Nonprofit Network Blog

The Difference Between Advocacy and Lobbying and Why We All Need to Do It!

Thursday, June 18, 2020 11:38 AM | Tracey Wilson (Administrator)


Laura Fuller
NN Capacity Builder

All too often I hear from nonprofit leadership that they are afraid to speak out on what they see as political issues.  Generally, the fears fall into two categories.  First, they are afraid they will get their IRS tax status revoked for being ‘political’ and second, they are concerned about public perceptions of their organization being too political or partisan, possibly costing them donors.

Let us start with a discussion about what lobbying is and what it isn’t.  The IRS defines lobbying narrowly.  There are two kinds of lobbying, direct and grassroots.  Direct Lobbying is direct contact with elected officials or their staff to try and enact specific legislation.  Grassroots Lobbying is attempting to sway public opinion on legislation.  The IRS also recognizes that some lobbying by a 501c3 is permissible, so long as it isn’t a major part of its work.  For example, when I worked for Cornell, once a year I made a trip to Albany to request a budget increase in the state budget for education.  That was the only lobbying I did, and thus, it was not a major part of my work.

Advocacy, however, is something ALL nonprofits should be doing, especially now.

Advocacy includes a broad range of activities focused on the changes you want to see made without saying ‘vote for this bill.’  You can present your research, you can write papers, you can show evidence, arrange a protest or march, and schedule time to meet with your elected representatives all without it being lobbying.  You can also share all the reasons you support specific legislation, and so long as you don’t ask them to vote a certain way, it isn’t lobbying, it is education.

Members of nonprofit leadership are some of the best people to advocate on behalf of the issues facing our communities.  We work in the trenches and see the problems facing our communities first hand.  Frequently, we’re the first people responding to those needs.  We serve the people who all too often don’t have the political capital or frankly the time to advocate to politicians. But when their voices are heard they can be particularly powerful. We all know how difficult it is for those working multiple hourly jobs to meet their basic needs already.  Finding a way to bring people along with you for an advocacy trip, though, can not only help to break down stereotypes, it can also open everyone’s eyes to the need to engage with our elected officials.

Plan. Create. Engage. Action. Momentum

Here are some things you can do to make an advocacy campaign as effective as possible:

  • Write a one page document that highlights the problem and the solution you would like to see enacted.  Infographics are perfect for this.  Officials are busy, and they won’t read something too wordy or long.
  • Set up your appointment two weeks out, then call back a week out to confirm, and then the day before.  Officials’ schedules are constantly changing.  You want to confirm your appointment to make sure of who you will be meeting (official or staff) and that a committee meeting didn’t get scheduled in the interim.
  • Be respectful of their staff.  Their staff have their attention.  If you impress the staff, you will be presented in the best possible light.  Don’t be disappointed if you meet with staff instead of the official.  Instead, send a follow up communication to the staff member, and build that relationship.
  • In politics, relationships and reputation are everything.  The more you interact with staff, the more seriously they’ll take you.
  • Do your research.  Know what their hot button issues are.  Know what they care about, what committees they serve on, what they did in their life before political office.  They more you tailor your message to them, the more effective you will be.
  • Don’t give up.  Our missions are often life or death for their constituents.  Make sure you can speak to that clearly!

A lot of times, people are nervous about meeting with their elected representatives.  The more you do it, the more you come to understand that they are people, too.  Many of them got into politics because of a desire to make the world a better place for the people they represent.  Assume good intentions and don’t ever give up.  Together, we can all make the world a better place.

If your organization needs help call (517-796-4750) or email us Info@Nonprofnetwork.org today for an appointment, we'd be happy to discuss a plan with you.

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