors from the process of getting the results that investors and the public demand. During the past decade, several well-intentioned efforts to tackle difficult issues—from school reform to international development—imploded despite jaw-dropping investments because constituents weren’t involved in planning and executing those efforts. Research indicates that had such participation been encouraged, it might have helped to achieve longer-term results and could have saved millions of dollars.

Civic engagement also tends to be seen as tangential to larger (and seemingly unending) discussions about nonprofit effectiveness, capacity, and impact. And amid growing calls for more collaboration among the three sectors—public, private, and nonprofit—to solve complex problems, there’s little awareness of the value added by the nonprofit sector: its ability to encourage and enhance democracy and civic participation.

Nonprofits have long understood that without political will, policies, and public weigh-in and buy-in, the most well-intentioned initiatives open themselves up to criticism and disregard the political support needed to ensure that what’s proposed is feasible and successful beyond the pilot phase.

So why don’t investors bite? Some see civic engagement as too nuanced and prefer to focus on specific issues and problems. Others are uncomfortable with institutions working with “real people” as partners rather than as beneficiaries of services. Still others view community-based problem solving as a thinly veiled political agenda they’re uneasy about supporting.

Social Efficacy As an Outcome…

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