Nonprofit Advocacy Done Right

Pause a moment to reflect on your nonprofit's mission.

Is it to perpetually write grant proposals? Make phone calls asking for donations? Write emails?

Probably not.

More than likely, your nonprofit was initially founded because there was a need and because there were people who cared who truly wanted to address that need.

Whether it's low literacy rates in public schools, veteran homelessness, animal welfare, environmental protection, or human rights, your nonprofit's mission should be the reason you do what you do.

Advocacy is an essential part of helping nonprofits effectively fuel their mission.

But it's important to recognize what advocacy is… and what it isn't

What is Nonprofit Advocacy

Advocacy is loosely defined as any action or activity that promotes the cause of the nonprofit organization by advocating on behalf of the nonprofit's cause.

Umbrella causes, nonprofit groups, and specific initiatives can all benefit from nonprofit advocacy.

For example: environmental resource conservation and protection is an umbrella cause, Chesapeake Bay Trust is a nonprofit group, and oyster restoration in the Lynnhaven River is a specific initiative. All three are ideal candidates for nonprofit advocacy.

Advocacy can either be the sole focus of a nonprofit's mission, or it can be a valuable addition to a diversified toolkit. It is most often used to respond directly in real time to issues that directly affect a nonprofit's core mission.

Why Advocacy is Important

Studies have shown that nonprofit advocacy is effective at providing two major benefits:

  1. Raising a nonprofit's profile and increasing awareness
  2. Helping those nonprofits address their mission head-on

Often, this can mean coalescing the public interest around a single cause or organization. For instance, the AARP is a highly active advocacy-centric nonprofit that works hard to be a force for change regarding four key areas of concern for seniors: housing, hunger, income, and isolation.

When done right, nonprofit advocacy can make a real difference in the lives of your constituents. By giving a voice to those in need, true change can take place and your nonprofit can succeed in fulfilling its mission. (Bonus: raising your nonprofit's profile in the community and beyond can also be a great boon to your fundraising as well.)

Not only is it the purview of a nonprofit to engage with issues and policies that directly or indirectly affect its mission or constituents, the case could even be made that it is the obligation of many nonprofits to do so.

In addition, getting more involved in advocacy efforts can help nonprofits fine tune their mission, identify new opportunities for involvement, clarify messaging, increase its base of support, and even affect policy change for years to come.

Advocacy vs Lobbying

To understand the differences between advocacy and lobbying, one must first recognize the different forms of advocacy.

  • Community - changing the ideas and attitudes of the public, typically accomplished through education programs and the media
  • Legal - using lawsuits in the courts to protect or create rights, improve services, or raise public consciousness about an issue
  • Legislative - when the target for change is a federal, state or local law, school board policy, or budget allocation

Beginning in 1976, the role of nonprofit organizations in the United States has continually undergone enormous changes year after year. The modern definition of "nonprofit" now includes many organizations that are more political than charitable.

However, the Internal Revenue Service has strict rules regarding the maximum percentage of a nonprofit's budget that may go toward lobbying activities before a nonprofit risks losing it's 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, as well as additional restrictions regarding the use of federal funds, which many nonprofits currently receive.

Some examples of awareness-based nonprofit advocacy include:

  • Educating the public regarding legislation that affects your community
  • Informing elected representatives about the effects (beneficial or otherwise) of grants, bills, or other legislative activities they have been involved in
  • Sending an invitation to elected officials to address your nonprofit group or its constituents in order to engage, inform, and connect

Meanwhile, lobbying activities tend to be more action-oriented and results-based:

  • Urging donors and constituents to vote for or against a particular party or candidate, based on the needs of the nonprofit and/or community
  • Petitioning elected representatives to sponsor, amend, vote for/against legislation on behalf of the nonprofit
  • Mobilizing donors and constituents to contact their elected representatives to express their support or opposition to proposed legislation

In addition, direct lobbying involves an organization that is communicating directly with the legislator on specific legislation, whereas grassroots lobbying is when the public is encouraged to contact the representative or legislative regarding specific legislation. (Also known as a "call to action".)

While lobbying is legal, many organizations shy away from nonprofit advocacy to avoid potential complications or due to fear of crossing a line. The best way to calm these fears is by increasing education and awareness about the restrictions and limitations of lobbying and advocacy in general.

Who can participate?

Anyone can advocate — but it's important to know the rules.

(And if you are thinking of participating in nonprofit advocacy, either as a board member or an individual citizen, it is absolutely imperative that you become familiar with your nonprofit's guidelines for staff conduct as public representatives of your organization.)

The main concern of most nonprofit organizations is the potential loss of 501(c)(3)  tax-exempt status. To qualify for 501(c)(3) under the Internal Revenue Code, a nonprofit organization must meet the following requirements:

  • The organization must be organized and operated exclusively for religious, educational, scientific or other charitable purposes;
  • Net earnings may not inure to the benefit of any private individual or shareholder;
  • No substantial part of the organization’s activities may involve attempts to influence legislation;
  • The organization may not intervene in political campaigns;
  • The organization’s purposes or activities may not be illegal or violate fundamental public policy.

For IRS purposes, nonprofit organizations must operate within the parameters of the "expenditure test" in order to retain 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.

For more nonprofit advocacy resources, check out the National Council of Nonprofits and the Alliance for Justice's Bolder Advocacy blog. How to Increase Nonprofit Advocacy:
**DISCLAIMER: The information contained on the StratusLIVE blog is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice on any subject matter.

Posted by StratusLIVE