Giving Compass' Take:

• Bill Shores, founder of Share Our Strength, explores why nonprofits should get political, sharing five lessons on political engagement.

• What are the potential risks for nonprofits to utilize both private and public resources for social good? 

• Here are five questions designed to improve nonprofits' advocacy work. 

America’s poorest children gained more access to nutritious food over the past 12 months than in the previous 20 years combined. Recent achievements include the California legislature passing a budget that provides grants for schools to serve breakfast during the regular school day so that more kids can eat; Oregon’s governor signing a bill to add half a million kids to school meals programs, with the state of Maine following suit; and the House of Representatives adopting a measure to increase spending on summer electronic benefit transfer (EBT), which provides monthly funds to low-income families to purchase food.

The reason for these wins? Robust nonprofit political activity—by a broad coalition of nonprofits—at the federal, state, and local levels. The lesson? Nonprofits need to do much more of exactly what most of them don’t think they can or should do: influence public policy and its execution.

One of the great myths about nonprofit organizations is that they can’t and shouldn’t get political. Conventional wisdom holds that a nonprofit’s role is to manage private efforts to fill the gaps where government or the economy has failed—to provide food, housing, and health care; promote the arts; and protect the environment, all with private rather than public resources. It is an impossible and self-defeating notion. In fact, many successful nonprofits have proved that avoiding partisanship but embracing political activity to the full extent allowed by law (which is considerable) can bring about profound change.

There are many things nonprofits can do that government can’t.

When I first started the anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength in 1984, I was working on Capitol Hill for US Senator Gary Hart, who was about to launch his second campaign for the presidency. I didn’t want anyone to think we were doing anything at Share Our Strength that might inappropriately benefit his campaign. I also didn’t want Hart’s political opponents to be our opponents, so we walled off our organization from any political activity. We focused on being a non-partisan and non-political grantmaker to other local, anti-hunger organizations.

This year, we had a role in creating the agenda for the National Governors Association’s annual meetings, and political engagement is a driving factor behind our impact. Five lessons have emerged over the course of that time.

  1. Getting political is often about educating, not necessarily lobbying or campaigning.
  2. Nonprofits need to build their internal political capacity. 
  3. Building capacity sometimes means buying it.
  4. Political success requires that nonprofits take the long view. 
  5. Nonprofits are not alone.   


Nonprofit political activity is good for nonprofits, good for politics, and good for the people that both aim to serve. Nonprofits benefit by seeing their programs and services achieve greater scale and reach more people in need, in ways that only politics and public policy can guarantee.

Political institutions in a democracy like ours always grow stronger when more sectors and more individuals participate. And the people whose lives and livelihoods are impacted by both nonprofits and politics benefit when each aligns with and leverages the assets of the other.

Read the full article about why nonprofits should get political by Bill Shore at Stanford Social Innovation Review.