Illustration of writing an article on a laptop

ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How can nonprofits implement a strategic public policy agenda to achieve greater impact?

Illustration of a brain made out of links behind a background of upward arrows

Public policy and the nonprofit sector

Public policy at all levels of government has the ability to threaten the work of all nonprofits (National Council of Nonprofits, 2019). At the federal level, we see this threat in tax, regulatory, and spending policies. Notably, about 32% of nonprofit funding comes from government contracts and grants. The effects of federal policy often trickle down to the state and local levels. This creates implications for an organization’s beneficiaries in regards to available resources and funding for programming.

Despite the importance of public policy to the nonprofit sector, there is a severe lack of engagement among nonprofits. According to the National Council of Nonprofits, “compared to the business and government sectors, nonprofits have been sitting silently on the sidelines.”

A missed opportunity

Many nonprofits see public policy engagement as a peripheral activity not central to their mission. In reality, however, it presents a significant opportunity to increase their impact. The National Council of Nonprofits as of 2019 has found that “nonprofits with the most extraordinary levels of impact do not focus exclusively on either policy advocacy or direct service – the highest performing nonprofits do both.” Engaging with both allows nonprofits to address the immediate needs of their beneficiaries, while advocating works to reform the larger system to benefit them.

What can nonprofit leaders do to implement a strategic public policy agenda?

Establish support

Organizational support is a precondition for successful public policy advocacy. Organization-wide support and commitment to the effort should be established among all leadership, management, and especially the board of directors before creating the agenda.

Establish the What and Why

With the goal of amplifying the organization’s impact in mind, leaders should research policy issues and identify those that directly affect their beneficiaries or influence the work the organization does. Leaders should think about the following questions: 1) what issue they want to target, 2) why does it fit with their organization’s mission or vision, and 3) what are the desired outcomes.

Establish the Who and How

Leaders should take stock of what resources are available in terms of staff, volunteers, funds, time, and experience with public policy advocacy. This will inform who leaders will deem responsible for overseeing the public policy agenda.

Leaders should not be discouraged if they find that they have limited resources. Not only are strategies available that require nothing but time, but it is also possible to build up capacities.

Leaders can…

  • Utilize volunteers, donors, and those passionate about the organization’s mission, as well as nonprofit networks. Working with other nonprofits who have similar policy goals allows for consolidation of efforts and resources.
  • Over time, consider restructuring, hiring for needed skills, and appointing individuals with appropriate experience or connections to the board of directors.
  • Build up a sustainable revenue stream to fund policy work by combining resources from private foundations, events and ticket sales, corporate partnerships, and grassroots support.
  • Utilize nonprofit “umbrella” associations that offer training and educational resources about public policy engagement.
Establish a strategy

The Alliance for Justice has identified 13 different public policy advocacy strategies utilized by nonprofits, but some of the most common are public education, research, civic engagement, and policy development. The most effective of these strategies utilize a combination of tactics that work both inside and outside of the political system.

When developing a strategy, essential considerations include the nonprofit’s mission, available resources, desired outcomes, stakeholders, external environment, and laws and restrictions.

An effective agenda…
  • Is a unique combination and configuration of strategy and tactics, resources and capacities, and environmental conditions
  • Is transparent and made readily available to the public and all stakeholders
  • Is reviewed and evaluated annually for relevance and effectiveness
  • Is carried out by:
    • “Balancing pragmatism with idealism” by focusing on creating solutions and appealing to the political center.
    • “Practicing principled bipartisanship” by prioritizing issues over political party.
    • “Preserving credibility and integrity” by being loyal to the data and never manipulating information to support your narrative.

Engaging with the policy-making process allows nonprofits to be the voice for their mission and beneficiaries while working towards enacting policies that represent their interests. A healthy policy environment can help increase the effectiveness of their programs and services and thereby, achieve greater impact.

Anna Carlson is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. Since earning her Bachelor of Science in Psychology (with a minor in Integrative Biology) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Carlson has worked at a diverse range of nonprofits. She has a great appreciation for the critical work nonprofits do and looks forward to a future career in the sector.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog