Nonprofit Advocacy: What it is and How it Works
Learn how to amplify the voice of your nonprofit to bring changes that matter.
Don’t you love it when your nonprofit’s supporters are passionate about your mission? They’re donating, attending events, reading your newsletters, and talking to their friends about how important it is that something changes in favor of the issues you all care about.
But how much can one nonprofit do?
Wanting to change a policy is one of the most impactful ways you can move the needle of your mission. And harnessing and amplifying your donors’ voices can be an excellent strategy.
Enter nonprofit advocacy. Your nonprofit is fighting for something, and you are going to use your supporters to advocate for change. Sounds simple, right?
Theoretically, it’s easy. But practically speaking, it takes effort (to educate and empower your advocates) and opportunity (easy ways they can get involved).
Connecting your supporters to elected officials, corporations, and news outlets to educate the public and create a rise in public support for your mission (no matter how noble your mission is) isn't as easy as it sounds. You need technology to develop and manage an organized campaign to bring awareness and have your advocates' messages heard.
At CharityEngine, we’ve worked with clients to launch action alert campaigns since 2008. Over the years, the solutions and tools we offer have evolved based on best practices and innovation within the nonprofit technology space. While we can’t promise a seismic shift in the policy you’re focused on, we can offer your supporters easy ways to let their voice(s) be heard and to help amplify those voices through technology.
Ready? We’re going to:
- Explain what nonprofit advocacy is
- Show you advocacy in action
- Talk about why advocacy matters
- Outline the best tools to use when you’re ready to plan
After reading this article, you’ll have a solid outline of how to get your own advocacy campaign started.
What is Nonprofit Advocacy?
It’s using the voice and power of your nonprofit’s organized efforts to effect change that furthers your mission. Advocacy is a grassroots, person-to-person collection of support that targets decision-makers and uses tools to lobby on behalf of your platform.
Have you ever circulated a survey or a petition? Then you’ve used advocacy tools to your benefit. It’s all about gathering like-minded people—donors and supporters!—and using your collective voice to send an effective and strategic message to a group.
Advocacy works. Public policy is a powerful framework that can change the world, in ways large and small, for the greater good. There are many examples of groups that, while you may disagree with their mission, have effectively promoted change in their favor. This is proof of the power of a collective voice.
Advocacy in Action
What does advocacy look like? Here are a few examples.
- Circulating a petition against a development that means loss of green space
- Organizing a panel of medical experts to lobby for FDA approval of a treatment drug
- Pressuring the board of education to address mental health in middle schools
My mother repeatedly called and wrote letters to our local officials to complain about people speeding through our neighborhood. Her repeated efforts helped to force the issue so that eventually speed bumps were installed...that’s advocacy.
It was easy for my mom to find our mayor, but how do your advocates know who the right decision-makers are? A lot of people know some politicians, but quite frequently, people don’t know who their representatives are or how to contact them.
So, how does a nonprofit get its supporters in front of the right people, in an organized effort, to catch the attention of those who can make decisions?
It’s no surprise that technology is the most efficient, effective answer. For example, it's not easy to just email or call a legislator. Constituents need to go to the appropriate website and prove they are in the district and eligible to contact the legislator.
That's a headache!
Most advocacy tools offer a feature called zip-to-district matching. Your supporters enter their zip code and are instantly linked to the correct elected officials to contact. Using a robust advocacy tool will also be accurate, as most systems follow the rules regulated and enforced by the Sargent at Arms at the Capitol and in every state legislature.
Once your supporters know who to contact, your nonprofit will want to provide them with helpful messaging to ensure the important details of the issue are continually reinforced by the supporters.
When you have an army of people with consistent messaging applying pressure on elected officials, it will give the impression that the general public agrees or disagrees with measures that will inevitably affect lives. It’s up to the elected officials to act, and the more vocal and widespread your advocacy campaign, the more of a chance you’ll create change.
One of our clients is an impressive healthcare research nonprofit that amalgamates member organizations from the medical, health, and scientific fields. The client uses tools in our software to automate notifications to supporters, to launch action alerts to send emails, direct posts on social media, make phone calls, and use petitions and surveys. Take a look at your system and make sure these advocacy tools are available for your next campaign.
Many nonprofit associations also have separate foundations that differentiate between their fundraising and lobbying efforts. An all-in-one CRM provides technology to support the fundraising as well as separate engagement campaigns, including grassroots advocacy action alert campaigns.
Why Advocacy Matters
All nonprofits strive to find more ways to engage their supporters and offer opportunities for advocates to show their support. It’s age-old nonprofit stress: you need more supporters, and you need more opportunities for your current supporters to get involved.
Some of the most successful fundraising programs involve lifelong, ongoing support from donors. Many of these sustainers started by buying into the philosophical mission of an organization rather than with a donation. These casual and sideline supporters are the ones that come to an event as a “plus one” or volunteer to help at a community drive or event. Recognize that support for what it is—donations of time and effort—and nurture them accordingly. Use your year-end giving campaign to highlight the good you do to increase the need for your work.
Advocacy offers another easy way supporters can get involved without involving their wallets. You can:
- Use small advocacy efforts as a way to get casual supporters involved
- Ask for advocacy outreach rather than money from regular supporters
No matter how you position it, and to whom, advocacy is a critical and cost-free way for your supporters to jump in and have a tangible effect on your nonprofit and its mission.
Remember that if you’re not measuring your success, it’s hard to find ways to improve upon it. And as we’ve discussed, it’s not always about dollars; advocates showing their support through time and talent can be measured as easily as dollars can be, and this engagement can help you gauge the health of your donor base. Using software with an advocacy module is the best idea, but any good CRM will let you track engagement and results.
The Best Advocacy Tools
You’ve got your supporters engaged and you’re ready to launch them. How can you help amplify their message and let their voices best be heard? Give them some options to get involved in a variety of ways so it’s easier for them to participate.
And, if you’re just starting with advocacy, pick one outreach method (like signing a petition) and give it a try.
If you are ready to look for technology to help your efforts, this essential guide to advocacy software might help by showing you some top options:
- Email is one of the most popular outreach methods because it’s easy. You give your advocates a branded template and suggested language. They have the tools to know who to contact, and many emails can easily be sent quickly. As an organization, you can decide if the language will be editable by your supporters, or even if it can be edited by some supporters and not others.
- Phone calls work well for advocacy because most people will hear you out over the phone. It may take a while to get the right person on the line, but even leaving messages means you’re still communicating your message. It's important that your callers have a script with clear messaging so the legislator's office pays attention.
- Printed letters got a bit stale once everyone was living e-lives (and i-lives!), but they have made a little bit of a comeback once mailboxes got less crowded. Getting a letter into the office of the person you’re trying to reach is a win. And if you ask your advocates to call, email, and send letters, that’s a three-pronged campaign that is likely to get some response.
- Social media posts on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are remarkable in their ability to influence opinion and gather a rising tide of support. Tagging officials and directing comments at them online can get their attention and give your advocates a chance to drum up additional support from people they don’t even know. Supporters can also comment directly on the legislator's Facebook page or Twitter feed, increasing visibility of the comment and potentially inviting commentary.
- Petitions and surveys are sometimes lumped together, but these are little gems because they can be online or in-person. If you have donors in small communities where everyone knows everyone, these are great advocacy tools to consider. If you have advocates with a broader audience, many software options exist to create and disseminate online petitions and surveys.
Not only can you then pass the names and results on to elected or decision-making officials, but you can use the data in your own internal plans and for marketing purposes.
Most advocacy is centered around laws, regulations, and current events. Not every issue is in the news or up for legal changes all the time, and most state-level legislatures only convene for a portion of the year. Frequently, organizations will use petitions and surveys to keep their members and supporters engaged, so your group can keep year-round attention on your mission.
- Share your story! Testimonials are effective because they tug on your heartstrings and bring the mission home. I have a friend who runs a nonprofit advocating for FDA approval of drugs that can help her son. When doctors and scientists testify and tell the story of her little boy, all ears are tuned in. Policy is less about rules and more about humanity and heart when faces and stories are attached.
Shared stories and testimonials are a great way to drive the passionate argument behind logic and ethics. But it's important to note that, for security purposes, all messages to legislators are sent in plain text (no files or attachments). You must draft your testimonials in writing when sending them to an elected official.
If you want to encourage your advocates to record a video for the shared story campaign, it's a great way to let your advocates' voices literally be heard. It can also help promote your cause on your website and build an internal support community.
Try asking your advocates to record a video that you can periodically change/rotate on your website, as well as to draft a written story or testimonial to be sent in a campaign.
Regardless of how your advocates reach out, you’ll want to recognize their efforts and thank them, as well as keep them apprised of any results or consequences of their actions.
Nonprofit Advocacy Changes Lives
All nonprofits want to change the world, but nonprofit advocacy changes lives. The right plan, whether technology-enhanced or not, can help you arm your advocates with the means to get their message(s) to the right person. While I am always going to tell you that our all-in-one nonprofit CRM is the answer to your success, I can also tell you that there are other advocacy tools out there—they just lack the well-rounded, 360* view of who their supporters are.
Find ways to guide your causal and sideline supporters (volunteers, event attendees) to become advocates and guide your advocates into becoming donors and lifelong supporters of your mission.
Build an advocacy plan that takes into account the demographics of your donors, as well as their personalities. You can develop different outreach efforts that happen at the same time to load the message, or you can commit to smaller, more regular efforts.
Now that you’ve got some ideas, go ahead and start changing lives. If you need help, we’ve got your back.