Nonprofits are often told they need to do more with less. This isn’t going to be one of those tropes; in fact, my goal is for you to see that you are already doing advocacy work, whether you call it that or not. Nonprofits, by their very existence, are trying to make the world a better place, a true form of advocacy. (A little later, we’ll get to the “L” word, you know, the really scary one: Lobbying.)
Let’s reframe the things you already know and are doing in support of your cause and see how taking them a step further can only be of benefit.
- You have expertise and decision makers need to hear from you.
- Advocacy is actually part of meeting your mission.
- It’s all about the relationships.
- You’re part of a bigger picture.
- Yes, lobbying is legal!
1. You have expertise and decision makers need to hear from you.
Being on the front lines of community-based organizations, you have information and experience that the general public doesn’t have. Whether you’re providing food or shelter to the homeless, mental health services, or assisting school children in meaningful, safe after-school activities, you know our “systems” here in the U.S. You know what works, and just as importantly, what doesn’t work. Elected officials at all levels of government need to hear from you on what barriers still exist out there for the people that you serve. No one else is going to do it for you, but you don’t have to do it alone (see #3).
2. Advocacy is actually part of meeting your mission.
It’s not enough to just deliver services. In nonprofit work, you can actually see the roadblocks that get in the way of success for people. It is imperative that you use that knowledge and perspective, along with real-life examples that you have from your work, to try and change the systems that limit opportunity. If not, you miss out on the chance to really bring your mission home. Our governmental and organizational rules about how people, or even which people, get public services are under constant review. Bring your good ideas to the table—someone’s life just may depend on it.
3. It’s all about the relationships.
You’re a people-person! If you weren’t, you likely wouldn’t be working in a nonprofit. You have special skills that help you empathize with people and shore up the confidence of those who may be a little overwhelmed. You maintain working relationships with your colleagues, your board, and the community in order to get things done. It’s no different with elected decision makers; build the relationships with leaders in your community who have authority to make change. Start local, and then move on to state and federal elected representatives as well. Remember, you don’t have to do this work alone. A hallmark of nonprofit advocacy is to form or join a coalition of others who care about your cause, ideally including unlikely allies. There’s strength in numbers and even small nonprofits provide a vehicle for staff, volunteers, and engaged community members to make a difference.
4. You’re part of a bigger picture.
Many organizations before you have paved the way. Nonprofits hold a unique place in the history of the United States, offering a way for ordinary people to come together to solve problems. If you’ve ever taken a political science course, you were probably required to read French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations of visiting a young America in the early 1800’s. In particular, he observed a prevailing preference in those that had gone west from Europe to not look to government to provide all answers and services, but to establish numerous “voluntary associations” to take charge of their communities. Over the centuries, nonprofits have fought for everything from clean air and water to voting rights, worker’s rights, civil rights, and other movements—all through private action aimed at the public good. Let’s not slow down our momentum!
5. Yes, lobbying is legal!
The work of nonprofits is the work of democracy. Nonprofits have been incorporated around the tenets of the freedoms of speech and religion, the right to assemble, and the right to petition our government over grievances. It is critical that we uphold these values and we exercise our right to do so. The IRS, which regulates nonprofit activity in this area, has repeatedly sought to clarify the rules around lobbying and election-related activities. If you want to get in the weeds, sign up for a webinar through Bolder Advocacy, or download one of their handy toolkits, like the Coalition Checklist If you’re thinking, “How in the heck do I talk to my board about this?” get some tips in this discussion guide. Start where you are, but just start!
Lobbying for your cause does not need to be complicated or scary. It’s about making your work more visible. Nonprofits who speak out on the pressing issues of our time often attract more donors and volunteers. The key is to not think of advocacy work as something special, separate, or additional; it’s about recognizing that everything you do to meet your mission is part of being an advocate. You got this!
Jeannie Fox has over 20 years experience in nonprofit organizations and public agencies. She most recently served as chief of staff to former Minnesota Secretary of State, Mark Ritchie. Following a career as a senior manager in nonprofit direct service organizations, Fox lobbied on behalf of the nonprofit sector at all levels of government during a nine-year tenure as the deputy public policy director for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. She previously held adjunct faculty positions at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and Duluth campuses and was a 2012 State Department Legislative Fellow in the Dominican Republic. Fox’s publications include chapters in the textbooks, “Nonprofit Management 101” and “The Lobbying and Advocacy Handbook for Nonprofit Organizations.”