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The Community Foundation Blog

Nonprofit Advocacy 101
By The Community Foundation / March 12, 2019
Nonprofit Advocacy 101

This year, the Community Foundation is hosting a series of learning opportunities about advocacy and the many ways nonprofits can engage to further their missions. Our kick-off event featured insights from Claire Gastañaga, Executive Director of ACLU Virginia, and panelists from area nonprofits that regularly engage in advocacy:

In case you missed it, here are some main takeaways from the event.

What is advocacy?

“Advocacy” includes a broad range of activities that can influence public policy. Claire Gastañaga shared that while many people think that advocacy means lobbying – or directly appealing to legislative or executive officials in order to influence specific legislation – there are lots of other ways that nonprofits can engage in advocacy. In fact, most of the advocacy that nonprofits do is not lobbying.

Advocacy can include:

  • Nonpartisan analysis, study or research
  • Public education around a given issue
  • Providing advice or technical assistance to legislators or executive officials when requested
  • Defending your organization’s sustainability through “self-defense communications” (for example, communicating your stance on proposed legislation that would reduce your local, state or federal funding)
  • Writing letters to the editor or op-eds to your local paper
  • Voter education

Of course, advocacy can also include lobbying. The event discussed two types of lobbying that nonprofits may take part in:

  • Direct lobbying - Communicating a view on a specific piece of legislation with a legislative or executive official involved in formulating legislation.
  • Grassroots lobbying - Communicating with the public to express a view on specific legislation and encouraging the public to contact their legislators. This form of lobbying always involves a call to action.

There are limits on a 501(c)(3)’s ability to lobby. Bolder Advocacy has a robust resource library where you can learn more, including Guidelines for 501(c)(3) Public Charities.

Why should nonprofits engage in advocacy?

During the panel discussion, Jon Lugbill weighed in. “There are policies and decisions made by local, state or federal governments that influence your outcomes. If you don’t go upstream and address the issues, we as nonprofits are just downstream treating the results of bad policies and procedures,” he said.

Nonprofit organizations are often the subject matter experts when it comes to their fields, he added. “If public officials care about that issue, they do want advice from someone who has a deeper understanding.”

How can my organization get started in advocacy?

  • Build buy-in among staff, board members and supporters. Getting started by addressing organizational sustainability issues, such as advocating for continued local or state funding, can serve as a good starting point to build a culture of advocacy within your organization.
  • Start small. Getting involved with an Advocacy Day at the General Assembly can also help build your organization’s familiarity with advocacy.  Invite members from your Board to join you.  If your work is tied to regional legislation, attend a City Council Meeting or a County Board of Supervisors Meeting.
  • Work together. Consider coming together with other organizations that share your mission in order to amplify your voice.  You can find and connect with other organizations in our Nonprofit Directory.

How can I learn more?

In the Learning Center, we have an online resource guide that features information from our kick-off panel as well as a host of articles and toolkits centered around nonprofit advocacy. Access the resource guide here.

The Community Foundation will continue to host workshops and learning opportunities around advocacy throughout the year. Our next session, How to Grow Your Impact Through Grassroots Advocacy and Policy Change, takes place on March 19 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.    

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