How to Make Advocacy Core to Your Nonprofit Mission

Learn how to embrace the spirit and practice of advocacy within your nonprofit organization in this actionable roundup of takeaways from our webinar.


Advocacy doesn't need to be complicated. It’s something we do naturally. Simply put, the goal of advocacy is to affect change, which lives at the very heart of nonprofit work. You may think, Oh no, we don't do advocacy. We just provide services. But some of the best advocacy is done through providing services. 

To delve into the power of advocacy in nonprofit work and how we can nurture our identities as advocates, we rounded up nonprofit leaders who thrive in the space of inspiring change in our webinar, Embracing Advocacy: Embracing Advocacy: How Political Action Can be Core to your Mission

Our panel included:

Ready to tap into your organization’s rallying power? Check out what we learned about advocacy and how to leverage the power of community to create lasting change.

 

The Steps to Advocacy: A Breakdown

Advocacy is more than just motivating somebody to do something, agree with your position, or allocate resources and funding. You rely on a bigger party to enact change, so it's not just work you can do within your own organization. There's a piece of legislation that needs to change or a policy that needs to change, and that's what advocacy comes in. After all, if you could implement the change yourself, you wouldn't need to advocate for it. 

You may advocate for the passage of ordinances that apply to your local region. But with that victory, your cause gains traction at the state level, and ideally to the national level in a way that impacts the lives of everybody in the country. And no matter how far your advocacy goals, every effort is rooted in the same three steps. 

Step 1: Education

Your organization is extremely close to the causes you advocate for. To convert supporters into advocates (and gain new supporters), you need to leverage the knowledge you have from your work in the field and translate it into compelling and accessible ways to reach and inspire your supporters. 

Step 2: Activation 

The education you provide empowers your supporters to learn and take action on what they’ve discovered. In the activation phase, your job is to give supporters additional information to move forward, such as legislator contact info, petitions, rally dates, and other opportunities for them to join the fight. 

Step 3: Implementation 

Whether we are willing to admit it, implementation is a political step. Here, it’s up to the legislators to take the people’s will and turn it into policies that support their views, values, and convictions for what’s best for their communities. 

 

Understanding Your Power as a Nonprofit Advocate

Getting involved in politics can be tricky for nonprofits, and there’s a bit of a gray area when you're pushing for legislation and making it non-partisan. This is why a lot of nonprofit folks get too cautious. 

But the truth is, we can absolutely advocate and have a say politically. If there’s a piece of legislation or a policy up for debate, we’re allowed to say, “This is right, and this is what we want,” and “This is not,” so it's important to drill down into the guidelines of what you can and cannot do.

In short, C3 nonprofits don't endorse specific candidates and can’t contribute to political campaigns or action committees. If you’d like to dive into the nitty-gritty, check out this article.

C4 nonprofits can support specific candidates and advocate for legislation, but they have limitations compared to political action committees. Learn more here.

 

Buckle Up for the Long Game

When you're talking about advocating for change at the state or federal levels, you're often facing a long game. If you're prepared for the idea that things aren't going to happen in the time frame you want, you can put that time to good use if you map out a plan for how you will make it happen. Start with the questions you want to answer as you build your plan. For example:

What do you want the law (or eventual outcome) to look like? 

Usually advocates write the laws in partnership with legislators, so take the opportunity to draft it with intention. 

Who do we need to reach out to to vote for this law?
Over time, you can build a circle of influence to support your cause as you present your idea to legislators.

Where does that particular legislator get their information?

Learn where to advocate so you can reach the right people. 

Who are the constituencies that care about this bill? 

Reach out to and activate fellow supporters so they can do their own advocacy to support your efforts. 

 

Let Nonprofit Tech Help You Target The Right Supporters

Politicians don't lead. They follow. (If they're doing their job well.) So if you can empower many of your supporters to contact local and state legislators who rely on their votes, that can be incredibly effective, much more effective than a nationwide effort—the more targeted, the better. 

By thinking local, your advocacy efforts become instantly more relatable, making it easier to move people from the education phase to the activation phase. When you can say, “Here's what's happened in your neighborhood, and here's what could happen if we get more people to support our cause,” people understand the value of their votes and the votes they can inspire by becoming advocates themselves.

Searching each supporter’s record and calling them one by one to garner their support would take days, but tech makes things easier and even helps you target the right supporters with the right message in a heck of a lot less time. 

When you treat your donor CRM like the magical engagement hub it is, it’s easy to segment lists of donors who live in particular areas and send donor groups multichannel communications that equip them with local legislator information so they can advocate along with you. These days, you can send targeted text reminders in a snap: Hey, did you know that today is Election Day? What's your plan to go to the polls? 

Concerned about cost? You’re not alone. Software can be pricey, especially if you're a small nonprofit, so band together with a couple of other small organizations and share a subscription.

And remember, those dollars won’t go to waste. When you invest in tech, you're investing in efficiency. Sure, you can hire another staff member (if you’re even able to), but tech tools can free up time on your existing team to increase other initiatives. Let’s say you haven’t been able to successfully source volunteers. When you use tech to get the word out and streamline the volunteer process, you can offload time-consuming tasks to your new volunteers. Now, you’ve freed up time for the team members to apply for grants, develop major donors, and embark on initiatives you’ve needed to put off due to lack of time.

Build Your Advocacy Tech Stack on Pond


When you join Pond (for free), you’ll save serious time and money connecting with everything you need to maximize your impact. 


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Engage The Donors Who Don’t Always Agree with You

Let’s be real. We’re an incredibly diverse country with incredibly diverse experiences. But even in a tensely polarized political environment, there’s so much room for commonality. 

Of course, some donors think you should focus on a different issue than you currently advocate for. Some may even want you to abandon or avoid particular issues altogether. But rather than packing up and abandoning that idea to avoid advocating for a controversial cause, focus on educating that part of your donor base and seeing if you can bring them along. It all comes back to the foundation of advocacy: education. When you bolster education with storytelling, you can attract supporters who didn't realize that they were as aligned with your mission as they are. 

It’s worth the effort and the sometimes awkward conversations. Look at it this way: If you ignore everyone who doesn't 100% agree with you, they might not gain the opportunity to see the issue from a different perspective. Human interaction and storytelling can change minds and inspire world-changing movements, so don’t get discouraged. After all, some of the most passionate advocates began their journey with a change of heart. 

 

Focus on What You Can Do

Okay, so you can't introduce a piece of legislation because you're not in Congress, but you can work with a congressional office to contribute to the language of a bill. You can thoughtfully build your coalition and reach. You can set meetings, spark engagements, and conduct outreach. In short, you can do a lot. It’s just a matter of staying focused on those “cans,” breaking them down into bite-size pieces, and determining the steps necessary to accomplish a larger goal. 

Those steps become your measurables and lead to your successes. Success can look like this:

  • We met with 35 candidates
  • We spoke with 35 legislator 
  • Our lobby days rallied 350 advocates

This is how to measure success from a project management perspective as well as a fundraising and advocacy perspective. And while you didn’t pass the bill, you took the necessary steps to make it happen. Consider each move you made a stepping stone on the path to that victory. 

 

Start Small and Grow

Rather than skipping forward to multi-pronged advocacy approaches and setting yourself up for failure, start with your existing supporters, whether that's donors, volunteers, or other community members. From there, you can follow the steps, mobilize advocates, and continue to grow the community that advocates your cause and gain traction in motivating change.

Ultimately the goal of advocacy is to bring everybody along (even the tough cookies) so it becomes a powerful ground swell. And no community has had greater success in this than the LGBTQIA+ community in the last 25 years. Our parting advice? Dig into the many stories shared throughout Pride Month and follow the lead of LGBTQIA advocates who continue to perfect the virtue of bringing the public along with them to march, speak out, create, sing, write, give, post, call, and band together for change.

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