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Advocating for the Value Nonprofits Create: An Interview with Tim Delaney

By Nell Edgington



UntitledIn today’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Tim Delaney, President and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, the nation’s largest network of nonprofits.

The National Council of Nonprofits helps nonprofits identify emerging trends, engage in critical policy issues, exchange proven practices across state lines, and advance their missions through advocacy. Previously, Tim served as a partner at a large law firm (helping prosecute the impeachment of a Governor and leading the firm’s government relations practice), Solicitor General and then Chief Deputy Attorney General (leading his state to win several cases in the U.S. Supreme Court), and founder of the Center for Leadership, Ethics & Public Service (championing ethical leadership and civic engagement).

You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.

Nell: Historically, “advocacy” has been a dirty word in the nonprofit sector. Organizations have been afraid of getting into trouble with the IRS for pursuing too much lobbying behavior. But that seems to be changing. What are your thoughts on how involved in advocacy 501(c)(3) organizations can and should be?

Tim: Yes, it’s perplexing that using words like “advocacy” and “lobbying” could get a nonprofit employee’s mouth washed out with soap. But seriously, advocacy is not just a right for nonprofits that is protected by the First Amendment; it’s a profound responsibility and effective tool to advance nonprofit missions.

Nonprofits provide a way for Americans to come together to solve problems, large and small. And they often do so through advocacy: simply standing up and speaking out for something they believe. Americans came together through nonprofits to advocate successfully in securing the right of women to vote (via suffragist groups), establishing Social Security (spearheaded by Townsend Clubs), desegregating schools (leadership by NAACP), securing civil rights (Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and undertook much of his work as President of the nonprofit Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and so much more.

But advocacy is not just for social movements. Advocacy includes standing up for your nonprofit’s right to be paid reasonably for services it provides under a government contract. Advocacy includes telling the story of your nonprofit’s impact to a reporter. We see advocacy as the answer to one key question: who can I talk to today to advance my nonprofit’s mission?

A barrier many nonprofits run into comes from what I call the “3 As” –uninformed academics, accountants, and attorneys who advise nonprofit boards by passing along false lore that there “might be legal problems” if a nonprofit does “too much” lobbying. Nonprofit staff come back from advocacy training fired up, but boards extinguish that passion based on false lore. After hearing stories like this from across the country, we’ve decided to turn advocacy training around. The traditional approach of “it’s legal” sought to counter the false lore, yet too often it led people to focus on arcane issues more remote than the fine print on your airline ticket or apps that you never read. Therefore, we now focus on “why” advocacy is essential to mission advancement and “why” nonprofits need to be engaged at the state level to protect against government attacks on tax exemptions, nonprofit independence, and charitable giving incentives.

As part of our effort to get nonprofits past those old barriers, we’ve joined together with Alliance for Justice, BoardSource, Campion Foundation, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, and Knight Foundation to create Stand for Your Mission, a free website that provides nonprofit board members with information they need to be effective advocates in advancing nonprofit missions.

Nell: The National Council of Nonprofits has been on the forefront of the movement to get government to recognize the importance of funding nonprofits’ indirect costs. The recent OMB ruling mandating a minimum 10% indirect rate on most government grants and contracts with nonprofits seems like a watershed moment, but 10% is still pretty low and many nonprofits don’t understand the implications or how to benefit. What are your plans at the Council of Nonprofits to continue to move this issue forward?

Tim: As you noted, the 10% of modified total direct costs is just the minimum. For tens of thousands of nonprofits, just getting to 10% will make a huge difference. In its most recent State of the Sector Survey, Nonprofit Finance Fund found that 57% of nonprofits are being paid indirect cost rates of 9% or less. And Urban Institute found that of nonprofits reporting a problem, a quarter said that governments were paying them zero for indirect costs.

Now compare those paltry sums against research from Bridgespan showing that a more accurate range is about 25 to 35%. Certainly each case is different, but being reimbursed nothing or just 5% year after year when your real legitimate costs are always higher is debilitating, eroding effectiveness. Delivering sustained impact is impossible. So getting those nonprofits up to just the minimum will enhance sustainability to make a difference in their communities.

Importantly, 10% is just the floor. If a nonprofit is properly allocating costs and documenting its indirect costs, it can receive reimbursement for whatever those costs are, whether they are 20, 30, or even 40%. Getting paid for the true costs of delivering services can reduce burdens on nonprofits to fundraise for the difference, which frees funders from having to subsidize governments and allows nonprofits to dedicate more time to missions instead of diverted to filling funding gaps.

Seeing the OMB Uniform Guidance go into effect is just the beginning and underscores the importance of nonprofit advocacy. The mere issuance of OMB’s mandate doesn’t mean that the tens of thousands of local, state, and federal employees scattered across multiple departments, agencies, divisions, and offices will follow it or apply it properly. First, they need to become aware of it (which still has not happened), then receive training (same), and apply it consistently (same). Plus, states and localities often have contrary laws and policies on their books, requiring advocacy to change them to conform. OMB’s mandate involves a giant systems change, but the federal government still has not informed the system of what is required and the need to change policies and practices to abide by it.

David Thompson and Beth Bowsky on our team have been conducting dozens of in-person presentations and webinars across the country to ensure nonprofits are aware of their rights and how to advocate for proper implementation of the Uniform Guidance. Plus, we have been working with multiple state and local government associations to spread the word, and written numerous published pieces, including an overview, “Know Your Rights … and How to Protect Them,” that highlights potential compliance challenges.

In addition, we’re creating a series of short training modules for nonprofits to better understand their indirect costs. The key is for nonprofits with government grants and contracts to stand up for their rights to fair indirect cost reimbursement and to let their local state association of nonprofits and us know when governments are not living up to their obligations. Working through our network gives a nonprofit cover (so it isn’t fighting alone and having to worry about backlash) and strength in numbers to protect those rights.

Nell: This issue is also part of the larger movement to overcome the Overhead Myth in the nonprofit sector, the idea that “overhead” (or indirect costs) are bad and should be limited as much as possible. How close are we to truly overcoming this myth both among nonprofit donors and nonprofit leaders (who often keep themselves in these handcuffs)?

Tim: We still have a long way to go. OMB’s Uniform Guidance is a huge step forward because the federal government has now expressly acknowledged that indirect costs are legitimate and necessary. The sector needed a powerful external validating voice to overcome decades of treating mythology as orthodoxy. It’s inspiring to see that many private grantmakers have now adjusted their own policies or started to re-examine their past policies that unfairly limit payment for indirect/overhead costs.

However, the anti-overhead culture is deep seated and will take a long time to root it out. That’s true on both the funding side and the nonprofit side, given the powerful disincentives against claiming full costs. Nonprofits were forced to keep overhead artificially low by underinvesting in their infrastructure, staff training, and many other necessary expenses. Until we get so-called “watchdog” groups and reporters to stop using overhead ratios as false proxies for nonprofit efficiency (and get them to stop reporting overhead ratios as if they are a problem), and until all nonprofits are communicating with donors about their impact and what it truly costs to deliver that impact, everyone will still have work to do.

Nell: In both of these areas (advocacy and overhead) and in many others, nonprofits are treated like a second-class citizen. How do we get to a place where the critical role nonprofits play in our economy and in solutions to social challenges is recognized, and nonprofits are fully supported with the tools they need to be successful?

Tim: First and foremost, nonprofits must embrace our role as the place Americans come to solve problems and resolutely assert our role as advocates for the people and our communities. We often are on the front-line of vexing social challenges, giving us front-row seats to see the problems and the solutions. Who are we to hoard knowledge of solutions that could help our fellow neighbors? With the knowledge we hold and the clout we have (10% of the American workforce), we deserve a seat at policymaking tables. We need to proudly stand up, step forward, claim our space, and speak out for government to leverage its resources to solve problems at their source.

We need to tell the full story, not just of how many people were fed or acres preserved, but also the economic impact of the sector as a whole. For instance, CalNonprofits (the state association of nonprofits in California) published Causes Count about the economic clout of California’s nonprofits, and Donors Forum (the state association of nonprofits and grantmakers based in Illinois) released research on Social Return on Investment, showing the economic and social value of dollars invested in nonprofits.

As for being “fully” supported, that’s much more difficult. According to Nonprofit Finance Fund, last year – for the second year in a row – a majority of nonprofits didn’t have the resources to meet demand for their services. That’s going to be tough to turn around, especially as many nonprofits continue to be sliced by government budget cuts. Even as studies boast that individual giving is getting back to pre-Recession levels, that doesn’t make as much of a difference as most people think. Despite the focus on individual giving, it makes up only 9.3% of the sector’s overall revenue. Foundations are an even smaller percentage: 1.9%. Government grants and contracts make up a much larger portion – 32.3% – of the sector’s revenues. That’s why our focus in this area is so important.

Photo Credit: National Council of Nonprofits

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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1 Comment to Advocating for the Value Nonprofits Create: An Interview with Tim Delaney

[…] and a challenging political environment, nonprofits will increasingly recognize the need to embrace advocacy as a social change tool. Formerly worried about jeopardizing the legal status of their organization, nonprofit boards […]

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