Nonprofits not allowed to lobby but neither should they be silent


POSTED: Friday, December 11, 2009

These are tough times and nonprofit organizations are among the economically wounded.

The Hawaii Community Foundation recently reported that Hawaii residents remain generous contributors to charities, but nonprofit organizations have faced an increase in demands for services and the concurrent loss of funding. Their staff and their clients are, without a doubt, experiencing an extra dose of the pain. Social services organizations, charter schools, associations that fund culture and the arts — none has escaped unscathed.

We don't subscribe to a “;storm the Legislature”; approach, but neither is this the time to be a shrinking violet. In order to accomplish economic recovery, what may seem now like a Herculean task, at a time when many nonprofits are having trouble keeping the lights on, we urge executive directors, boards of directors, members and staff of nonprofits to engage in education and advocacy.

Hunker down and focus on your core missions, as we all must, but don't silence your voices.

We acknowledge the restrictions on nonprofits when it comes to lobbying. Exemption from paying federal taxes places a burden on nonprofits to remain nonpartisan and restricts the amount of time spent by staff on trying to convince legislators to act in their favor. Political activity by nonprofits is prohibited. But speaking out on topics that nonprofits know best — delivery of services to those in most need — is not an option, it's a necessity.

Nonprofit organizations and their leaders may — we say they must — educate elected officials and the public on issues. They must engage in public discourse by hosting “;talk story”; forums, publishing editorials, convening panels of experts to explore solutions and providing research-based data to their elected officials, and providing real-time feedback on the decisions legislators and others are making and how those decisions affect all of us.

Nonprofit leaders can raise issues that may not yet be a part of the plan for recovery. In reality, is there a plan for recovery? Who is developing that plan? We firmly believe that the solutions to our state's economic challenges lie within the nonprofit community, and the voices of that community have been largely neglected as they attend to their ships taking on water.

As nearly 8 percent of Hawaii's economy, nonprofits are extremely valuable and their health is key to recovery. There are valuable federal dollars that can bring in jobs and services, develop organizational capacity and broaden partnerships. This is revenue that only the nonprofit sector can access. The federal government will require a plan and some creative partnerships with the corporate and government sectors.

With many elected officials reaching term limits, lower office holders seeking higher office and some key retirements, the political landscape is shifting. There will be change. What that change looks like, the nonprofit sector can help to determine. And although nonprofits can't engage in electioneering, they can make sure that candidates — all candidates — are well informed and have access to credible data, helping foster better informed decisions and better decision-makers for the future.

With our families suffering, our children getting less education, and groups of working people pitted against each other, the public is discouraged. It almost seems as if people have given up. But the nonprofit sector never gives up because there is always someone knocking at the door for a service, a program or just a caring face.

Whether an organization promotes the arts, educates our keiki or distributes food, the need does not diminish. It only grows during tough times.

Even without money, nonprofit organizations do have time, information, experience, members, voices and a vision. We are hopeful they will use these outstanding attributes to fully participate in the public process — now more than ever.


Judy Sobin and Melissa Pavlicek work with and are volunteers with numerous Hawaii nonprofit organizations, including Olelo Community Television, the Hawaii Association for the Education of Young Children and Lawyers for Equal Justice.