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501(c)(4) Resources in Advocacy Ecosystems [AEA 2019 Session Materials]

Shedding Light on 501(c)(4) strategies: Evaluating the role and influence of 501(c)(4) organizations

Presenters: Kat Athanasiades, Center for Evaluation Innovation; Gigi Barsoum, Barsoum Policy Consulting; Johanna Morariu, Innovation Network; and Jared Raynor, TCC Group.

What’s innovative? We’re making progress in understanding and evaluating the complimentary resources employed by social change organizations.

Nonprofit organizations in the US—those with an IRS 501(c)(3) designation—have many advocacy tactics at their disposal, but there are certain forms of lobbying and electoral work that they cannot do. 501(c)(4) organizations, on the other hand, do not have these same restrictions. Foundations are taking notice, and are starting to ask about the contribution their dollars are making when directed towards a 501(c)(4) effort in coordination with, or instead of, a 501(c)(3) strategy. Publicly available evaluations of 501(c)(4) efforts are hard to come by, and the advocacy evaluation field is underdeveloped in this area in terms of philosophy, approach, and tools. In this panel, we will begin to pull back the curtain on what evaluating 501(c)(4) initiatives looks like in practice, and where we need to focus in the future to give funders and nonprofits the evaluative information they need to achieve better, faster results.

The Case for Evaluating 501(c)(4) Strategies | Kat Athanasiades

We live in unique times, an era in which the status quo no longer exists and new political and social norms have yet to take hold. Advocacy evaluators need to reckon with this murkiness and what these “post-normal” times mean for our clients. Otherwise, we will find ourselves unable to speak meaningfully to the progress and setbacks our clients experience. For example, our theories of how policy change occurs need to account for the 501(c)(4) strategies that make up an increasing part of the advocacy landscape. Kat Athanasiades from the Center for Evaluation Innovation will open the session with remarks on the evolving needs of our field and why evaluating 501(c)(4) funding is a step toward generating better insights during these post-normal times. She will describe how evaluating this work is different through the lens of an ongoing project with a client who uses a coordinated 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) strategy.

Characteristics of 501(c)(4) Organizations: What Our Research Says | Gigi Barsoum

501(c)(4) organizations are social welfare organizations that may pursue educational, lobbying and some limited political activities. The combination of both issue-based advocacy and ability to engage in the political process makes them potent in shaping policy outcomes. Our research investigated five case studies in which progressive funders and donors supported issue and candidate election campaigns. We found 501(c)(4) grassroots organizing organizations: (1) Function as important and unique political actors; (2) Leverage electoral and advocacy wins for on-going accountability, governing and advocacy work; (3) Build political power by harnessing electoral and advocacy wins; (4) Shared a certain set of characteristics and capacities that defined them as effective and high functioning.

501(c)(4) Resources in Advocacy Ecosystems | Johanna Morariu

501(c)(4) organizations contribute a unique role and skillset to advocacy efforts, including the ability to be engaged in political or electoral processes beyond the reach of 501(c)(3) organizations. 501(c)(4) resources may be located close to the heart of decisionmaking or distributed throughout an advocacy ecosystem. Ownership and control of 501(c)(4) resources may be centered with communities affected by the issue or policy at hand or may be perceived to be controlled by other interests. Case examples of 501(c)(4) organizations and these characteristics in an advocacy ecosystem will be explored and discussed as well as related evaluation considerations.