When you strip everything else away, most nonprofits want to create social change. It can be ending hunger, supporting military veterans, helping underprivileged youth advance, or pushing the limits of medicine to treat and cure diseases. But many nonprofits worry that speaking out for or against local, state, and federal events and debates might politicize their organization.
We get it. The stakes are high:
- Politics are red hot. You don’t want to run afoul of your constituents.
- It might not seem appropriate for your organization, so there can be significant pushback from your board.
- What about your tax-exempt status? Will that be compromised?
We would counter that many legislative policies can directly impact your ability to fundraise. For example, changes to the tax code can limit charitable deductions, and funding and grants require advocacy if you want them to swing in your direction. There are many ways advocacy can help any nonprofit:
- Can you stop a proposal to cut funding from the community you serve?
- Can you highlight a problem that isn’t receiving governmental assistance?
- Can you lobby to stop legislation that would impose fees or regulations on your nonprofit?
From clients focused on advocacy, like Research!America, to clients that circulate online petitions or knock on doors, there’s room for every one of our nonprofit clients to galvanize supporters and share your cause with those in power who can help.
After decades of helping our clients identify opportunities for advocacy, we want to share a how-to guide that will get you started down the path of creating change.
Our plan is pretty easy to remember: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Ask yourself three critical questions:
- What is your mission?
- What would make your mission easier and your goals more attainable?
- Who or what leader can make that possible?
So your mission is feeding the hungry, and a grant from the local government would give you enough money to stock your food pantry, and the county council is the “leader” that can make that possible.
You’re ready for advocacy.
Who in your organization will spearhead this advocacy campaign?
Before any plans are made, figure out who is in charge. This person will spend a lot of time organizing the advocacy efforts, equipping your supporters, monitoring the campaign's progress, and measuring and reporting on the results. This person will initiate partnerships with corporations or local advocacy groups.
The role is not usually held by the executive director. You don’t want to assign the job to someone who would be pulled in other directions easily.
Once you’ve identified the leader, let’s move to the second half of the who. Who are the supporters that will support the effort? Their passion will make the campaign successful as long as they have direction and leadership. There are a few ways to rally your troops:
- Plan an onboarding event, virtual or in person, where you can share your passion for the assignment. Explain what you will ask volunteers to do and tell them the support they can expect. They will need a toolkit and guidelines, but who do they contact if they have questions during the campaign?
- Talk about the messages and the cadence at which they will be sent. Give supporters the whole picture, and then break it into bite-sized chunks.
- Invite ideas, then implement them. You will get amazing ideas from the people who care about the same issue but come at it from a different point of view. Ask, then incorporate the ideas that make sense.
What measurable goal do you want to accomplish?
This isn’t your mission—end hunger—it’s more like a subset of your overall annual fundraising goal. So if, for example, your food pantry goal is to raise $2 million in this fiscal year, your advocacy goal might be to get $50,000 in grants from multiple sources during this 10-week campaign.
Your goal, as we often say, must be SMART. The more specific your goal can be, the better. This goal will keep your campaign focused, attract new supporters, and increase the likelihood of success.
When is the best time for your advocacy? Advocacy has seasons! Legislative and congressional terms are not all the same and can even be a bit convoluted: the Legislature of the State of Texas, operating under the biennial system, convenes its regular sessions at noon on the second Tuesday in January of odd-numbered years. The maximum duration of a regular session is 140 days.
The FDA hears public testimony at certain meetings, and Congress has about two sessions yearly. Even your local governing entities vote on a regular schedule.
When we drill down and talk to smaller nonprofits, we urge them to ask when there will be a vote, or a town hall, or a chance when their voice can be heard.
Once you know when the big event takes place—the vote, the hearing—back up a few months. Determine how long your campaign will be.
As nonprofits consider the length and complexity of their campaign, we offer this advice: be sure that, relative to other efforts, an advocacy campaign is not a major part of your annual activities.
The IRS does not allow 501(c)(3) organizations to spend a substantial part of activities attempting to influence legislation.
While we do have clients whose primary focus is on lobbying and advocacy, those are not the majority of the nonprofits we serve. If you are cycling an annual advocacy campaign in with many other fundraising campaigns, and if your staff is not spending more time on an advocacy campaign than the sum total of all others, you’re probably okay.
The IRS regulations further state that:
Organizations may, however, involve themselves in issues of public policy without the activity being considered as lobbying. For example, organizations may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.
Grassroots advocacy, in which many of our clients engage, is effective. This regulation gives you a great list of how to start your efforts: meetings, fliers, and educational outreach.
There are a few “wheres” to consider. Where will your advocacy efforts be focused? Redistricting can change legislators, so it’s important that you know which office you should target. Not only do you need to identify the office, but the address, the phone number, the email, and the people in the office.
In what city, or cities, do you expect to launch?
Where will your supporters come to get materials or training? Your website can have an advocacy page where supporters can find a toolkit and the information they need.
Why does this advocacy make sense for your nonprofit?
If you are a food bank in a busy metropolitan city, your goal is likely to end hunger in your community. What if the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 was in danger of being repealed? (Editor’s note: it’s not. This is a “for example” only.) The act protects those who donate and distribute food. Your advocating for that piece of legislation makes great sense. (Or would, if it was real.)
It doesn’t make as much sense for you to lobby to keep a T-ball field open.
This question can help keep you true to your mission.
It’s also wise to look at the big, gigantic, overwhelming goal—cure a disease—and make sure that your advocacy win will support that overall goal. Many, many voices working in concert can be quite powerful, so making sure you’re all moving in the same direction will amplify those voices.
This is a biggie. How are you going to launch the advocacy campaign?
Your options, while not endless, are numerous. Phone, email, online campaign? Knocking on doors and getting signatures? Attending a rally? Handing out fliers?
It’s a good idea to check advocacy resources to see what’s trending when you are planning your campaign. As with anything, there is constant change in the field of advocacy, and you can get some great and timely ideas by looking at what’s happening with other successful campaigns.
Don’t sleep on digital advocacy. The good old-fashioned ringing doorbells for signatures works, but recent events have really highlighted how powerful digital media can be. So use it to your advantage, alone or in conjunction with a boots-on-the-ground advocacy campaign.
How can you use digital advocacy to spread the word about your campaign? Your website! Social media, any mobile apps you have, a text-to-support campaign, and email. Digital advocacy lets you get your cause in front of thousands of new supporters!
Here’s a good article on social media tips for nonprofits. The ideas can be used for advocacy campaigns as well.
In general, use any outreach method you can to get visible support for your cause. This can be signatures, likes, shares, donations, or even supporters wearing your t-shirt at a rally.
And finally, lean on technology. CharityEngine offers software built to help nonprofits with advocacy campaigns, so don’t do twice the work in twice the amount of time it would take technology to help you.
What can you expect from advocacy technology? Here are a few things our module does:
- Divides your supporters into groups by location.
- Lets them choose the channels they want to use.
- Prepopulates forms for easy submission.
- Accommodates new redistricting, so your data is up to date.
- Provides accurate information for constituents living near district borders.
- Offers updated information on who holds what offices.
- Gives you templates for phone scripts, emails, petitions, letters, and social media pages that can be widely disseminated.
Everything you need to segment and equip your donors, then measure the effectiveness of your campaign, is available in our advocacy software.
Advocacy is for All Nonprofits
Advocacy strengthens communities. It lets a lot of smaller voices join together to create change.
Politicians and leaders, we believe, want what is best for the people they serve. You, as a nonprofit, have a unique perspective on needs and the solutions that exist—or are missing—to meet those needs. When you use the power of your nonprofit to lobby for a cause, you are using democracy to change the world.