Posts Tagged ‘legislative relations’

Use your cultivation know-how for advocacy

Building a relationship with your elected officials is no different than cultivating a donor. You can’t expect to call them last minute on an important issue affecting your nonprofit and get results…unless you live in his or her district, but I digress.

Our current Page to Practice™ feature of the One-Hour Activist by Christopher Kush is a smart tutorial on making incremental progress on advocacy without detracting from your core responsibilities as an executive director, staff member or board member. Each of the “10 most powerful actions you can take to fight for the issues and candidates you care about” takes no more than an hour but cumulatively add up to a conscientious approach to advocacy for your cause. Kush also provides five “super-sized” actions that take more than an hour but are worth the effort.

Get to know your legislator: One of the most proactive measures you can take in advocacy no matter how involved you decide to be is to develop a relationship with your legislator. You may be wondering what value you can bring to your elected official by meeting with them. The answer is a lot.

Bring two clients: When I asked Kush about what nonprofit leaders can do when preparing for a meeting, he said, “There are always compelling stories related to important issues–it is usually a matter of taking the time to find them and refine them. I always ask nonprofit executives to ‘bring’ two clients with them whenever they come to Washington, DC, or the state Capitol. Nonprofit professionals should be ready to articulate the experiences of their front-line clients (members or constituencies). By the way, people who work for nonprofits often don’t realize they do have personal stories. Jobs are very interesting to elected officials right now, so just working for a local nonprofit can in and of itself be a compelling ‘story.’”

I dug deeper with Kush on this topic with the following question: In Part Five, you discuss the mistakes nonprofits make when meeting with lawmakers. What’s the most common among them? Here’s what Kush had to say:

Don’t overwhelm with aggregate stats on your issue–anecdotal information does more: You are in a pretty good position if you are actually meeting with lawmakers, even if you stumble. The first mistake is to NOT regularly (at least once a year) talk to your federal, state and local lawmakers to let them know whom you are serving and what the local trends are related to your issues. Any service a nonprofit provides is one less service lawmakers might be asked to provide in their local offices. Nonprofits that are nervous about tax status can be mindful about not making any specific legislative requests when communicating with their elected officials. (Don’t discuss any current legislation.) The biggest mistake if you ARE meeting with your legislator is to rely on massive aggregate statistics to make your impact. Almost all elected officials are far more engaged by small numbers–the number of people who are being served locally, the number of local jobs you provide, the names of local board members, etc.–than they are by the bland large numbers we often rely on to impress.

Watch for more Page to Practice interview highlights in our next blog.

See also:

One-Hour Activist Page to Practice feature

Christopher Kush and Soapbox Consulting

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Advocacy: Begin with an approach that fits your nonprofit

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.

See also:

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

The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change

Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits

Level Best: How Small and Grassroots Nonprofits Can Tackle Evaluation and Talk Results



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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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