So, your organization “doesn’t do” advocacy? Now’s a good time to rethink this.
There are excellent reasons to include advocacy in your scope of work. In ascending order of importance, this can:
- Help your bottom line, especially if government funding is part of your revenue pie chart.
- Expand awareness of your organization’s work.
- Help public officials do their jobs, since you are a key source of information about their constituents.
- Help improve your clients’ lives and the community you serve, by supporting good public policy.
- Counteract the radical right takeover of our federal government, and the untold damage this may cause.
These are not normal times, and our actions or inaction won’t have normal consequences. As public benefit organizations, all nonprofits need to raise their voices now, when they’re needed more than ever. It’s not a time to rely on someone else to get involved on our behalf. As Tip O’Neil famously said, “all politics are local.” We’re all the “someone else” now.
Think you’re legally prohibited from advocacy? You aren’t. There are some restrictions, but as long as you stay away from election campaigns and don’t spend a large share of your budget (and advocacy is not expensive), the ceiling is high. (The National Council of Nonprofits has a good resource on this topic.)
Here are three simple ways you can support your organization’s mission and the resistance through advocacy:
1. Organize members of the community you serve
Convene meetings of your clients, volunteers and community members to discuss policies and government actions that are affecting them. You can invite your elected officials or their staff members to join a dialogue. You can invite speakers to make topical presentations. You can also offer information on basic advocacy methods, to enable constituents to get their voices heard. And, you can help resister people to vote.
2. Educate the public and your clients
Use the power of your communication infrastructure to inform constituents about how they and your organization are affected by government actions. E-mail, newsletters and social media are great ways to reach people. Don’t ignore the elephant in the room!
3. Lobby for (or against) policies and decisions that will help (or harm) your community
Lobbying has become a dirty word in polite circles. Don’t be polite! Call, write and meet with legislators and policymakers. Bring a group of volunteers and/or constituents to the meetings. (That last sentence is so important, I’ll repeat it: Bring a group of volunteers and/or constituents to the meetings!) Tell them what bills or regulations your organization supports and opposes, and why. Tell them about community problems and the types of policy changes that would support your work.
And don’t forget to thank them when they do the right thing – they need your support too!
4. Create a culture of civic engagement in your organization
The day is gone when nonprofits can stay respectfully above the political fray. Instead, incorporate a spirit of civic engagement into your workplace and board cultures. This does not have to be partisan, and it shouldn’t be – it’s all about realizing your mission, telling your community’s stories, and communicating about what’s important through high-impact channels.
How do you change your organizational culture? It starts with leadership and action, modeling constructive engagement, and communicating often about why this is important.
After we change our individual organizations’ cultures, we can get to work on the national culture. But that’s for a longer post…