Through an agreement with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles and profiles related to the "business" of improving society.

Nonprofit Advocacy and Democracy

Nonprofit Advocacy and Democracy

Scholars of social movements have long documented the ways in which nonprofits strengthen civic engagement, create political cohesion, and focus attention on underrepresented communities. Their working assumption has been that more advocacy leads to a stronger, better democracy.

But according to some researchers, profound changes have reshaped nonprofit advocacy in recent decades in ways that run counter to its alleged democratizing function. Pointing to weakened democratic governance, fraying trust in institutions, the politicization of the business sector, and skyrocketing inequality, these scholars argue that the relationship between nonprofit advocacy and democracy has become much more ambiguous.

In their chapter on nonprofit advocacy for the third edition of The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook (Walter W. Powell and Patricia Bromley, eds., Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020), Edward Walker, a professor of sociology at UCLA, and Yotala Oszkay, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the university, consider the transformation of advocacy groups and what it means for the future of civil society and democracy. They review recent research in six areas where nonprofit advocates have demonstrated their ability to enhance or weaken democracy, and they highlight the organizational structures, social context, and outside pressures contributing to change.

"The authors make it clear that nonprofit organizations are not an unmitigated good for a democratic society — but nor are they an unmitigated bad," says Matthew Baggetta, a professor of public affairs at Indiana University's Paul H. O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. "One implication is that scholars, policy makers, and members of the general public must think critically about the nonprofits they encounter."

The authors discuss the growing "use of nonprofits as political intermediaries for corporations or other interests." Since the 1970s, Walker says, "there has been an incredible run-up of business political activity as firms were starting to feel threatened by the expansion of the federal regulatory bureaucracy." Groups such as the Business Roundtable emerged to advocate for the business sector, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers were revitalized. Many companies turned to public affairs consultants and began organizing campaigns to counter public interest groups.

"By my estimate," Walker says, "something like 40 percent of the Fortune 500 work with consulting firms that mobilize participation for companies." This has led to astroturfing (the simulation of grassroots support for a cause), the rise of dark money (contributions of undisclosed origin), and strategic efforts "to fund allied nonprofits that advocate for policy changes that benefit the economic interests of a business or powerful individual."

In the meantime, nonprofits have become more "businesslike," say Walker and Oszkay, describing the professionalization of advocacy as a response to market pressures for efficiency and accountability. The rise of tools and metrics to measure impact means that "paid professionals and business elites have taken on the advocacy tasks typically associated with social movement activists." Third-party agencies like Charity Navigator now use standardized metrics based almost entirely on 990 filings to publish ratings that privilege service provision at the expense of grassroots organizing.

As a result, says Walker, "you don't have as many capacity-building efforts designed to support grassroots activism in local communities. "Instead, you have many more organizations, at least in absolute numbers, that are involved in more professionalized advocacy, the type that enlists people mainly as check and letter writers, and might excel at mobilizing them that way, but is perhaps somewhat less effective at organizing deep connections between them in a way that can build durable political engagement."

The picture is also mixed when it comes to information and communication technologies (ICTs), which lower the cost of participation, Walker and Oszkay say, but not without potential problems. Access to ICTs is far from universal; scholars have identified a digital divide between organizations. Smaller, older nonprofits working with limited resources can't match the online efforts of younger organizations that enjoy greater financial and human capital. Evidence also suggests that "transactions linked to the rising use of ICTs" contribute to "forms of engagement that are less durable and less capable of building broader support."

Nonprofits seeking to build a more democratic and equitable society will need "to find novel strategies for harnessing resources, technologies, social networks, alliances, and broader cultural supports," they conclude.

"The authors imply that it is essential to not think about the nonprofit sector apart from other sectors but as integrated with what is going on in the public and for-profit sectors," Baggetta says. "Nonprofits are deeply intertwined with the state and the market, and any serious consideration of the sector must take that into account."

Daniela Blei (@tothelastpage) is a historian, writer, and editor of scholarly books. More of her writing can be seen here: