Advances in Research on Nonprofit Advocacy and Civic Engagement
Nonprofits are collective endeavors that supply a bewildering range of products and services,
including some of value to their immediate members only. Many also advocate policy positions
on issues of direct interest to themselves, their clients and beneficiaries and/or the broader
community. There is substantial variation in their advocacy strategies, the scope of policy goals
they embrace, and the types of individuals they engage in such activities. Consequently, there are
also differences in whether and how nonprofit advocacy activities reduce inequalities, enhance
civic participation, and promote deliberative democracy. This symposium interprets and
theorizes about emerging nonprofit challenges by showcasing research of nonprofit advocacy
and civic engagement scholars. Collectively, the papers demonstrate the vibrancy of the field of
nonprofit civic engagement and advocacy and identify important areas for future research to
capture the complexity of nonprofits as actors guided by both instrumental and normative goals,
serving organizational and social missions, and reducing some types of inequalities but creating
Nonprofit advocacy, advocacy strategies, civic engagement, volunteering, nonprofit fields.
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Nonprofit organizations face new challenges about how to position themselves and articulate
their roles and contributions in the contemporary political economy. For individual nonprofits,
these challenges include meeting renewed demands accountability, navigating continued
dependence on governments and foundations for funds, and responding to greater demands for
services in the wake of the Great Recession. But there are more systemic challenges related to
increasing levels of inequality, persisting structural unemployment and eroding social safety nets,
all of which threaten to fray the social and economic bonds among different sections of society.
While nonprofits certainly can provide the social glue that hold together different societal
segments, they can also fan the flames of confrontation over such topics of abortion,
immigration, or same-sex marriage, as the literatures on “counter movements,” “dark civil
society” and “bonding” versus “bridging” social capital note (Johnson and Prakash, 2007). Nor
is it clear that nonprofits necessarily provide opportunities for all segments to participate in,
contribute to, and benefit created by the activities of the nonprofit sector. These latter factors,
along with variability in the quality and expertise of the sector and the spread of self-interested
nonprofits that take advantage of the trust society reposes in this sector, present unique
challenges for the health, management, and vitality of this sector.
This symposium interprets and theorizes about emerging nonprofit challenges by
showcasing research of nonprofit advocacy and civic engagement scholars. Scholars tend to treat
advocacy and civic engagement as separate topics, one focusing on organizational efforts and the
other on individual activities. However, as several papers in this symposium suggest, sometimes
civic engagement lays the foundation for advocacy.
The lead authors are all junior scholars who were invited to present papers at the 2015
conference on “Advancing the Field(s) of Nonprofit Management: New Structures, New
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Solutions” hosted by the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) at Indiana
University Bloomington. Subsequent to this conference, the guest editors, Grønbjerg and
Prakash, identified a subset of papers for inclusion in the symposium. The papers went through
several rounds of extensive revisions based on the feedback provided by Grønbjerg and Prakash.
Below we describe the key themes and ideas these papers present, and identify important venues
for future research.
Nonprofits are collective endeavors that, in theory at least, are supposed to respond to the twin
failures of the market and government (Kingma, 1997). 1 Arguably, such efforts serve to justify
their favorable tax status. By extension, some scholars view them primarily as the location for
collective action – places where individuals come together to identify shared priorities and
mobilize for communal welfare - and therefore explore how nonprofits confront the attendant
collective action challenges (Johnson and Prakash, 2007). This is crucial because individual
actions, when aggregated, do not always add up to the desired outcome. While nonprofits may
mobilize actions of a large number of individuals, they vary on how they well they are able to
conduct the orchestra and in the quality of melodies these aggregated efforts produce.
In practice, nonprofits supply a bewildering range of products and services, sometimes in
industries populated by governmental and commercial providers. The variety of goods, in turn,
provide opportunities for nonprofits to tap into a several types of revenue sources, ranging from
fees and service charges for private goods, government grants and contracts for public and merit
1 We differentiate nonprofits from Putnam-style self-help groups and the Ostrom-style
community groups that develop rules to use resources in a sustainable manner.
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goods, private donations for merit and collective goods, and membership fees for club goods
(Grønbjerg, 1993; Fisher, Wilsker, and Young, 2011).
For purposes of this symposium, we emphasize a somewhat different set of issues,
namely that in addition to providing specific goods and services, many also advocate policy
positions on issues of direct interest to themselves, their members, clients and beneficiaries,
and/or the broader community (Child and Grønbjerg, 2007). As the articles in the symposium
demonstrate, there is substantial variation in nonprofit advocacy strategies, the scope of policy
goals nonprofits embrace, and the types of individuals they engage in such activities.
Consequently, there are also differences in whether and how nonprofits advocacy activities
reduce inequalities, enhance civic participation, and further deliberative democracy.
Jennifer Dodge’s article, “Crowded Advocacy in the Fracking Controversy,” examines
nonprofit advocacy in the contentious field of shale gas fracking in upstate New York. Dodge
describes the complexity of the advocacy field marked by the prominent presence of economic
interests, most notably gas/oil industry organizations and property owners, as well as a wide
range of other interest groups (environment, justice, health).
She introduces the concept of “crowded advocacy” to capture the density of interest
groups and the extent to which their focus is not primarily on influencing government policies,
but on counteracting and influencing other interest groups that sort themselves into fluid
coalitions. This is an important point because much of the advocacy literature focuses on
governments as the target of advocacy. However, scholars are paying increasing attention to the
role of “private politics” (Baron, 2003) in which advocates target firms to change their practices.
Dodge’s paper looks at environmental advocacy where public and/or community interests clash
with economic interests. What is critical is that economic interests also are represented as
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nonprofit organizations. These organizations are not the typical “counter-movements” (Meyer
and Staggenborg, 1996) or astro-turf (Walker, 2014) organizations established by corporate
interests. Indeed, landowners and other economic interests have an important stake in the
fracking debate and are not necessarily propped up by invisible but powerful commercial
This raises important questions about the usefulness of models of nonprofit advocacy
organizations predicated on the assumption that they are “good” actors because they advocate
liberal causes. As we note subsequently, scholars of nonprofit advocacy need a superior
analytical approach to study nonprofit advocacy that might be motivated by a wide range of
preferences and ideologies (Johnson and Prakash, 2007), and not unduly focus on the
organizations that tend to advocate particular perspectives.
In terms of advocacy strategies, advocacy actors seek to put forward their own
perspectives but sometimes they also actively challenge the perspective of others. They learn
from the arguments of their opponents and subsequently seek to revise their own arguments.
Viewed this way, this sort of interactive advocacy can serve to promote deliberative democracy
although it is crowded and noisy, and the participants are not necessarily trying to find a common
Crowded advocacy poses interesting conceptual challenges for understanding nonprofit
advocacy strategy. How do organizations ensure that their voices are heard? How do they form
coalitions if the field attracts a variety of actors with both overlapping and conflicting interests?
How are coalitions structured? Who is able to shape, may be even control, the agenda and the
substantive content of the deliberations? We believe these are important issues for future research
that this paper raises.
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Why and how does advocacy become crowded? In their paper, “Nonprofit Lobbying
Strategy: Challenging or Championing the Conventional Wisdom?”, Christopher Prentice and
Jeffrey Brudney provide a new perspective to bear on the multi-dimensional aspects of nonprofit
advocacy by tapping into data provided by North Carolina Secretary of State on the population
of lobbying organizations registered in the state. Like any other organization, nonprofits work
with limited resources and can be expected to deploy their resources to address organizational
objectives, and arguably in policy domains where they have the relative advantage.
Consequently, nonprofit scholars tend to study nonprofit lobbying in one policy domain and at
one level of government, the assumption being that nonprofits will focus advocacy resources in
the policy domain that aligns best with their mission and direct it at the level of government
where they expect to have greatest influence.
Prentice and Brudney, however, find that nonprofit advocacy strategies are more
complex, spanning across multiple goals, using both insider and outsider strategies and targeting
multiple levels of government. Furthermore, nonprofits advocacy is motivated by organizational,
self-interests (such as securing government contracts or mitigating the effects of regulatory or tax
policies) along with broader societal interests. As we alluded to previously, these findings
underline the need to develop new models of nonprofit behavior, moving beyond the first-
generation models that emphasized the non-distributional constraint and/or market-state failures,
and assumed that nonprofits tend to pursue liberal objectives (Prakash and Gugerty, 2010).
Indeed, the population of nonprofits is heterogeneous. In part, the sector is a victim of its
own success. The common perception that nonprofits are altruistic actors, combined with low
entry barriers, may attract actors who may neither be motivated to serve the public purpose nor
have the competence to undertake complex tasks. New models of nonprofit behavior should be
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able to describe any type of nonprofit, whether sponsored by liberal interests, commercial
interests or ethnic and religious interests, whether driven by motives of inclusion or exclusion.
The activities of nonprofits not only shape the policy debates, but may also influence who
participates in civic engagement in general and nonprofit advocacy in particular. What skills
and assets might volunteers bring to their civic organization and what motivates participation
given that volunteer actors often incur private costs to do so? The literature recognizes that
because volunteering requires skills, knowledge, and resources, not all individuals are well-
suited to volunteer or likely to be equally in demand by nonprofit organizations. Much of the
work suggests that volunteers tend to come from higher socioeconomic groups (white, middle
class, high income, educated, families with children). However, might some specific nonprofits
attract particular types of volunteers? More generally, to what extent are the demographic
predictors of volunteering endogenous to the type of organization one seeks to volunteer for? Are
marginalized groups more likely to engage with political/advocacy and civic organizations than
with other types of nonprofits organizations?
Rebecca Nesbit’s paper, “Demographic Predictors of Volunteering for Advocacy, Political
and Civic Organizations,” delves into these important questions by drawing on the 2010-2012
Current Population Survey’s annual Volunteering Supplement. She looks at three groups of
particular interest: veterans, foreign born, and minorities. She finds that veterans are drawn to
volunteering for political/advocacy groups, civic organizations, and environmental/animal
organizations. Because the military is a government organization, Nesbit speculates that
veterans developed an interest in politics and civic life through their military service and that
their experiences in military base communities conditioned their interest in civilian communities
after leaving the military.
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For foreign-born individuals, Nesbit finds that they show enthusiasm for volunteering for
immigrant/refugee organizations more than do the native born. She suggests that the role of
identity and the desire to help those with similar backgrounds might motivate foreign born
individuals to volunteer for organizations that help individuals from those locations, particularly
friends and family members. Among racial minorities (Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians) Nesbit
finds that all were less likely than whites to volunteer for civic and environmental organizations
but not for labor unions and immigrant/refugee groups. Regarding political/advocacy groups,
only Hispanics were less likely than whites to volunteer for political parties or advocacy groups.
These findings also raise important questions relevant to Jennifer Dodge’s paper: why are
minorities not volunteering for say environmental organizations since they are often negatively
impacted by environmental hazards – a central tenet of environmental justice (Bullard, 2000), as
demonstrated by the lead contamination of drinking water in Flint? Do racial minority groups
prioritize environmental issues below other pressing social issues? Or, are environmental
organizations branding themselves in ways that appeal to elitist constituencies (Morrison and
Dunlap, 1986; Dolsak and Prakash, 2016)? This has important ramification for the future of
environmental advocacy as America becomes more racially diverse. But there are also
implications for research on understanding how individuals sort themselves into volunteering for
different types of nonprofits or are differentially recruited by diverse organizations.
While Nesbit’s paper outlines how expressive or instrumental interests motivate
individuals to volunteer for specific types of advocacy organizations, in her paper, “Civic
Engagement and Economic Opportunity among Low-income Individuals: Accessing Social
Capital and Human Capital Assets,” Jodi Benenson examines how volunteering in nonprofit
organizations help individuals, specifically, from marginalized communities, in their own
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economic pursuits. How does nonprofit civic engagement influence the abilities of low-income
individuals to accumulate human and social capital that have crucial bearing on their economic
prospects? This is a crucial extension of previous work that explores the consequences of civic
engagement engendered through repeated face-to-face interactions, and how this engagement
generates individualized trust that eventually spills over to generalized trust (Putnam et al.,
1994). Some scholars recognize that civic engagement via volunteering, political involvement,
and philanthropic activities can allow individuals to build connections and develop skills that
may influence participants’ employment and income statuses. However, that work has not
examined the extent to which these individuals are able to effectively deploy these capitals to
further their own economic prospects.
Through detailed semi-structured interviews, Benenson finds that not all civic
engagement experiences with nonprofits provide access to assets that advance economic
opportunity for low-income individuals. What matters for employment prospects is the extent to
which actors can leverage their civic engagement experiences into their human capital assets.
Furthermore, organizational norms, practices, and structures influence by the ways individuals
gain access to and are able to accrue human capital. Benenson’s paper is an important reminder
that by itself, civic engagement will not be able to further economic advancement. The quality of
the civic engagement offered by the organization, the characteristics of the civically engaged
individual and organizational practices jointly have an important bearing on the eventual
However, an important segment of nonprofits that are devoted to helping marginalized
communities are not the bottom-up, volunteer-reliant organizations. Some of them are very large
government “contractors” with complex organizational structures and highly professional, paid
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staff. Dayna Mason and Emily Fiocco’s paper, “Crisis on the Border: Specialized Capacity
Building in Nonprofit Immigration Organizations,” examines how two nonprofit organizations
providing temporary shelters to unaccompanied minors who enter the United States, primarily
from its Southern/Western borders, have positioned themselves in this particular policy field.
The paper offers a novel perspective on how the task environment in which nonprofits
function can transform the relationship between the nonprofit organization and government. In
this policy sphere there are multiple governmental agencies at work and there tend to be a large
number of complex regulations and tasks that nonprofit contractors must accomplish. Thus, the
regulatory complexity makes the task environment hard to negotiate for non-specialized
organizations. This leads to the thinning of the nonprofit market in the policy domain, whereby
only select few nonprofits are able to acquire competencies to meet the demands of the complex
task environment (Brown et al., 2013). Thus, the government unwittingly makes itself dependent
on these select few nonprofit contractors for these policy tasks. More broadly, agency problems
occur not because of strategic actions of the agents (Eisenhardt, 1989), but the political decisions
of the principals who make the task environment excessively complex.
The paper shows that when the task environment is surfeit with funds, nonprofits with a
range of skills are able to flourish by securing governmental contracts. However, when
government reduces its budgetary support for these tasks, nonprofits with specialized skills that
align most closely with the complex environment survive and flourish. The paper therefore raises
important questions about the study of nonprofit-government relationships. For example, what if
nonprofits themselves lobby to make the task environment more demanding? Might this not
create entry barriers for their future competitors and allow them to enjoy economic rents? The
analysis by Dodge and Fiocco can only hint at this process, but it warrants careful consideration.
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Indeed, starting from Stigler (1971), there is a substantial literature that shows how firms
in regulated industries favor stringent regulations because these not only reduce uncertainty, but
serve as entry barriers for other organizations. Further, given the convergence of interests,
regulated firms are in tacit alliance with, sometimes even capture, their regulators. At times this
is reflected in the revolving-door syndrome where government regulators take industry jobs after
leaving government, but that itself reflects underlying alignment of interests. This paper raises
similar questions in the context of the nonprofit sector. Governments or any other entity that
seeks to avail of nonprofits’ services must appreciate that new stipulations or regulations
eventually weaken their bargaining position versus potential nonprofit subcontractors.
Ultimately, this spiral of mutual dependency may come to harm the very constituencies that
governments – and the nonprofits - seek to serve.
This symposium addresses important theoretical and empirical issues in the study of civic
engagement and nonprofit advocacy. In doing so, it contributes to the burgeoning literature on
subjects such as nonprofit advocacy networks (Acosta, 2012; Almog-Bar and Schmid, 2014),
nonprofit advocacy in non-Western settings (Guo & Zhang, 2014), and promises and limits of
advocacy work on social media platforms (Guo & Saxton, 2014).
As the two papers by Nesbit and Benenson demonstrate, nonprofits can address policy
issues, and inequalities in particular, by providing venues for low-income or other marginalized
individuals to be civically engaged and accumulate human and social capital. Nesbit does so by
showing how some types of nonprofits are attractive to individuals with prior collective
endeavors, such as the military, and/or provide a platform for marginalized communities to be
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civically engaged. Benenson does so by examining how low-income individual draw on their
civic experiences in nonprofit organization to accumulate human and social capital.
The three other papers focus more explicitly on the activities that nonprofit organizations
themselves undertake in the policy realm. In some policy fields, the availability of government
contract funding is so extensive and the regulatory environment so complex that government and
their sub-contractors become mutually dependent on one another. These features characterize
most notably military procurement and health care services. However, as Mason and Fiocco
show, they are also present in services to unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. illegally.
These minors, however, do not have the financial resources to pay for any of the services they
receive (as do employers by subsidizing health insurance premiums in the case of health care)
and there are therefore few for-profit providers interested in pursuing the contract market. This
leaves the field of policy making in the intertwined hands of government and the relatively few
nonprofit contractors able to provide the scope and complexity of services required.
Mason’s and Fiocco’s analysis also suggest that nonprofits might benefit from advocacy
undertaken by other groups. While the organizations they study may not have advocated directly
on behalf of the children they serve, they have certainly been able to free ride on the advocacy
efforts of various pro-immigration and human rights organizations. Governments’ attempts to
respond to these concerns has created a policy context in which some types of nonprofits are able
to corner governmental contracts.
The interactions are more complex in the environmental field, as Dodge shows. Here the
focus is not on the amount or form of government funding or subsidies for particular types of
services, but the regulatory regime itself. In the fracking controversy, the focus is particularly on
state and local regulatory action and on the government policy makers who set or revise the
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policies. This particular arena is crowded by the presence powerful lobbying groups representing
particular types of producers and other special economic interests as well as more or less
influential advocacy groups acting on behalf of consumers, local communities, or particular
As Dodge shows, these groups engage in a complex dance with discernable, but shifting
constellations. Members of the dance constellations contest the dance steps (“facts”),
acknowledge or ignore the presence of alternative dance styles (arguments), and seek to include
or exclude other groups from participating in the policy-making dance arena. Prentice and
Brudney show that policy fields become crowded because nonprofits seek to lobby across policy
realms and across levels of government. Thus, it becomes difficult to tease out a straightforward
relationship between nonprofit mission and their advocacy strategies.
Taken together, these papers demonstrate the vibrancy of the field of nonprofit civic
engagement and advocacy. They identify important areas for future research to capture the
complexity of nonprofits as actors guided by both instrumental and normative goals, serving
organizational and social missions, and reducing some types of inequalities but creating new
They also demonstrate the importance of systematic attention to how cross-sector
relations differ across nonprofit fields of activities. As Grønbjerg and Smith (2015) have
proposed, systemic nonprofit field differences exist in the interactions of nonprofits with
government, market and informal sectors. Clearly, as the analyses by Mason and Fiocco and by
Dodge show, nonprofit-government interactions are very different in the fields of human services
and environmental regulations. So are interactions between nonprofits and market sector
organizations in these two fields – virtually absent in the case of services to unaccompanied
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minor children, but multifaceted and complex in environmental regulations. Similarly, the
findings by both Nesbit and Benenson also draw attention to how interactions between
nonprofits and individuals differ across nonprofits fields. These findings advance our
understanding of the field(s) of nonprofit management, but leave many questions unanswered.
We express our profound gratitude to the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at
Indiana University Bloomington for supporting and hosting the Conference on “Advancing
the Field(s) of Nonprofit Management: New Perspectives, New Challenges” in April 2015
where the papers included in this symposium were originally presented. We also thank
members of the Conference Committee—Matthew Baggetta, Leigh Anne Elliott, Kirsten
Grønbjerg (chair), Al Lyons, Jill Nicholson-Crotty, Nicole Rolf, and Joanna Woronkowicz—
for their work in organizing the conference. Finally, we thank the authors of the five papers
selected for the symposium for their efficient and constructive responses to our suggested
revisions to their manuscripts.
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Almog-Bar, M., & Schmid, H. (2014). Advocacy activities of nonprofit human service
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Baron, D. 2003. Private Politics. Journal of Economics & Management Strategy 12(1): 31-66.
Bullard, R. 2000. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Boulder, CO:
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Child, C. and Grønbjerg, K. A. 2007. Nonprofit Advocacy Organizations: Their Characteristics
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Dolsak, N. and Prakash, A. 2016. We Feel Your Pain: Environmentalists, Coal Miners, and
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