Government Action And Engagement Is Part Of Being A Nonprofit Leader
May 1, 2023 by Eric D. Reicin, President & CEO, BBB National Programs
It can be challenging for us nonprofit leaders to move beyond our comfort zones and delve into new areas of organizational growth and opportunity. One area is government—specifically how to determine what government actions are important to our organizations and require immediate attention and what is just background noise and better off ignored. The key question then is: When and how should you engage with the government as a nonprofit leader?
For nonprofit groups, tax, governance, and fundraising laws are a given. But sometimes the unexpected can happen and the impact of government can be felt in ordinances passed at city hall, in regulations from a county council order, or more broadly at a state, regional or federal level—with rules to navigate and economic determinations to consider.
No matter the level of government, I believe the intentions of those doing the work in the public sector are generally pure, but the challenges from the result of that work can be complex. For my organization, BBB National Programs, those challenges are compounded since we operate on a national and, in some areas, global level.
Addressing government challenges is a multi-step process. First, keep in mind this basic tenet: follow the current law. Sometimes that process can take some digging, with local governments or state legislatures and agencies occasionally completing their work under limited sunshine, given the dearth of local media coverage.
Beyond the laws in place, there are the legislation, rules, and regulations under consideration. This is where close discernment of what is real—and what is background noise—comes in. I suggest nonprofit leaders consider following a few paths.
Follow the news from sources you trust.
While media trust is low, it is also undeniable that a core nonprofit leadership competency consists of being aware of external factors that can affect your organization. Certain media accounts do cover every single move in Washington, while others keep very close tabs on what may affect certain sectors, including the nonprofit sector. Find sources you trust and regularly keep a tab on updates.
Read/watch big speeches.
I am talking about ones that in themselves may not move the needle but are part of a pattern that eventually leads to challenges or opportunities. Since it is now March, I am not going to rehash the 2023 State of the Union except to say this: The headline in your local paper or the tweet by local news on social media may not be the most impactful part of that speech for your organization.
For example, during the speech, President Biden called for the protection of children and teens online, for protection from “junk fees” and for technology companies to be held accountable for the personal data they collect. If your nonprofit aligns with any of those values, as we do, it is important to let your stakeholders know that you are listening and ready to work to help tackle those challenges.
As a result of this particular speech, my colleague and I took to LinkedIn to share our views on the responsibility of companies to protect data. Such comments on social media or interviews with media are done for a purpose, adding credibility to an organization overall as one that is populated by thought leaders. You, too, should look for opportunities to be a thought leader in your organization’s core area of expertise.
Be a U.S. Supreme Court watcher.
Well, you cannot really “watch,” since video in that courtroom is not permitted. But do listen and read about the cases the Court is hearing and the points made in the various arguments by opposing counsel. These too are tea leaves for you and the organization that you run.
In the case of BBB National Programs, we are very closely watching the two mid-February Supreme Court cases heard relating to Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, providing immunity to computer services with respect to online content generated by users. These cases are of great interest to several key stakeholders, particularly in the technology, children’s advertising, and consumer product industries.
Engage in relevant stakeholder groups.
Such associations can provide a wealth of information, best practices, and networking, and can also help advocate for industry-wide or cross-industry solutions to pressing problems and issues. Some organizations, such as the Association of National Advertisers, have been around for more than a century, while others may be coalitions quickly created for a specific purpose.
Follow—and take opportunities to educate—Congress and federal agencies.
Beyond using your local or regional bully pulpit and providing views on social media, consider opening your apex a bit further. The concept of educating Congress and federal agencies may seem overwhelming and costly, as portrayed in House of Cards, Miss Sloane, or the underrated Head of State, but it does not have to be that way. In fact, following and educating Congress and federal agency leaders can be among the most rewarding activities you undertake.
You might learn that your hard work and specialized expertise in your chosen field of nonprofit work or business is much appreciated, not only by the officials themselves but also by their professional staff—those who are doing the behind-the-scenes work that, in the end, may also affect your nonprofit organization. You may think to yourself, I am not a lobbyist, but the value of your knowledge-sharing can be significant.
Following the news, reading big speeches, watching the Supreme Court, engaging in relevant stakeholder groups, and going beyond local and social media to educate legislators and agency leaders may sometimes seem to be tasks beyond the scope of a nonprofit leader and more trouble than they are worth. But engaging with government, as well as stakeholder groups, will be rewarding to you as a citizen and invaluable to you as a nonprofit leader.
Originally published in Forbes.