Guest Post: The Rebirth of Nonprofit Advocacy

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By Nell Edgington

Note: With a current political climate which is arguably more challenging for many nonprofit social change efforts, I believe (along with many others) that now is the time for nonprofits to move more actively into advocacy. But many nonprofit leaders don’t know how to get started. So I asked the expert on all things nonprofit advocacy — Tim Delaney, President & CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits — to write a guest post describing how nonprofit leaders can move into advocacy. Here is his post.

Given the new realities at the state and federal levels of governments, nonprofit leaders (board and staff) are recognizing that nonprofit advocacy is more important than ever before. They suddenly feel compelled to engage in advocacy. Yet many admit privately that their advocacy know-how has either atrophied or never gotten off the ground. As we witness a re-birth of interest in nonprofit advocacy, this article offers initial steps along a pathway to effective advocacy.

Nonprofit advocacy is a lot simpler than most people realize, with easy steps involving the heart, mind, body, and soul.

Heart Steps

Care. The very first step in advocacy is to care deeply about something. For nonprofits, this means caring about your organization’s mission. When you really care, then you will see the barriers blocking your way … and be motivated to remove or overcome those barriers to advance the organization’s mission. Consider this mom who worried that she would be ineffective as an advocate, yet when motivated to protect her child’s safety, she championed changes to federal and state laws.

Know you are not alone. If you start to get weak of heart, know that you are part of a community that includes more than one million organizations, employs ten percent of the American workforce, and contributes billions to the economy. Your nonprofit’s mission is unique, but your organization is part of an expansive ecosystem of nonprofits working in every community across the country. We are all stronger if we honor the Three Musketeers’ motto of “All for one and one for all, united we stand, divided we fall.”

Mind Steps

Realize that you are already advocating. People sometimes fret that they don’t know how to advocate. But it’s so easy that first graders do it! So do you, every day. Did you share an update with your nonprofit’s stakeholders (such as donors, board members, or reporters) recently, so they know about the impact your organization is having in the community? Congratulations, you are already advocating! We like to say that the definition of advocacy is answering the question, “Who can I talk to today to advance my nonprofit’s mission?”

Lean into the news to stay informed. It’s too late for action when reading that the Governor signed a bill to regulate nonprofits or the city council voted to pass an ordinance to tax nonprofit property. Nonprofits need to pay attention to the news so you’re ready to speak up for your communities. To help nonprofits make sense of the swirling policy issues in Washington, DC, we wrote this analysis in the Chronicle of Philanthropy identifying six sector-wide issues that we foresee impacting all nonprofits in the coming months. Your local state association of nonprofits can help keep you up-to-date on what is happening, and you can subscribe to our free policy newsletter, Nonprofit Advocacy Matters.

Focus. One danger of paying attention to the news is most people suddenly will see multiple things that motivate them to action. Yet there is only so much time in each day. When taking the Heart Step of identifying what you deeply care about with your nonprofit’s mission, define and then refine the topics on which your nonprofit agrees in advance that it will devote some of its limited resources to advocate for or against. Reduce that in writing as part of your Public Policy Agenda. (Here’s a link to our Public Policy Agenda, which you can use as a rough draft to start your own.)

Work smarter, not harder. The old Fram oil commercials used to say, “You can pay me a little now … or a whole lot more later.” So it is with advocacy. If you invest a little time now to lift your voice instead of sitting silently while your local government imposes new taxes on nonprofits, then you can avoid the added burden of trying to raise additional money. If government contracts impose mindless administrative burdens and costs, then you can either keep paying people to do wasteful acts or band together with other nonprofits to ease the burdens of government and nonprofits. Our hallmark as nonprofits is that we solve community problems. Advocacy is a powerful leveraging tool to do just that.

Take the (h) election. Sometimes called the best, easiest, and cheapest (free!) insurance in America, filling out IRS Form 5768 can simplify life for most 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofits advancing their missions through advocacy. Taking the “(h) election” doesn’t cost anything, and gives many benefits for nonprofits.

Soul Steps

Build relationships. The poet’s line that “no man is an island” underscores not only a universal interconnectedness that feeds our souls, but also a basic tenet of advocacy: relationships are fundamental. You will be more effective when those you are advocating already trust you and know the impact your nonprofit is having. Whether you are advocating to a potential funder or to an elected official (or a member of their staff), relationships matter. Take the time now, before you have a distinct ask to make, to make friends before they are needed. They will come in handy later, for you and for them. Even without further advocacy, informing officials of the work your nonprofit is doing can pay dividends as they consider proposals down the road.

Body Steps

Stand for Your Mission. No matter who is in office or which party is in control, nonprofits can’t afford to sit silently on the sidelines on issues that affect their ability to serve their community and advance their mission. The nonprofit community is at its strongest when every nonprofit, and every person associated with that nonprofit, raises their voice. To help board members in particular, check out this website on steps your nonprofit can take to stand for your mission.

Use Your Voice. Advocacy takes many forms. You can write or call your representatives or attend a Nonprofit Day at the Capitol. You can make a video demonstrating the effects (or potential effects) of an issue. Even social media has become a part of the advocacy toolkit. Read more stories of nonprofit advocacy in action to learn about the other ways you can engage.

Be a Team Player. Nonprofit advocacy is a team sport. Most funders and nonprofits focus on their narrow issue area. But some policy issues affect all nonprofits and thus require collective action. The current federal attempt to erode trust in nonprofits and foundations by removing or weakening the 60+ years of protection against politicizing nonprofits during elections, and local attempts to impose taxes, fees, or payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), are attacks on all nonprofits.

Be Vigilant. My football coach used to say, “Keep your head on a swivel,” meaning always be on the lookout, watching everything on the field. Public policy is even wilder than football because it’s played on a three-dimensional chess board, with activity happening up and down the local, state, and federal levels of governments and across the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. While many want to focus on the new President, the White House is only one source of policy action. Federal legislative priorities this year will likely flow down to hit the states to implement. Domestic spending cuts are a near certainty, and with states currently receiving, on average, 30 percent of their revenue from the federal government, it’s important to see the interconnections. The White House might dominate the nightly news, but life is lived at the local level and not in faraway DC.

Just as Plato wrote that “necessity is the mother of invention,” policy threats can spark inspiration for advocacy action. Although dismayed by the cause, I’m heartened by hearing how many nonprofit leaders are now seeing the value and power of advocacy. Let this be the re-birth of nonprofit advocacy, which is deeply rooted in our collective DNA.

Photo Credit: National Council of Nonprofits

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