2020 Scholarly Research Grant Recipient

University of Washington

How, When and Why do Associations Advocate? Association Engagement in the Policy Process

Principal Investigator: Mary Kay Gugerty, PhD, Professor, Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy & Governance

Abstract: National nonprofit associations are a particular kind of professional associations that has proliferated globally in recent decades. These organizations face a distinct management challenges in balancing member recruitment and service with external engagement and advocacy. In spite of their increasing prevalence, we have very little empirical data about how nonprofit associations engage in policy processes and how their distinct structure as membership organizations affects their activities and involvement in advocacy. To what extent do the demands of organizational survival influence the inclination and ability of associations to engage in advocacy? In this project, we take a political economy approach to conceptualize national nonprofit associations as interest groups facing collective action challenges. We examine the mix of private, collective and public goods provided by these organizations and the relationship between the production of goods for members and external engagement in policy advocacy.

National nonprofit associations are membership organizations whose members consist of organizations, rather than individuals. The Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA) defines these associations as being national in scope, independent from government, and by having a mission to serve and advance the interests of the nonprofit sector of that country (AGNA, 2011). National nonprofit associations often function as support or intermediary organizations that provide a range of services to members including: capacity-building and technical assistance; convening and connecting organizations within the non-profit sector and across other sectors; advocating and acting on behalf of sector interests, and mobilizing resources (Brown and Talegaonkar, 2002; Sanyal 2006). 

We argue that national nonprofit associations face unique challenges that may affect the extent to which they can engage in the provision of public goods such as advocacy. Unlike individual organizations, membership associations confront dilemmas of collective action since they must secure sufficient resources and engagement from members to provide the public good of policy advocacy. Advocacy is a collective good that benefits all organizations, regardless of whether they contributed to these activities.

This project proposes to develop a global dataset on national nonprofit associations to examine the characteristics of organizational structure, including membership composition, revenue sources and the types of benefits offered to members. We will then assess how organizational and contextual factors relate to choices association make about membership strategy and membership benefits, and how those choices are in turn associated with provision of public goods such as policy advocacy. The resulting research will strengthen our theories and understanding of organizing for collective action, as well as providing applied lessons for the governance and strategy of membership associations.