Are you a staff person or board member of a nonprofit organization?
Are you invested in your nonprofit’s mission and want to make a difference?
When was the last time someone from your organization talked with your elected and appointed members of government?
Do your elected and appointed officials know what your organization is doing to improve the lives of their constituents?
Do lawmakers know they can turn to your organization for facts and information related to your mission?
Are you familiar with how laws and ordinances affect your ability to achieve your goals?
Wait, do you even know who your elected officials are?
Advocacy is often overlooked by nonprofit leaders. Maybe it feels confusing or intimidating. It doesn’t need to be. A nonprofit not only has a legal right to advocate for causes (if you do it within the IRS 501(c)3 tax code for nonprofits and all relevant laws), but also key nonprofit leaders concur that nonprofits have a responsibility to advocate. Doing so furthers your mission and helps fulfill promises and ambitions.
Important laws and policies can be made when nonprofits partner both with each other and government. For one example, thanks to the “So Kids Can Move” collaborative initiative, medical equipment that allows individuals with disabilities to be physically inactive may be becoming more accessible. The nonprofit Forrest Stump, together an array of partners, helped to introduce New Mexico’s House Bill 131, the “amputee insurance” law, making insurance-supported prosthetics and other adaptive devices for recreation available to more people. RAINN, an organization with which I volunteer, advocated for California bill AB 933 that empowers survivors of sexual assault to share their stories without fearing legal repercussions.
Getting started is relatively simple:
- What mission-related laws, policies, or ordinances might your nonprofit seek to change? Coming to agreement on this can also clarify strategic planning goals.
- What other forms of legislation affect your success? For example, tax reform proposals and philanthropic giving allowances could affect charitable giving. Nonprofit organizations may engage in nonpartisan voter registration, education, and turnout activities.
- Do your leaders meet at least annually with state and federal elected and appointed officials/their staff? If not, start to schedule.
- Does your nonprofit have a staff position that includes “policy” or “government affairs?” If not, who can that be?
- Does your nonprofit employ a consultant to assist with state or federal funding/policy advocacy? Should it?
- Does your nonprofit belong to an industry trade group, alliance, or association, which advocates on behalf of the priorities of a shared mission? If so, join an “elected officials” or “advocacy” day. If not, seek out good partners to help you engage.
Get to know your officials.
- Designate a position at your organization who can be the point person for government affairs if you haven’t already.
- Make a list of everyone—from local to national government—who represents you.
- Schedule an introductory meeting with each official, or their aide or chief of staff. You can meet at the state capital or in Washington, DC, or at your official’s local office.
- Be prepared. Practice explaining your mission and activities in just a few sentences—your elevator speech. Prepare a simple one-page leave-behind that demonstrates how your mission can positively impact the candidate’s constituency.
- Do this at least once a year.
Boost your impact by working with your industry association and networks.
- Join advocacy days, such as: American Alliance of Museums’ Museums Advocacy Day, or Land Trust Alliance’s Advocacy Days. Being part of a group of likeminded colleagues moving through the halls of your state or our nation’s capitol, city hall, or county building is not only effective, but also energizing.
- Consider working with alliances with similar missions to yours, for example: The Everglades Foundation, Chicago Wilderness Alliance, or American Public Gardens Association.
- When a nonprofit advocates for policy initiatives, it furthers its mission and impact.
- Advocacy is allowed and encouraged (within the law).
- Get to know your elected officials—regardless of party—and their staff, before you need or want to ask them for assistance.
- Give someone the responsibility of government affairs regardless of whether or not your organization engaged in advocacy.
- Decide what potential outcomes you want from your advocacy efforts, for example legislation, funding, network-building, or awareness.
- Use the power of industry associations/networks to help focus and strengthen your voice.
- Be respectful to officials with whom you meet, regardless of whether you would vote for them: you’re representing your nonprofit not your own political views.
- Keep your 501(c)3 politically neutral but understand your ability to advocate demonstrates your organization’s value to the community.
- Understand the limits of advocacy under the Johnson Amendment. In other words, neither engage in electioneering (in other words, intervening in elections to public office) nor endorse candidates and be sure that your organization’s operating policies (like event rental) are in keeping with nonprofit law.
- Ensure board members separate their private political work from their efforts on behalf of the nonprofit.
- Decide how you will measure your impact. “Assessing Advocacy,” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, includes some good ideas to consider.
- Have fun! Sharing your work, seeing how laws come together, and meeting new people is exhilarating and empowering!