Nonprofit Ability to Hold Political Power Accountable

Whereas government imposes regulations, sets budgets, and creates policies that can restrict the activities of nonprofits and hold them accountable to the public, the ongoing development of nonprofits, and the changing nature of their relationship with government, has given rise to more nonprofits playing an active role in holding government accountable, influencing the direction of public policy, and ultimately protecting the nonprofit sector itself. This paper discusses ways that government st


It could be said that the government imposes regulations, sets budgets, and creates policies that can restrict the activities of nonprofits and hold them accountable to the public. In turn, the ongoing development of nonprofits, and the changing nature of their relationship with government, has given rise to more nonprofits playing an active role in holding government accountable, influencing the direction of public policy, and ultimately protecting the nonprofit sector itself.

This paper will discuss the ways that government structure and provisions afford for accountability. It will also discuss the role and importance of nonprofits, such as voluntary associations and "watchdog" groups, in holding government policy, officials and agencies accountable.

Historic Roots

"The genius of republican liberty seems to demand...not only that all power should be derived from the people, but that those entrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people...."

—James Madison, The Federalist, No. 37

"...the concentration of power and the subjection of individuals will increase amongst democratic nations ... in the same proportion as their ignorance."

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Part II, Book IV

Suspicion of uncontrolled political power encroaching on individual freedoms seems to have always been a concern for Americans. For this reason, the founding fathers established different branches of government and delegated power to state and local governments so that no one branch or level of government would have complete and decisive authority. The different branches of government—executive, legislative and judicial—provided "checks and balances" on public policy, agencies and officials.

The Constitution of the United States has a number of provisions related to the need for government accountability to its citizens by requiring it to disclose its activities and by providing means for the removal of federal employees. Article 1, Section 5, of the Constitution requires Congress to "keep a Journal of its Proceedings" and publish it for review. It also requires the President to give "information of the state of the Union." The Constitution also guarantees some level of accountability through the seventeenth amendment by imposing term limits that would ensure no individual or party can gain too much power over time without the approval of voting citizens.

Furthermore, "Open Government" or "Transparency" provisions also provide for accountability to those within government and the wider public. Probably the most important of these is the Freedom of Information Act that requires that some types of government documents be made available to the public upon request. The Act allows anyone to get information and "examine the standards controlling the exercise of public power by these officials" (Vaughn 2002, 1). Additionally, the Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects federal employees who disclose corruption, the Administrative Procedures Act, the Ethics in Government Act, and the Privacy Act all encourage government accountability to its citizens.

Arguably, the most important provision for an accountable government comes from the First Amendment, which deals with the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the right to petition government over grievances. These freedoms ensure citizens and their associations (i.e., nonprofit organizations) the freedom to meet, discuss, and speak out against injustice or misconduct. If citizens cannot speak openly, publish and debate their ideas, and organize themselves into groups according to their own criteria and principles, then they cannot possibly call public officials to account.

Since Colonial times, social reformers have been active in using these freedoms to make government take action or institute programs in areas as diverse as prison reform and the improvement of schools. Movements that started with voluntary organizations like women's suffrage and, later, the Civil Rights movement are examples of a collection of citizens that strengthened the social framework of democracy and challenged the government policies and leaders (O'Neill 1989, 109).

In the 1960s and 1970s, the nature of the relationship between nonprofits and government changed, resulting in the increase of public funding of nonprofits; therefore, there was an increase in government regulation and control. In response, nonprofits engaged in more proactive forms of holding government accountable by becoming actively involved in public policy creation through advocacy, by lobbying and by strengthening social action movements.

Over the last thirty years, the presence of high-level corruption and mismanagement of public dollars by government led to the emergence and tremendous growth of nonprofits across America to serve as "watchdogs" and critics of political power. Nonprofit organizations like The Center for Public Integrity, Public Citizen and Common Cause have made it their business to monitor public activity and report it to their members and to the public. More than ever, federal, state and local governments are the subjects of constant monitoring. By holding government accountable, these "watchdog" groups help build a more representative and purposeful democracy by exposing corruption, mismanagement of funds, and abuses of power.


Nonprofits that work to hold political power accountable can strengthen democracy by giving citizens a variety of opportunities to gain information, build civic skills and assemble their resources for joint action. These nonprofits represent, to government, the values and norms of their members and the public they serve.

Political Scientists view the role of the nonprofit sector in terms of providing avenues of civic participation and representation of interests in the pluralistic, political system of a heterogeneous society. Diverse values and interests are aggregated through associations and represented to the political system through political advocacy and lobbying of the government by many nonprofit groups. (Boris and Steuerle 1998, 17)

Nonprofit organizations have the ability to challenge the current government to change by exposing misconduct and providing alternatives through new policies. However, along with this responsibility comes the potential to abuse the power that nonprofits are given. Nonprofits can use information on government to undermine political parties, and well-funded groups can influence public opinion and have a disproportionate impact on public policy.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Nonprofit organizations and, more specifically, foundations can affect government accountability by trying to influence public policy through demonstrating the effectiveness of alternative approaches to public issues. They may conduct experimental programs, evaluate the results, and communicate these valuable ideas to public authorities.

Key Related Ideas

  • Accountability

  • Advocacy

  • Community organizing: Going through a group process of identifying a shared problem and potential solutions; identifying what is needed to carry out the solutions; enacting the solution; and building a democratically-controlled institution to assist the group in addressing any further problems (Center for Community Change 2003).

  • Freedom of Information Act

  • Lobbying

  • Social action: Persons doing or accomplishing a goal for the welfare of all.

  • Watchdog

  • Whistleblower

Important People Related to the Topic

In 1971, Ralph Nader founded Public Citizen to be the consumers' eyes and ears in Washington, and work for consumer justice, and government and corporate accountability. Nader has confronted hundreds of lobbyists and politicians who attempt to block safety standards, or to deny fair access to court for injured parties.

Saul Alinsky is author of Reveille for Radicals (1946), a book that called upon America's poor to reclaim American democracy. He was the father of what we now know as community organizing. Alinsky's philosophy of organizing is the foundation of many voluntary associations working for social change.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Center for Public Integrity was founded in 1990, and uses investigative reporting and research to release reports on questionable activities in election campaigns, under-regulation, and the decline in privacy. It has a history of a connection to major media outlets. The Center's mission is "to provide the American public with the findings of its investigations and analyses of public service, government accountability and ethics-related issues via books, reports and newsletters" (

Common Cause was founded in 1970 by John Gardner. The organization focuses on grassroots lobbying activities of its members, and reinforces this action with professional lobbying on Capitol Hill. Supported by the dues and contributions of over 250,000 members in every state across the nation, Common Cause represents people who are against corruption in government (see

Project On Government Oversight (POGO), at, is a nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog organization whose mission is to "investigates, exposes, and seeks to remedy systemic abuses of power, mismanagement, and subservience by the federal government to powerful special interests." It attempts to hold government accountable through investigators and journalists who take leads and information from insiders and verify the information through investigations using the Freedom Of Information Act, interviews, and other fact-finding strategies.

Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch and the courts. It fights for openness and democratic accountability in government, and for the rights of consumers. The Public Citizen Web site, at, provides ways for citizens to become involved in consumer advocacy; connections to online health services; information on auto safety, global trade, current Congressional issues, and more.

Related Web Sites

See information on "Related Nonprofit Organizations" above.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Boris, Elizebeth T. and C. Eugene Steuerle. Nonprofits and Government Collaboration and Conflict. Washington DC: The Urban Institute Press, 1998.

Center for Community Change. What is Community Organizing. [cited 1 January 2003]. Available from

O'Neill, Michael W. The Third America. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1989.

Schmuhl, Robert. Government Accountability and External Watchdogs. U.S. Dept. of State, Issues of Democracy. [updated August 2000; cited 30 September 2002]. Available from

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. (Originally published 1835). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. ISBN: 0226805328.

U.S. National Archives & Records Administration. The United States Constitution. [cited 30 September 2002]. Available from

Vaughn, Robert. Transparency—The Mechanisms: Open Government and Accountability. US Dept. of State, Issues of Democracy. [updated August 2000; cited 30 September 2002]. Available from

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.