In my last post, I answered the age-old questions, “Can my 501(c)(3) really engage in advocacy?” The answer is a resounding YES. With that settled, it’s time to move on to the benefits of advocacy.
How can advocacy make a measurable difference for your organization?
Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant suggest that “[a]n organization… has to walk a tightrope of building the skills necessary to engage in advocacy, while continuing to provide services (or vice versa).” This is apparent, given the restriction on advocacy to 20 percent of your revenue up to a cap of $1 million. Additionally, there is often a demand on advocacy’s return on investment (ROI) by nonprofit boards, donors, and CEOs. All this being said, advocacy can be difficult to quantify.
As Crutchfield and McLeod cite Eric Stein, Chief Operating Officer of Self-Help, “Advocacy is difficult to manage. If you are managing a loan program, there are very discrete, quantifiable parts to the process. It’s very clear where everybody plugs in, and it’s clear what the goal is—to make a good loan”. Unlike a loan, advocacy entails multiple goals, competing interests and risk-taking that may not always yield the desired outcome. And since advocacy often involves coalitions, it can be difficult to measure who owns the success—or quite possibly the failure—of initiatives. To add to all this, navigating legislatures can be unwieldy: Bills can end up bottled up in committee, held hostage in exchange for concessions on other bills or even they could fall to the wayside, given the agenda or whims of the majority party in office, leaving the nonprofit to wait on a “policy window” of opportunity that could come years down the road.
These realities make it more evident that each nonprofit needs a unified voice, powerful enough to withstand the process of making policy. Once public opinion changes the tide of a given issue, it becomes difficult to ignore, bottle up, or trade for another agenda item that is seemingly more pressing to the decision maker. Once everyone is sending the same message, quantifying your voice by the number of actions advocates send as messages to the decision maker’s office is much easier.
There are also other ways to quantify efforts in advocacy. Organizations often resort to counting the number of contacts that they can communicate with in their database. Others equate it to the number of messages sent to decision makers, or by looking at whether a policy measure either passes or fails by vote in committee or on the floor of a legislative body. Others still measure by the number of letters mailed to editors of major newspapers and periodicals that are published as commentary or whether a newspaper publishes an op-ed from a nonprofit organization’s CEO or Executive Director. All of these are indicators that can help to contribute to your overall goal—moving the needle on societal change and, with it, your nonprofit’s mission.
What are the benefits of engaging in advocacy?
Engaging in advocacy can yield many advantages:
- New energy among your supporter base to help your mission succeed. The creation of supporters for your cause who will do anything you ask of them, including calling their Member of Congress, writing a letter or visiting Capitol Hill on your behalf to spread the word of your mission and why it is so vitally important to society.
- New contacts. With each action taken by advocates, there is the opportunity to virally spread the word about the action and, in turn, engage new contacts/advocates, building your database of people that you can communicate with at any time.
- New donors. By asking advocate to donate in support of the issue or campaign that they just took action on, you’re isolating the potential donors that are most likely to take action. “Online advocacy, in addition to advancing an organization’s mission, can be a significant feeder of prospects for fundraising. Organizations are growing increasingly sophisticated at converting activists to donors, but much potential still remains.”
- New advocates. By “engaging donors in online advocacy [it] helps to cement relationships with your cause and organization and hence enhances donor retention and lifetime value.” If a person is already willing to donate, chances are they are also willing to act. Just ask.
So, what should I focus on to get started in advocacy?
Crutchfield and McLeod suggest that there “five principles for successful policy change”.
- Balance pragmatism with idealism – Many successful organizations get to that level by focusing on providing solutions, rather than drawing attention to problems.
- Practice principled bipartisanship – Make the effort to put your cause above party politics. The Congressional Black Caucus mantra embodies this sentiment well, “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.”
- Preserve credibility and integrity – Knowing when to compromise is key to establishing lasting progress toward achieving your mission. Remain true to the data rather than bending it to serve your organization’s purposes. “Provide a rigorous analysis of the facts” and you will reap the rewards of policy that benefits your mission in a lasting and meaningful way.
- Hire policy expertise – Building the expertise to establish relationships with decision makers and their influencers is very important. Hiring staff that have a background in advocacy and lobbying will be an investment that pays off in dividends.
- Find funding for advocacy – The legislative process can often be slow and deliberate. Coupled with a demand for ‘instant gratification’ and payoff of advocacy investments, maintaining funding for advocacy efforts can sometimes be difficult . However, tying advocacy to fundraising can be as easy as including a donation button just after a supporter sends a letter to their decision maker. Further, advocacy can be an effective way to spread the word about your organization. After a supporter sends their letter to their representative, you can provide them with an easy one-click solution to spread the word on Facebook, Twitter, email, etc. In turn, those new advocates are also presented with the option of giving to the campaign they just took action on.
I will add one more here: invest in the tools and infrastructure that will make you successful. By investing in online advocacy tools like Blackbaud’s Luminate Online advocacy and email marketing modules, you can position your organization for success in not only spreading the word, but also measuring impact. With integrated tools to measure if someone receives an email and in turn takes action or makes a donation, a measurement of conversion takes place. Integrated tools like this can help you can succeed in breaking through the white noise and growing your supporter base, revenue stream and overall satisfaction with your organization and mission. So the question isn’t “should I engage in advocacy?” The question is, “why are we not engaging in advocacy?”
What are you waiting for? Get out there and make a difference.
   & Crutchfield, L. R. (2008). Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits. San Francisco, California, United States: Jossey-Bass.
 Zimmerman Lehman. (2010). Does Advocacy Help with Fundraising? Retrieved March 29, 2016, from Zimmerman Lehman: Forging Futures For Nonprofits: http://www.zimmerman-lehman.com/fundraising&advocacy.htm