In session: Advocacy for the nonprofit leader

This article is the first of a series on advocacy.

As many state legislatures are about to convene or already have for 2012, it’s a good reminder for those of us who work in the social sector to roll up our advocacy sleeves and engage in the process. My friends at The Bell Policy Center tell me working at this level upstream can save an inordinate amount of time and resources downstream at the direct service level.

For example, The Center worked with a broad coalition of 40 nonprofits to enact a payday lending law in 2010 and preserve it in 2011. These nonprofits provided critical support by enlisting the testimony of their clients who use payday loans. Thanks to the successful collective efforts of this coalition and The Center, they estimate that payday borrowers will save more than $52 million annually in loan charges, which will have a lasting effect on the low-income people served by this coalition and will reduce the demand for services.

Nonprofit organizations are responsible for substantial economic and social impact. Of the 2 million+ organizations in the world, 1.5 million are in the U.S. alone. It’s imperative we observe best practices when participating in advocacy and demonstrate exemplary leadership in this arena.

The following is an excerpt from the Principles & Practices for Nonprofit Excellence in Colorado, published by the Colorado Nonprofit Association, which focuses on advocacy, public policy and civic engagement — a useful reference for your own statewide advocacy endeavors.


Advocacy is the active support of an idea or a cause. A nonprofit should advocate on behalf of its constituency, organization and the nonprofit sector as a whole in order to advance the mission of the organization. Involvement in advocacy, public policy and civic engagement will vary in sophistication dependent upon an organization’s mission and strategic direction. Nonprofits should encourage broad community participation in these efforts and, in the process, provide appropriate assistance when needed. These practices pertain only to nonpartisan public policy issues.

When a nonprofit advocates for or against specific pending legislation or ballot issues, federal and state lobbying rules apply. Lobbying activities are permitted but a nonprofit must not violate the prohibition on endorsing a candidate or elected official and must stay within regulatory limits on activities that meet the definition of lobbying. By knowing and observing these rules, nonprofits may legally include lobbying activities directed at specific legislation or ballot issues in their advocacy efforts.

Practices for advocacy and engagement

1.       Proactive approach – A nonprofit should proactively develop specific strategies to address key issues facing the organization, its constituency, and the charitable sector and should include its stakeholders in those efforts.

2.       Stakeholders as advocates – A nonprofit should encourage board members, staff, volunteers, and constituents to act as advocates and ambassadors for the organization and the entire charitable nonprofit sector.

3.       Inform stakeholders – A nonprofit should ensure that individuals who act as advocates and ambassadors for their organizations are knowledgeable about the programs and activities of the organization and prepared to speak on its behalf when appropriate.

4.       Communications – A nonprofit should ensure that information provided about or emanating from their organizations is timely and accurate and that the social and political context of the information is clear. Information provided by the organization to the general public, the media, and policy makers becomes a matter of public record and these activities may be subject to lobbying limitations and political campaign prohibitions.

5.       Public policy and advocacy plans – If engaged in public policy and/or advocacy activities, a nonprofit should adopt a written policy that clarifies the scope of the work, as well as the time and resources to be allocated to those activities, including clear guidelines that explain and adhere to the limits on lobbying activity and prohibit political campaign activity.

6.       Relationship building – A nonprofit should build relationships with elected officials, community leaders, and other nonprofits in order to strengthen its ability to affect community change and impact public policy. However, these relationships should be carefully scrutinized to ensure there is no express or implied endorsement of a candidate for public office or attempt to influence legislation outside the permissible limit.

7.       Education – A nonprofit should provide board, staff, stakeholders, and the public with nonpartisan resources and training on issues important to it or its constituencies.

8.       Public forums – A nonprofit organization whose constituencies are affected by government actions should conduct public forums for nonpartisan discussions or provide venues for constituents to express concern about the effects of various policy choices.

9.       Nonpartisan activities – A nonprofit engaged in promoting public participation in federal, state and local policy must ensure that the activities of the organization are educational in nature or within permissible lobbying limitations (IRC 501(c)(3) and 501(h); 990).

10.   Promote civic engagement – A nonprofit should encourage citizen participation in local, state and federal policy-making efforts amongst its stakeholders.

In one of the Page to Practice™ book summaries I’ve recommended below, Do More Than Give: Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World, the authors argue that today’s growing complex issues require a new donor asset they call adaptive leadership. What’s more, the author’s research revealed these new adaptive donors embrace their recipients as equals, so they can advance real systemwide change. Catalytic donors have the opportunity to exemplify adaptive leadership because they have something to give beyond financial support. Political clout, community contacts and business savvy are among them. It’s up to you to diversify how your donors participate with your organization.

As you reflect on these 10 practices above, notice how many involve the engagement of the catalytic donor. Whom among your immediate nonprofit community could be tapped for their influence or connections related to advocacy? It’s time to take a page out of Do More Than Give and create partnerships with donors who can help you influence and accelerate your goals. Public policy might be a great place to start.

See also:

One-Hour Activist

Social Change Any Time Everywhere

Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World

Special thanks to the Colorado Nonprofit Association for its permission to excerpt Principles & Practices for Nonprofit Excellence in Colorado.

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