This article is the second in a series on legislative relations.
Engaging in advocacy is one of the most effective ways for your nonprofit to achieve its mission. By augmenting the services and programs you provide with an active voice for change, you can meet the need while working to affect the systems creating the need. Although it can seem daunting, advocacy programs complement and enhance the work you already accomplish. There is a range of ways for your nonprofit to create change in your community or state.
When deciding which advocacy strategy is the best fit for your organization, consider these three approaches as a starting place:
Voter engagement: Constituents of nonprofit organizations are often underrepresented at the ballot box even though they are directly impacted by changes in safety net programs, education cuts and health care eligibility measures, to name a few. Voter registration is a powerful way to ensure ballot issues and candidates for office reflect the values and vision of your organization. Not only can you increase the power of your voice, but it can be a great way to build relationships with politicians and ballot issue leaders through asking them to speak to your constituents about their platform or issue. Although 501(c)3 organizations cannot endorse or publicly support a candidate for office, you can (and should!) educate your constituents on how candidates’ positions affect your mission. A great resource for involving your nonprofit in voter engagement is Nonprofit VOTE.
Grassroots advocacy: Once your constituents are informed on the issue affecting your mission, encourage them to tell others. Ask them to speak to local businesses, neighbors and others who share in the vision for your community and encourage them to support issues that benefit your organization. Taken one step further, you may want to offer your constituents an email or phone script to call their representatives to express their support or perspective on the issue. Through empowering your members, donors, clients and other constituents to make their voices heard by public officials, you are not only building the strength of your organization but also providing a valuable service to those who feel passionately about your mission. Speaking up as one individual can be intimidating, but speaking as one voice of many is an inspiring experience. Many states have a nonprofit participation project that can serve as your grassroots advocacy resource.
Direct lobbying: The highest level of engagement in nonprofit advocacy (besides running for office– consider it!) involves working with the state or federal government to inform and influence policies. There are some limitations placed on the amount of resources 501(c)3 organizations can dedicate to direct lobbying. The Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest is a great resource. Direct lobbying may involve tracking bills and providing testimony in hearings. A staff member, board member or lobbyist may provide information or perspective on a bill through meetings with representatives or their staff. This is hugely valuable to those who represent us at the capitol, since legislators cannot possibly be fully informed on all the issues they weigh in on. Leaders of nonprofits are oftentimes uniquely informed on how a bill will affect their community. Sharing that insight through a fact sheet, one-on-one meetings or committee testimony can change the course of a conversation or give a bill the boost it needs to be successful.
These three categories are not mutually exclusive. Through the promotion of a voter engagement campaign, you may hear stories from your constituents on how an issue affects them and decide to offer testimony to share those stories with legislators. While tracking the progress of a bill, it may benefit your organization to employ grassroots techniques to show those voting on the bill how those in their district feel. Regardless of how you engage and how often, there are a few basics your organization should have in place before starting to take action:
1. Determine key goals, values and priorities to guide your work. What is the end result you are trying to achieve through engaging in advocacy? Clarifying priorities at the outset will help your board and staff determine which areas to invest the most resources. For instance, a children’s health-related nonprofit may have several areas of policy that directly affect their mission: poverty, education, healthcare policy. To what extent does the organization actively participate in all three? Your nonprofit’s leadership may decide that although bills related
to health in school are important, you prioritize bills that affect primary care.
2. Cultivate partners and build like-minded coalitions. Chances are there are other nonprofits in your community that have similar goals but different priorities. Building partnerships around overlapping issues can benefit all involved. Rather than actively promoting a bill or ballot issue in your constituency, you may offer your support to a partnering organization for which the bill is a top priority. When a priority issue directly affecting your mission surfaces, you can then ask your partners for the same level of support, demonstrating a stronger coalition of support than each organization can offer on its own. Although members of an advocacy coalition may disagree on an issue at times, the benefits of working together most often outweigh the obstacles. And when an issue directly affects many of the members of the coalition, the support and organization of the whole is a boon to the cause.
3. Get ready to communicate. Don’t assume just because you’ve testified at the capitol or registered 2,000 voters that people are aware of your activities. Share your goals, successes and struggles with donors, institutional funders and the media. If possible, include updates and calls to action in newsletters and at staff and board meetings. Let those who support you know why what you’re doing is important. It encourages our communities to value nonprofit engagement in advocacy and most importantly, empowers others to take action.