Lessons and Tips – Funding Nonpartisan Civic Engagement PDF
"With a coalition we build more relationships and longer relationships. The campaign mentality can be good, but it can exclude a lot of groups whose issues are not in a campaign. Build a strong coalition and the investment is really in strengthening the movement."
- Beldon Grantee
Under the law, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations have considerable leeway to engage in nonpartisan public outreach, education and mobilization – though they cannot engage in supporting specific candidates.
For the most part, environmental advocates were focusing on policy outreach and not taking advantage of election cycles to call attention to their issues and educate policy makers and the public. Beldon concluded that coupling traditional advocacy with nonpartisan civic engagement activities would give the field a better chance to influence public policies.
The foundation helped equip environmental advocates to spotlight their issues with policy makers and conduct nonpartisan publlic and candidate education in key parts of their states. The introduction of sophisticated organizing and communication tactics would also make it possible to sustain an ongoing public conversation on environmental issues.
What We Did
Invested in coordinating vehicles. Beldon supported 501(c)(3) collaborations that brought environmental advocates together with other activist organizations (such as labor, social justice and health) to strengthen and coordinate nonpartisan civic engagement activities. The cross-sector hubs had a particular focus on:
- Registration of historically disenfranchised communities
- Nonpartisan outreach to the public
- Coordinated polling, message development and communications
Facilitated sharing of resources and cost-effective access to more sophisticated tools: The 501(c)(3) vehicles made it possible for state-based groups to have affordable access to key technologies, such as nonpartisan data base that enabled them to conduct more efficient nonpartisan public education.
Built knowledge of permissible advocacy activities: Beldon supported the Alliance for Justice, a national association of advocacy organizations, to provide information and legal guidance on permissible electoral and policy advocacy for 501(c)(3) organizations.
For advocates accustomed to the familiar tools of research and policy analysis, adding a nonpartisan civic engagement component presented a challenge, and it took some time for groups to feel comfortable with this work. But many grantees came to appreciate the value of expanding their toolkit and joining other organizations committed to bringing policy change.
The cross-sector collaborations allowed environmental groups to tap into the skills and experience of allied activists and facilitated cost-effective sharing of sophisticated tools and communications resources. Building a broader power base helped put credibility and clout of advocates. As an added advantage, the multi-issue coalitions were able to attract support from a range of funders with different issue interests.
As a result of this experience, a larger number of environmental advocates have cost-effective access to tools that allow them to connect directly with the public through more strategic nonpartisan outreach. This work, combined with education of candidates and policymakers, is likely to continue after Beldon exits