How often have you thought, “This law is stupid!” or “There oughta be a law!”?
We have all had these thoughts once or twice, but if your nonprofit organization faces the same barriers day after day and feels stuck inside a bureaucratic system that is impeding its ability to make an impact, you may need legislative change. When you’re trying to make the world a better place, laws can seriously hinder your work, especially laws that are just plain bad, confusing, insufficient – or nonexistent.
If you think that your program would have to be replicated 100 times over to affect the whole state, or if your organization is doing work that is barely meeting the needs it is trying to serve, and its limited reach is not due to a lack of volunteers or the lack of programming, you might need legislative change. Laws can mandate program standards, making them statewide requirements. Laws can also expand eligibility requirements, opening opportunities for funding and greater outreach.
If you have ever been to a conference and met people from another state and thought longingly about how much easier their job is than yours, you might need legislative change.
For nonprofits, a change in the laws that you operate under, that affect your clients, or that govern the topic you are trying to protect can dramatically impact the mission. Sometimes the obvious just needs to be stated in a statute or policy to make a change. For example, in Pennsylvania, nonprofits working to prevent sexual assault were concerned that victims were being manipulated into performing sexual acts to avoid eviction or maintain employment. While clearly this type of coercive behavior was wrong, this behavior was not actually defined in the law as criminal behavior. So, a coalition of nonprofits took the issue to the legislature and convinced them to draft a definition of sexual extortion into the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, and that definition is now codified in 18 Pa. C.S. § 3133.
Similarly, a Pennsylvania association of social service-providing organizations needed the law to state the obvious when its members faced untenable risk, as government agencies leveraged their Goliath-like negotiating power to contractually shift their liabilities for their own negligent acts to the service providers they relied upon to provide services for children, youth, and families.
Thanks to Act 127’s borrowed provisions from laws governing construction contracts, any indemnification provisions in certain service contracts that force service-providing entities (many of which are nonprofits) to indemnify a county agency or municipal government entity for the county agency’s or municipal government entity’s own negligence are no longer legal. Under the new 67 Pa. C.S.§ 8102, these liability-shifting provisions are now void and unenforceable. Although this amendment only addresses certain types of county agency or municipal government entity service contracts, it is still a meaningful change for Pennsylvania nonprofits and the populations they serve.
These are just a couple of examples.
Changing the law can mean impacting hundreds (or hundreds of thousands) of lives with the stroke of a pen – and the change you effect in your jurisdiction can give courage to others, drive movements, and pave the way for other positive changes. It is an exhilarating experience to make such policy change. For some organizations, it means mission-fulfillment. For others, it means better positioning for long-term, impactful success – and, as we explain in this how-to guide, it is all legally permissible for public charities.
Yet, although nonprofits have a constitutional right to lobby, according to the National Council on Nonprofits, less than 3% of nonprofits lobby to advance their missions.
Don’t let your nonprofit sit on the sidelines.
When your nonprofit does not engage in lobbying, your nonprofit misses out on opportunities for more impactful collaboration, additional funding, and legislative reform in support of its mission and, as the examples above illustrate, its silence could also be causing it (and others) harm.
For organizations that want to do more, this how-to guide offers up simple steps your organization can take to make meaningful impact. Policy changes generally take a lot of rigor and resources (and sometimes years of hard work, persistence, and patience), but our hope is that this guide will help demystify the process and make it a bit easier for your organization (even if it has very limited resources) to take action and to get engaged in some policy-shaping and advocacy work.