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A Call to Advocacy for Nonprofits

Commerce's Carlos M. Gutierrez was the keynote speaker at the Organization for International Investment's dinner last week, where tickets warned Hill staffers away from the coveted goody bags. (By Stephanie Kuykendal -- Bloomberg News)

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Charities are sweet things, but Gary D. Bass wants them to get rough and tumble when it comes to dealing with government.

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In his new book, "Seen But Not Heard: Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy," Bass and three co-authors argue that charities need to lobby more often and more effectively. "Democracy would be better off," said Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit group that pushes for government accountability.

Most people -- and, clearly, most charities -- think of lobbyists as corporate frontmen trying to grab taxpayer largesse for themselves. They also consider lobbying kind of dirty, given the criminality of infamous lobbyists such as the now-imprisoned Jack Abramoff.

But lobbyists come in all shapes and sizes, including the charitable sort. Bass's book, which is part of a larger effort called the Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project, or SNAP, is a useful reminder of that.

Bass has been trying to convince charities for years that they should not be afraid to lobby. He and others, including the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, have even devised ways to ease -- or at least simplify -- the limitations now imposed on charities so they can press their causes more aggressively.

That's right, they are lobbying to be allowed to lobby more.

Conservative lawmakers and a few campaign-finance scholars don't like the idea. They worry that, among other things, the ability of charities to keep their donors anonymous could lead to huge and largely untraceable infusions of cash into elections, all under the guise of lobbying.

And please, call it advocacy. Charities don't like to use the "L" word. Only a third of nonprofits polled recently owned up to "lobbying" two or more times a month. But when asked if they "advocate," closer to half admitted to that.

Many nonprofits also are unsure how much lobbying the law permits them to do. Only 72 percent even knew that they could support or oppose federal legislation. (They can, up to a point.)

Bass's biggest problem is convincing charities that they not only can make their case to government, but that they really ought to do so . In effect, he needs to convince his fellow do-gooders that lobbying is not so bad.

"Nonprofit lobbyists have been involved in nearly every major public policy accomplishment in this country -- from civil rights to environmental protection to health care," Bass said in an e-mail. "Tens of thousands of lives have been saved by passing laws that improve car safety and reduce drunk driving."

"In other words, nonprofit lobbying is an honorable tradition," he added, "and not just the ugly Abramoff side" of the profession.


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