Change IS Service

August 29, 2012

We nonprofits often think of ourselves as serving our communities — such as the Latino community, the museum-going community, a low income community, and so forth. And we often forget that we not only serve communities, we represent communities. For example, if you serve families of children with disabilities, you also represent such families and their concerns to the public.

And often, the most dramatic, high impact way to serve our communities is to change public policy. Here are a few examples:

  • Nonprofits serving foster care children and youth have known for years that releasing kids into the world — without any support systems or income — on their 18th birthdays wasn’t working. So nonprofits raised money and wrote grant proposals to support “emancipated” youth aging out of foster care. But the 2011 California legislation that extended foster care to age 21 not only created the funding for programs serving foster kids ages 18 – 21, but it allowed sustainable programs to develop to serve this population. In other words, getting the law changed helped the youth the nonprofits were serving and representing . . . while also bringing funding to the nonprofits.
  • Land trusts often have good reasons for allowing limited for-profit use of protected lands. For example, a large protected area may benefit from controlled cattle grazing to reduce fire danger, or allowing beekeepers to use protected land could help maintain a beneficial bee population. But until this year, nonprofit land trusts have been taxed for doing so. In a bill going to the California legislature this month, such beneficial-to-mission sidelines will no longer be taxed (assuming it passes and that the governor signs it – both of which we expect). The California Association of Nonprofits joined land trusts and others to make this happen — which will provide permanent help to land trusts far beyond what another direct mail piece or fundraising event could have done.

In other words, if we are not  involved with public policy, we are failing at our responsibilities to both serve and represent our communities. Advocacy isn’t something we should do in addition to good management; it is part of management.

What law(s) would help your communities as you define them? Have you raised this issue to the statewide association in your field (such as the association of food banks or symphonies or environmental organizations), and to us at the California Association of Nonprofits?

I also hope to see you at our September 13 CalNonprofits Convention in Los Angeles.

Thanks for reading,

Jan Masaoka is CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits (CalNonprofits) and also publishes the online magazine Blue Avocado.

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