What is Advocacy and Does It Really Make a Difference?

If you don’t talk to your legislators about what you do and why it is important to the community and state, they may never know the problems your nonprofit is addressing or how they can help.
January 18, 2021

Advocating on the local, state and federal levels of government to support your cause or a specific policy proposal helps educate government, is legal and can make a difference. But knowing how government works, what it can and cannot do, and the best way to position your nonprofit are key to making those efforts effective.

Learn how government works.

Government can be like a puzzle that may feel overwhelmingly and complicated. Start by familiarizing yourself with the pieces that have the greatest influence and serve as the biggest factors in how government functions so you can lead an effective advocacy effort:

  1. Legislative Process: It is important to understand how a bill becomes a law, how programs are funded, which committees tackle issues you care about, how you can share your views and how legislators, agencies and the administration interact.
  2. Leadership and Committees: The party and people who control the legislative body and committees have the most power but both sides of the aisle contribute to moving legislation and can help in your advocacy efforts.
  3. Agencies: The program managers and policy directors within relevant agencies advise the administration as well as legislators and their staff on programs, policies and funding.
  4. Elections: Being aware of when elections occur is key to timing interactions with government as during the few months leading up to election day, the legislative session is usually shortened to enable legislators to campaign. Staying neutral and working with both parties is key for nonprofits.
  5. Polling and Media: The issues of the day often dominate the news and legislators’ minds so relating your nonprofit work to current issues can help enable more effective education on the problems you are addressing, make your issues relatable and garner more support.
  6. Messaging: It is critical to deliver a message that resonates, is succinct and clear, compelling and easy to understand. Taking the time to refine the problem working to address, unique solution you offer and results that your nonprofit will provide with new legislation or funding before scheduling government meetings is key. Considering the issues of the day in developing this can amplify impact.
  7. Advocates and Lobbyists: Many organizations, institutions and companies work with professional lobbyists or hire them in-house while others try to stay on top of government activity through national or statewide associations. They advocate regularly and inform decision-makers on which problems need to be addressed and their recommended solutions, aka proposed legislation, funding or regulations. This can impact how your nonprofit and issues are viewed and note, associations do not represent individual nonprofit organizations or issues.
  8. CommunitySupport and Impact: Demonstrating community impact with metrics and statistics and engaging those who benefit from your nonprofit programs in your advocacy effort can make a significant difference in opening the minds and hearts of legislators and agencies. This can be effective in motivating legislative action and long-time champions for your cause.

Follow the law.

It cannot be overstated how important it is to thoroughly understand what is legal and what is not for nonprofits. Crossing the line can result in bad press, soured relationships or even financial or criminal penalties. 

Appropriate engagement activities for nonprofits include:

  • Arranging tours, meetings and speaking engagements about your organization’s work
  • Advocating for issues or levies
  • Hosting register-to-vote and voter drives
  • Educating voters on issues
  • Holding public forums at your organization (all candidates must be invited)
  • Individual contributions are allowed

Inappropriate engagement activities for nonprofits include:

  • Endorsing candidate
  • Participating or intervening in a campaign
  • Making political contributions to a candidate as an organization (i.e. contributions or loans)
  • Making in-kind contributions to a candidate as an organization (i.e. use of facilities, donation of staff time or use of equipment)
  • Posting materials or links to your organization’s website or social media pages that favor a candidate

Position for impact.

By following the legislative process and timing, targeting key decision-makers and delivering a message that is tailored to resonate, you can be sure to deliver the right message at the right time to the right targets in government. This effort takes time and requires consistent engagement over the years to ensure your government contacts are learning from you what the problems are, how you are working to solve them as well as how you can work together to advance policies and funding to make a difference in communities in need.  

Advocacy matters.

Applying these insights, you can ensure your voice is heard and change happens.