You joined the nonprofit sector to make a difference in the world. Whether you’re trying to provide food and other resources to people in need, find forever homes for abandoned animals, fund research for a disease, or pursue one of the countless other noble missions, you work tirelessly each day to promote social good.
Depending on your role at your organization, you may spend time cultivating relationships with donors, providing support to constituents, or getting the word out about your work through email, social media, and other communications platforms.
While each of these activities is critical, there’s one aspect of nonprofit work that can enable you to accomplish all of these goals at once. Nonprofit advocacy can help your organization advance its mission and create a stronger sense of unity among supporters.
With the right tools and training, nonprofit advocacy can help you to maximize your organization’s civic engagement and make an even larger societal impact. These tools can have the added benefit of connecting parts of your outreach that are often siloed, i.e., your digital efforts and your field-based grassroots efforts. This allows for the content generated in one place to be used across other areas of your organization.
At Grassroots Unwired, we empower nonprofits and political advocacy groups with the groundbreaking technology they need to create an effective, holistic strategy for messaging and fundraising.
Based on our years of advocacy work, we’ve developed a quick starter guide to help your nonprofit understand and leverage the power of an advocacy campaign. In this article, we’ll do the following:
- Define nonprofit advocacy
- Explore the difference between advocacy and lobbying
- List examples of nonprofit advocacy in action
- Share the benefits of nonprofit advocacy
- Provide top recommendations for nonprofit advocacy
As you read this guide, keep in mind that the best advocacy campaigns are a group effort. Partnering with coalitions or other similar organizations to maximize your efforts can lead to a higher probability of success in the long run. However, you can still enjoy the benefits of an advocacy campaign as a single organization. Let’s dive in.
Defining Nonprofit Advocacy
Nonprofit advocacy is the practice of generating support for issues that are closely related to your purpose and mission. In general, advocacy means speaking out on behalf of a group or cause on a local, state, or national level. A nonprofit can engage in advocacy as a way to influence a larger change (spearheaded by government entities or a coalition) than the organization could enact on its own.
Nonprofit advocacy can occur both online and in-person. However, with the social distancing guidelines of the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual canvassing and online advocacy options are recommended over traditional face-to-face opportunities. Regardless of the venue, a number of activities can fall under the umbrella of nonprofit advocacy, including petitioning, emailing, and organizing events.
While some organizations may be hesitant or fearful to “get political,” nonprofits can legally engage in issue-based advocacy without jeopardizing funding or tax-exempt status. However, we’ll discuss a few caveats to this in the next section.
Advocacy vs. Lobbying | What’s the Difference?
If you’re wary of participating in nonprofit advocacy, you may be confusing advocacy with lobbying.
While advocacy is more general, issue-based, and awareness-focused, lobbying refers to the practice of supporting or opposing a specific piece of legislation. Lobbying always falls under the broader category of advocacy, but not all advocacy counts as lobbying.
Not only is there a difference in meaning, but there’s also a difference in legal status. For 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, the IRS prohibits political campaigning and lobbying that forms a “substantial part” of your organization’s budget. In this instance, “substantial part” is defined as devoting any more than 20% of the organization’s operating budget toward the effort.
For example, the state of Georgia recently passed a referendum to create a property tax exemption for nonprofits under specific circumstances. Many local chapters of Habitat for Humanity supported this item while it was moving through the state legislature, and then they encouraged their supporters to vote “yes” when it was on the ballot. This was a legal example of nonprofit lobbying—as long as the chapters didn’t devote more than 20% of their operating budgets to these efforts.
Examples of Nonprofit Advocacy
Nonprofit advocacy is not a one-size-fits-all activity. Depending on the cause you’re trying to support, the interests of your supporters, and the desired outcome of your campaign, you’ll encourage different advocacy-related actions.
Here are a few common examples to demonstrate what nonprofit advocacy can look like:
- Encouraging supporters to contact representatives on social media to share your cause (ex: Tweet-a-Rep campaigns)
- Collecting signatures for a petition
- Launching a photo-sharing campaign that relates to your cause
- Inviting supporters to call legislators, providing a script or talking points to empower callers with the right message
- Gathering supporters together for an advocacy event (or virtual event)
- Conducting an email or letter-writing campaign
To determine which of these actions is most appropriate for your campaign, consider what you know about your supporters. Are they typically active on social media? Responsive to direct mail? Use this knowledge to guide the planning of your campaign and create compelling messaging that will foster participation.
Keep in mind, though, that any action directly related to a piece of legislation falls under lobbying rather than just advocacy. So, if you’re conducting a lobbying effort, be mindful of your budget while planning!
Benefits of Nonprofit Advocacy
In addition to the obvious benefits of creating broad change or raising awareness of a mission-related issue, there are many additional advantages to engaging in a nonprofit advocacy campaign:
- Improve donor engagement. According to Qgiv’s guide to donor retention, the average donor retention rate is only around 40%. One frequently-recommended way to encourage retention is to offer alternative involvement opportunities, and nonprofit advocacy serves this purpose well. When supporters speak out in favor of your cause, they will feel more connected to your mission and more likely to stay involved over time.
- Engage volunteers. Your dedicated volunteers can encourage other supporters to take action in your campaign, such as by capturing signatures or reaching out to individuals. This can also be a useful virtual volunteer activity for the remote era.
- Increase fundraising. While funding shouldn’t be your primary goal in launching a nonprofit advocacy campaign, it can still help with fundraising. First, advocacy campaigns increase awareness of your issue and the visibility of your organization, which can lead to an influx of new donors. Additionally, involvement in your campaign is a signal of fundraising participation—supporters who participate in advocacy campaigns are 7 times more likely to donate than non-advocates.
Lastly, engaging with your mission in a new format can help foster excitement and professional development within your nonprofit’s staff and board of directors. It provides variety to your ongoing fundraising efforts and can enhance the way your team communicates with supporters.
Best Practices for Nonprofit Advocacy
1. Provide adequate training opportunities and resources.
To execute a successful advocacy campaign, you must ensure that everyone has the tools and information they need to be successful. This applies both to your staff members who may be undertaking new and unfamiliar activities as well as your supporters.
For your staff, make sure everyone understands the general purpose and goals of nonprofit advocacy, as well as the legal difference between advocacy and lobbying (you could even pass around this article!). You should also look for relevant online courses or other training materials to bring everyone up to speed.
For supporters, you’ll want to provide clear and well-written scripts and templates for any communication-related actions. Since a common barrier to advocacy is not knowing what to say or feeling awkward or uncertain, offering these resources upfront will increase participation. Having a step-by-step outline to make a call, write a tweet, or send an email will give supporters the confidence they need to get involved (and ensure everyone stays on-message).
2. Track supporter involvement.
As previously mentioned, nonprofit advocacy has the added advantage of increasing supporter engagement. To make the most of this benefit, keep detailed records of the overall metrics of your campaign and the involvement of individual supporters.
When it comes to individuals, you should already be tracking engagement data in your donor database, and advocacy actions should be no exception! Be sure to record the number of calls made, hours volunteered, emails sent, or any other relevant metrics.
This can give you an idea of which of your supporters are the most committed to your work and may be good candidates for future fundraising asks. Your most vocal social media advocate today may turn into a generous major donor tomorrow.
When considering your overall campaign, the data you collect will help you plan your future advocacy efforts to be even more successful. For instance, the data may reveal which prongs of your campaign led to the highest number of target actions, so you’ll know where to focus your future efforts.
3. Empower your team with the right technology.
Advocacy tech solutions will empower a more effective campaign by facilitating deep conversations and streamlining follow-up actions.
For best results, look for advocacy software that focuses on establishing relationships, since that level of connection is what will most effectively drive supporters to take the desired action.
As an example of a software solution that takes this approach, Grassroots Unwired’s grassroots and legislative advocacy app allows organizations to:
- Enable issue-based conversations that encourage supporters to take action
- Conduct surveys and automatically report data in real-time
- Send out immediate follow-ups to supporters
- Send out immediate messages to target legislators and government agencies
- Continue work without internet access
- Securely collect donations
You also may want to consider looking for advocacy software that can integrate with your donor database. This will make the process of data collection and analysis more seamless and give you a full picture of your advocacy data in the context of your overall operations.
As you create your nonprofit’s calendar for 2021, consider adding a nonprofit advocacy campaign into the mix. By mobilizing your supporters to create change for your cause, your organization can make a widespread impact and cultivate a stronger community. Best of luck!
This guest post was contributed by Russ Oster of Grassroots Unwired.
Russ’ first experience in the world of grassroots organizing came when he was an infant and his mother pushed him in a stroller door to door to collect signatures for the Impeach Nixon movement. Eighteen years later he embarked on his college career in Washington, DC and during that time developed a passion for campaigns and elections that started with an internship on the campaign of the first woman ever elected to Congress from the State of Virginia.
For the next 15 years Russ lived and breathed campaigns, running field operations in a wide range of races and for a number of coordinated campaign efforts. When it became obvious to Russ that the technology existed to make field efforts drastically more efficient and accountable but the solutions did not, he launched Grassroots Unwired and has worked every day since to keep GU on the cutting edge, pushing new features and enhancements to meet the needs of every evolving grassroots organizing efforts.