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Speaking Up: How Nonprofits Can Advance Their Cause Through Advocacy

Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “Ten people who speak make more noise than ten thousand who are silent.” As of this writing, many social sector advocates have successfully advocated for the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act and the Baucus-Grassley amendment to establish a Nonprofit Capacity Building Program. The Senate and House passed the legislation in late March and the President signed it into law on April 21, 2009. While we hope it moves forward successfully in the appropriations process and that nonprofits across the country get necessary support during this economic downturn, this public effort illustrates one of the most important social sector trends of 2008 – the increase in public policy activism within the social sector.

While national nonprofits historically have advocated for important causes at a national level, from improving children’s health (Children’s Defense Fund) to strengthening state drunk driving laws (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), advocacy efforts led by nonprofit groups are now becoming mainstream and happening in city halls and state legislatures across the country. A book published this year by the Aspen Institute’s Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, called Seen but Not Heard, included results from a survey of 1,738 nonprofits showing that 75 percent participated in some form of advocacy. The book argues that “if nonprofits want to pursue their mission effectively, they need to be actively engaged in public policy.1” Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, authors of another well-received book, Forces for Good, which studied trends in high-impact nonprofit organizations, found that advocacy and direct service create a virtuous cycle where “the two together can create impact that is greater than the sum of the parts.2

Advocacy is defined as “identifying, embracing, and promoting an issue or cause.  It aims to influence government policy at the federal, state, or local level and can encompass a range of activities, including conducting research on public problems, writing an op-ed piece on issues of public policy, building coalitions, or participating in a group working to formulate a position on a matter of policy.3” Advocacy is different from lobbying, which is an attempt to influence specific legislation. While there are laws that limit nonprofit lobbying, there is no limit on the amount of advocacy a nonprofit organization can engage in4.

If nonprofits are to embrace their role in the democratic process, where do they start?

STEP 1: GET EDUCATED

The most effective way to start and sustain an organization-wide advocacy effort is to start small and build.  It is important first to educate yourself about what efforts are taking place at the local, state, and national levels and how your organization and your clients are impacted. Depending on the cause you represent, you may find that it is more effective to be focused just on the state or local level, or just in the national arena. In a recent study, 63 percent of nonprofit organizations reported that they stay close to home and principally target local and state officials5. One way to educate yourself on important issues that impact nonprofits is to join your state nonprofit association. These organizations typically lobby on behalf of their membership and keep members abreast of state policy efforts.  In addition, the National Council of Nonprofits offers a free monthly e-newsletter with updates on federal and state policy issues.

STEP 2: GET CONNECTED

Nonprofits often mistakenly assume that it takes an immense amount of staff time and resources to advocate. In fact, as you build your advocacy efforts, you can choose from a number of low-cost, yet effective, ways to accomplish your goals:

  • Join Others:  Many organizations – through formal associations or ad-hoc coalitions – join forces to advance policy issues.  These coalitions are often very effective at getting policy change due to their large membership base and ability to leverage grassroots support for policy efforts. Typically, the cost to join is minimal and membership fees are used to hire a lobbyist to support their policy initiatives.
  • Participate in Grassroots Efforts: Policymakers depend on their constituents to tell them what issues matter most. Remember that “all politics is local,” and policymakers need help making statistics come alive in their districts through local real-life stories. You can communicate with them about your issue through letters, phone calls, or e-mails. You can even start a grassroots campaign simply by sending your volunteers a customizable template and asking them to call or write their local policymaker. In fact, many nonprofits report that including volunteers in grassroots advocacy efforts is an effective strategy for long-term volunteer engagement.
  • Invite Policymakers: Policymakers cannot and should not become experts in every policy area.  Therefore, it is important for nonprofit organizations to educate policymakers and their staffs on their cause and how policies can impact their clients. Invite a local policymaker to speak at a client graduation or tour your facility. He or she will likely walk away from the experience with a new appreciation for your work and your clients.
  • Form a Board Policy Committee: While Board members can be used in fundraising efforts or to assist nonprofits with their operations, they are often an untapped resource for advocacy efforts. In a recent study, only 33 percent of nonprofit organizations stated that their board was somewhat or significantly involved in advocacy efforts6.

STEP 3: GET ACTIVE

Once you have become educated about the issues that have the greatest impact on your organization and its clients, you can choose to become more actively engaged through the following:

  • Monitor the Issues: Stay up-to-date and take action when appropriate; and/or
  • Campaign for Proactive Policies: Push for changes that would improve the status of your organization and its clients.

While this kind of effort can be done individually or within a coalition, the most effective advocacy typically includes a multi-pronged approach:

  • Educate: Hold forums or events to educate policymakers on your issue areas and how they can support your efforts.  These events can be at the state capitol or within the home districts.
  • Help Advance Policy: Craft specific policies that can be adopted by policymakers on your issue areas.
  • Research the Issues: Conduct surveys or focus groups to inform the policy debate. 
  • Conduct Grassroots Advocacy: Launch a grassroots campaign to inform policymakers about how much your issues matter to their constituents.
  • Advocate via the Media: Leverage the media to raise awareness among the public and policymakers about your issue areas.

Leaders of nonprofit organizations are often unsung heroes who diligently serve the needs of others and never seek to create noise about the work that they do.  However, as the adage says – “silence is assent.”  In particular, today as we watch many of neediest Americans suffer due to the economic downturn, it is important that we not only serve their basic needs but also serve them by being advocates for their cause. If we don’t speak up, who will?


[1] Bass, Gary D. and David F. Arons and Kay Guinane and Matthew F. Carter, Seen But Not Heard: Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy, The Aspen Institute (2007)

[2] Crutchfield, Leslie R. and Health McLeod Grant, Forces for Good, Jossey-Bass (2008).

[3] “Nonprofit America: A Force for Democracy,” Center for Civil Society Studies at John Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies (2008) –  http://www.clpi.org/images/pdf/advocacy%20communique%20final%207-30-08.pdf

[4] “The Law and Nonprofit Advocacy & Lobbying.” Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (2008) – http://www.mncn.org/policy_lobby_law.htm

[5] “Nonprofit America: A Force for Democracy,” Center for Civil Society Studies at John Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies (2008) –  http://www.clpi.org/images/pdf/advocacy%20communique%20final%207-30-08.pdf

[6] “Nonprofit America: A Force for Democracy,” Center for Civil Society Studies at John Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies (2008) –  http://www.clpi.org/images/pdf/advocacy%20communique%20final%207-30-08.pdf For tools to build a policy committee, go to: http://www.pano.org/documents/sfxpublicpolicysamples.doc

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About Community Wealth Partners

At Community Wealth Partners we dream of a world in which all people thrive. To realize this dream, we help change agents solve social problems at the magnitude they exist. As a Share Our Strength organization, we bring the successful practices of one of the nation’s leading anti-hunger, anti-poverty organizations to hundreds of change agents nationwide.

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