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Minnesota Nonprofits Leverage Respective Strengths to Deliver Greater Impact

When an array of Minnesota organizations in the 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(3) nonprofit community began working on good- government issues, they were excited to find many willing allies and partners in the same space.

This wealth of partnerships provided them an opportunity to collaborate to maximize their limited resources, take steps to prevent duplicative efforts, and provide a space to share their expertise – resulting in lasting relationships that have since created an effective and robust advocacy community. Illustrated below is what organizations in Minnesota learned in their years of collaborative advocacy.

The organizations prioritize the following four concepts:

Know when to work together. The experiences of four nonprofits offer lessons for the challenges that arise when coalition partners work across varying tax-exempt statuses. Take Action Minnesota (a 501(c)(4)), State Voices/Minnesota Voices (a 501(c)(3)), ISAIAH Minnesota (a 501(c)(3)), and COPAL (a 501(c)(3)) each has their own unique mission but share a common agenda when it comes to advocating for good government. These groups and others work together in coalitions when an issue arises, and often pursue joint campaigns to accomplish their goals – such as launching a nonpartisan voter engagement project, securing mandatory paid sick days in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and working to expand access to health care for residents in the state.

Have a shared understanding of the rules. Working in coalition naturally produces challenges, which these groups have learned to overcome. One particular challenge is the issue surrounding the different rules regarding the types of advocacy that 501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(4)s can engage in, given the frequent uncertainty about which activities are permissible under their 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(3) status. The aforementioned groups hit on a simple solution, agreeing the coalition’s members would be best served by having the same legal counsel. This way, the four groups do not have to navigate conflicting legal advice in their joint advocacy – a common issue that can stall advocacy projects.

Invest in accountability. Progressive organizations in Minnesota found that Republican lawmakers would often decline to meet with the 501(c)(3)s due to the electoral work of 501(c)(4) coalition partners. While the 501(c)(3)s could not say they would hold these legislators accountable at the ballot box, their 501(c)(4) partners could – and did. However, as the 501(c)(3) s often received significantly more funding than the 501(c)(4)s, the accountability work of the 501(c)(4)s was frequently underfunded, limiting its effectiveness. Groups believed an important solution would be for funders to invest more in 501(c)(4)s, which have the added clout of holding lawmakers accountable.

Invest in and support your partners and your community. Organizations in Minnesota recognized that there was a need for leadership and financial stability among newer and smaller nonprofits. One group, Take Action, is now serving as a fiscal sponsor for two organizations that are just starting up – allowing them to focus on building their organizational strength and institutional systems. Another established organization, State Voices/Minnesota Voices, runs a fellowship program that helps build skills and leadership in service-provider and partner organizations, including COPAL, New American Development Center, and Every Child Matters, among others. Furthermore, these nonprofits make extensive use of digital and social media technology to stay in constant touch with remote partners.

The nonprofits pointed to patience and wisdom as some of the most valuable lessons they’ve learned as they grow their community in the state. They say it’s important to recognize that, especially with new groups and new leaders, mistakes will be made as advocates learn, grow, and better understand how they can be effective. Funder support is especially important to demonstrate long-term commitment to these nonprofit organizations over the long term, and ensure a path to nonprofit success.