Advocacy is a word that seems to strike fear in the hearts of many nonprofit leaders. There is the fear of not understanding what is legal and allowable and the fear of alienating parts of your audience that may not agree with your stance. But when you think about your mission – whatever that mission is – fundamentally, your organization exists to solve a problem you have seen or experienced in your community. And the only way to solve these problems, to change this status quo, is to speak out about the circumstances that are causing that problem to exist. Which, my friends, is what advocacy is.
For the nonprofit that is hesitant to “dip its toe in the waters” of advocacy, I have put together an advocacy primer below. Here you’ll find a basic understanding of what is and isn’t allowable for 501c3 nonprofit organizations engaging in advocacy and some simple ways to start incorporating advocacy into your everyday work.
There is a lot of misunderstanding out there that “nonprofits cannot advocate” – even though this isn’t true. 501c3 nonprofits are given a strict set of rules around lobbying efforts, which specifically relates to circumstances where organizations are attempting to influence specific legislation and legislators votes relating to that legislation. Nonprofit Quarterly offers this great overview of advocacy vs lobbying that can help you understand the nuances of lobbying vs advocacy if you are interested in diving deeper. But for our purposes, and for the purposes of community-based organizations just getting started, I offer this simple rule to guide your advocacy work: stay away from weighing in on specific legislation, and instead focus on calling attention to community issues, organizational policies, and the societal contexts affecting your mission more generally. (This sounds a little abstract – I know. But don’t worry, I’ve got an example coming your way to help make it clear what I mean. Just keep reading!)
This basic definition leaves a whole host of options open for organizations looking to advocate for their cause. An organization can engage in the following:
Let’s look at an example of one of these to give you a better understanding of what is and isn’t allowable and how you can successfully advocate, even without an advocacy-focused employee/department/program.
At an organization I worked at prior to launching Banyan, our mission focused on serving older adults & adults with disabilities in our community. We had a broad reach of what we offered – but generally, we helped these individuals find support & services to help them live healthfully and independently at home.
During my time there, the local transportation authority was looking to find ways to recoup funding and was considering severely cutting back the program that allowed “door to door” transport for individuals with disabilities. The program basically helped individuals get from their home to the regular bus routes and was equipped with special equipment to ensure any individual could ride in these vehicles and navigate their way around the community.
Our organization’s community heard about this potential cut to the routes, and collectively we worked together to contact the transit authority to help them understand the negative impact that removing this service would have on the disability community locally. With this coordinated but varied communication – from different organizations, individuals, and through email, social media and by phone, as well as at a local community hearing – we were successful in helping the transit authority to reconsider cutting this program.
While this wasn’t a long-term solution, as the entity was still in need of additional funding, the coordinated education effort had a significant impact on the organization’s policies and programs, and even more importantly it kept adults with disabilities in our community independent and healthy.
To bring home the point of advocacy vs lobbying, this would have only been unallowable under the 501c3 lobbying rules if we had been coordinating this campaign to call about a specific piece of legislation. I.e., had we been calling our legislators saying “you must vote no on the bill to cut funding to the disability transportation program” – this is where advocacy turns into lobbying and rules for 501c3 nonprofits go into effect.
Now that you better understand what is allowable in terms of advocacy for 501c3 nonprofits, how do you incorporate it into your ongoing mission-oriented work? I have pulled together several options to inject some advocacy into your organization’s day-to-day.
Like with the example of bus routes, this issue was one that would negatively impact exactly those people who our organization exists to serve. These issues will likely come to you in the course of your work, as you are plugged into the services that are out there and the “community contexts” that exist, and you will hear about issues as they arise from your clients, volunteers, and larger audience.
When they do, know that these are the concerns you can help to make a direct impact on. Start by simply having your staff call and email to educate on the issue at hand and offer solutions to the community problem. From there, you can build larger, more coordinated campaigns or communications to involve your audience at large.
Similarly, rather than starting by visiting with your state or national congressperson to educate and build a relationship, find ways to connect with your local government representatives, their staff, and your “natural partners” at various government agencies and local businesses. This may be social workers at hospitals, your health department team, the local fire department, or endless other groups and individuals – these partners are all very dependent on your mission and where you provide value to your community. But building these relationships now will not only help you further your mission (by better understanding what services are out there, and how you can best offer value to complement these services and fill existing gaps), it will position you well to have the connections to reach out to when an issue arises.
Connect with your local news reporters and journalists on social media or via email (their email address is usually on their website). Introduce your organization and educate them on your mission and why you exist. From there, tell them you are happy to offer insight if a story ever overlaps into your field and your expertise is needed. This opens the door to build a relationship with these journalists. And when your organization (or an issue you are trying to call attention to!) is in need of some local publicity, you’ll have a much better chance of getting some “air time” on local media because the reporter/journalist will already know and trust you.
Finally, never forget that your community is just as committed to furthering your mission as you are. Sharing a local advocacy campaign and the direct actions they can take to support your work is a wonderful way to get your larger audience involved. Not only does this make your audience feel that they are doing something to further your cause, they see that your organization is proactive and plugged into your mission locally. AND this is a wonderful way to get people engaged without asking for funding – so for those community members who are not in a position to give, or for past donors who have recently given to your cause, this is an excellent way to get and keep people engaged in your work.
However you incorporate advocacy in your work, remember that by calling attention to the community context or concern you see, you are directly and concretely furthering your mission. If you have questions about advocacy and how it may fit into your work, I’d love to hear from you!
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