Advocacy can mean getting involved with public policy, encouraging voters to support your cause, and sending important messages to elected representatives. It may even mean hiring a lobbyist, and jumping into the political fray at the national level. Or it can mean something much simpler: reaching out to local community members with your message and your concerns.
Is advocacy right for your non-profit?
Of course there are some non-profits – such Greenpeace, or Common Cause – that are specifically dedicated to advocacy. Non-profit think tanks lend their voices to advocacy as an inherent part of their missions. And human rights organizations do nothing but advocacy work.
But let’s say your non-profit is an arts centre, an after-school program or a community service centre. Your work has nothing to do with politics, right?
Actually, public policy has a tremendous impact on how you do your work, what work you’re allowed to do, what laws govern your work, and more. For example, cuts in federal and state funding for the arts make it much tougher to find the money for low-cost arts programs. Legal restrictions around early childhood care may improve or limit your ability to provide high quality, creative programming for preschoolers.
When you decide not to advocate, you are making an active decision not to participate in the political process. That might be right for you – but for many non-profits, it makes sense to get involved, whether locally, regionally, or on the national level.
Is it Legal and Ethical for a Non-Profit to Advocate?
Chances are, you have a lot to gain or lose from decisions made at the local or national level. And chances are, you have yet to get involved. Sometimes, non-profits stay out of politics because they feel it’s not their area of expertise, or because there just isn’t enough time in the day. But just as often, non-profits refrain from political activity because they fear it is illegal or unethical to spend donor money on advocacy.
In both the United States and Canada, there are laws governing non-profit advocacy. In both countries, advocacy is legal – so long as the right paperwork is filed and the right limitations are followed. Independentsector.org is a website that provides educational materials to non-profit managers. Its section on Advocacy includes information and links that will help you determine what you can do, and how to do it legally.
You’ll also want to be sure that the money you use to support advocacy efforts comes from sources that support your advocacy work. “Skimming” from money donated for a capital campaign or program in order to support advocacy work is poor form. Even if you can “get away with it” for some period of time, sooner or later the practice will catch up with you. The outcome, if you’re not transparent and careful about your advocacy practices and spending, can be legal issues or loss of donor support.
If you’re not eager to get involved with political advocacy, you can still make an impact – simply through getting out the word about your important work through your volunteers and board members. Staffing a table at a local ecology fair, talking up your work at a cocktail party, presenting a program to school children, or describing your work to the local Chamber of Commerce are all forms of advocacy.
While non-political advocacy may seem like a less effective approach than actually getting involved with public policy making, it can actually have similar impacts. For example, it can:
Raise awareness – not only of your organization, but also of your mission and its importance to the community at large. For example, teaching school children about the importance of health and nutrition can raise parents’ awareness of your organization and its impact on the community.
Raise support – even if you are not receiving direct donations as a result of non-political advocacy, you are increasing the support of your neighbours. When the time comes to ask for volunteers or gifts, or for help in a zoning or policy related concern, you’ll start to reap the benefits of your advocacy work.
Raise donations – when your neighbours know about your work, they’re more likely to consider supporting you financially. While that’s certainly the case for individuals, it’s also the case for corporations or local foundations that may have become aware your work because you’ve decided to self-advocate.
Local Political Advocacy
Advocacy need not be full scale lobbying on a national level. In fact, few non-profits take that route. If you’re running a small and/or community based non-profit, then you’ll want to exercise your advocacy muscles on the local level.
Is your town considering changes that will make transportation more difficult for your clients? Are new laws threatening the quality of drinking water for children who participate in your programs? Are funding cuts likely to undermine your ability to serve local families in need? All of these are local policy issues that could have a direct impact on your organization.
While the executive director of a non-profit can certainly get involved with local advocacy, the board is even better positioned to take action. Most non-profits work hard to recruit board members with some local status and power. Are there members of your board who already serve on local governing committees or boards? Even if they aren’t involved in the committee or board that most affects your non-profit, chances are they have friends who do have some influence.
Local advocacy can also take place outside of the strictly political arena. For example, you may be able to connect with powerful individuals at the Rotary Club or Kiwanis, at the Chamber of Commerce, or even at a church supper. A casual conversation with the right individual can change minds – and thus change policies.
Funding and policy decisions are often made at the state or provincial level, and many successful non-profit directors and boards have strong connections with their elected officials and appointees. Whether or not your non-profit actually supports candidates through campaigning or holding political events, you’ll benefit from having information about regional budgeting or policy changes that are likely to affect you.
Are there funds to be distributed or funding cuts in the works? It’s important that your elected officials are familiar with and supportive of your work so that when the time comes to earmark or protect money for projects, your organization rises to the top of the pile.
Regional advocacy can also involve some of the techniques used by political campaigners and activists. For example, some non-profits organize letter writing campaigns, petitions, and even marches to support or protest a particular budgetary or policy change at the regional level. Coalitions of non-profits in areas such as homelessness, mental health, the arts and child welfare may join together to strengthen their voices and get their messages heard.
Many of the techniques used in regional advocacy are equally appropriate at the national level. While one small non-profit can’t hope to sway a national government, a coalition of hundreds of similar non-profits from across the country can. And of course some of the largest non-profits are involved not only in national advocacy but in international advocacy work. Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders are examples of non-profits that provide services and get politically active – with impressive results.
As a non-profit, you have the right to be an advocate – whether for your own organization or for a larger cause. With appropriate attention to legal and ethical concerns, your advocacy can have a significant positive impact, both on your own work and on the larger community.