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You’d Think the US’ 4th Largest Industry Would Have More Clout

I’ve had the good fortune to participate in a variety of state and national gatherings focused on the future of the arts, arts advocacy, and non-profit advocacy since May. This week, I attended a Nonprofit Advocacy Policy Roundtable organized by the Nonprofit Listening Post Project based at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Civil Society Studies. If you aren’t familiar with the Listening Post’s work, it is worth checking out. I’m particularly impressed by the data and analysis they provide in their three advocacy communiquĂ©s. These (numbers 9, 13, and 18) formed the starting point for the all day conversation.

Being immersed with non-profit agency, coalition, and funding leaders from across all sectors helped me see that arts and culture advocates are basically in the same position as their colleagues in other sectors when it comes to advocacy – only worse. Facts from the Listening Post reinforce this experience. Arts organizations under participate in advocacy with only 59% of theaters and 46% of museums claiming to advocate or lobby compared to 89% for elderly service and 80% for children and family service non-profits. All non-profits primarily focus their advocacy on funding for their organization’s programs, less on policy issues of relevance to the people they serve, and all are basically absent from policy conversations about the larger governmental and regulatory structure that surrounds us.

The vast majority of non-profits’ absence from policy discussions about what structures define the world we operate in was evident in the Creative Rights and Artists discussions last week on Arts Journal. What I’ve missed in the forum is a mention that this is endemic to non-profits across sectors.

At the Advocacy Policy Roundtable, we attempted to unearth factors that contribute to this state of affairs. The one that is most fascinating to me is related to how non-profits seem to downplay their inherent private/pubic nature. Government as a social concept has taken a beating over the past 30 years and is no longer viewed as a source of solutions nor quality services. Yet non-profits are providers of services handled by government in other countries. Because of the non-profit tax status, receipt of government dollars and common use of government facilities, non-profits’ success is inextricably bound to the success of government at all levels.

Instead of clearly defining to the public and policy makers that we are partners in creating and serving the common good (does anyone even know what this is anymore?) we spend our time fighting to retain what we have and avoid becoming responsible for more than we are already doing. We aren’t functioning with a big picture perspective that could result in substantial change if we orient ourselves to the task. Instead, we seem to believe we can’t make a difference on such a scale and shouldn’t even try. We are passive on the most substantial issues like the majority of the population.

I learned at the Roundtable that the non-profit sector in whole is the fourth largest industry in the U.S. economy, I think by employment but I don’t remember if this is the exact measure. We’re bigger than the lobbying powerhouses of banking and construction. But we don’t operate with the same commitment to advocacy or lobbying as these other sectors. We limit ourselves through a belief in lack of resources. The Listening Post found that the two greatest reasons organizations site as inhibitors to advocating is lack of staff time and training. Yet, as organizations grow they don’t prioritize advocacy enough to overcome this barrier. In fact, 85% of large organizations site lack of staff time while 72% of medium and 65% of small organizations give this same answer.

People do what they want, what they like, and what they know. Advocating for more than their organization or program is clearly not what leaders of non-profits are doing. This is entirely by choice. If non-profit leaders begin to recognize that because of the goodwill and trust people have for non-profits, they can positively affect policy and governmental functioning that will in fact advance their own work and success. It just takes making it a priority and slowly building it into the character and culture of an organization.

If people with enough generosity of spirit to dedicate themselves to a career in the non-profit world don’t expand their efforts to include advocating for the greater good then I’m not sure who will. And arts organizations seem to me the best to start this effort since they are community gathering points already.

Update: The staff at the Listening Post has just confirmed that their research shows the non-profit sector is the 4th largest employer in the United States.


  1. Umm…my office was in stitches over the “inherent private/pubic nature” of the arts, mentioned in paragraph 4. I mean, there are certainly SOME types of art that are inherently pubic, and a great many government agencies that have a private/pubic nature, but when that sort of thing gets out in pubLic (recently the MMS and the RNC), it generally doesn’t end well for anyone. 🙂

  2. As someone who works as an Arts Advocate, this is a fascinating post.
    Many very good points.

  3. John B. – I believe the sentence you refer to is, “…non-profits seem to downplay their inherent private/pubic nature.” You seem to have mistaken my reference to non-profits as a reference to the arts. Non-profit arts organizations do fall within this category. However, I agree with you that the art forms themselves are not inherintly fixed to the organizational structures of non-profits nor government.

  4. Mr. Smith,
    Excellent article.
    I would add, though, that some arts advocacy leaders sometimes play an equal role in making it unappealing for nonprofit arts groups, not to mention individuals, to get involved. That there tends to be a clubby atmosphere, an aura of the exclusionary, a wish to gatekeep, a fetish for jargon, a remove from the day-to-day existence of artists and their priorities, must not be discounted from your thesis. If fewer nonprofit arts groups are as involved in advocacy as you would like, is it possible, is it conceivable that the tolerance for new ideas, the welcoming of new blood and new thinking, is too low within the ranks of arts advocates and leaders themselves?
    Ask yourself whether some arts advocates are ever as guilty of the same impulse, the same behavior, as those you affix to arts groups. Do they ever fight to retain what they have? Do they “avoid becoming responsible for more” than they are already doing? If your answer is anything but “no,” shouldn’t this be a part of your discussion?
    I do not see the sense of hopelessness, the vast malaise about a lack of resources, as the overwhelming reason why arts groups are less than ideally active in the cause of advocacy for the arts. You are correct, of course, that it is a problem and should be addressed. I am simply suggesting that arts advocates should think twice before casting blame. They should also look within — analyzing to what degree they themselves provide and guarantee adequate access to the issues, to the imperatives, to the process of making decisions and policy.
    Leonard Jacobs
    Editor, The Clyde Fitch Report
    The nexus of arts and politics.

  5. Awesome article, but just curious, what is your main field of expertise? Do you write part time, or are you a professional in your field? I wouldn’t mind reading an About Us section or something to describe what you do so I can better understand your point of view.

  6. Thanks for your note Chris. Here at Arts Journal we have short bios on the upper right hand side of our blog main page but not on the individual blog posts. Click on the “Dog Days” title and you’ll find it in the middle column.

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