Grassroots advocacy can be a big part of the value that nonprofits generate.
Many in your audience—and especially the clients you serve—often do not have a strong voice on public policy. Their ability to shape decisions that impact them is minimal. But there is a solution.
You can be their voice. Your organization can speak for your people on issues before Congress, state legislatures, regulators and local officials. Your nonprofit status and the work you do convey massive credibility. Using that credibility to influence policy translates into massive value.
While nonprofits represent a powerful force in the advocacy landscape, the numbers suggest that many are still timid about advocacy. There are more than 1.5 million nonprofits registered in the U.S., according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics. Only a fraction use grassroots advocacy to help shape policy.
“Many small organizations see this as a big jump,” said Will Lopez, Vice President of Customer Success at Phone2Action. “But the benefits are enormous. An organization with a strong advocacy program is truly serving its mission. Clients can feel that. So can funders.”
Where to Start
How does an organization get started? As is often the case, the first step is education.
To begin framing an effective advocacy program, leadership and staff must understand the issues that are vital to your audience; the position your organization will promote on these issues; where these issues will be debated; and the forces aligned for and against you. Experts call it “situational awareness,” knowledge of the political landscape that allows you to operate effectively.
To frame your education process, ask yourself some key questions:
- Industry. Which issues are the organizations in your industry concerned about, and where are those issues being fought? Your industry will provide the quickest guide to what is important.
- Federal. Are their initiatives before Congress that impact your audience? Which lawmakers support your position and which stand in opposition? Many news outlets, watchdogs and public service organizations follow Congress and report on the action, so it is often not difficult to get a basic storyline.
- State. Are there bills before state legislatures that impact your audience? If so, which states? Understanding the state landscape is harder because there is far more action and it happens fast. This takes some work.
- Local. Is your audience impacted by city and county ordinances? Local government can play a large role in certain issues (homelessness is an example) and policy prescriptions can often jump from city to city very quickly. If your organization is impacted by city and county decisions, make sure you build local government into your program.
Gaining ‘Situational Awareness’
For those starting out, it is vital to create a radar system that will allow you to learn when and where your issues are discussed. If you don’t know there’s a bill moving in California or Tennessee, then you cannot get active.
Here again, start with your industry. If there are organizations that produce briefings and newsletters, get on those lists. One source that most nonprofits should monitor is a newsletter produced by the National Council of Nonprofits. There are also state nonprofit associations that can be helpful.
Your media diet is also extremely important. Major new outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times and Politico do a good job of covering Congress. But they do not cover everything, and you’ll have to add to your list. Consider trade journals and industry newsletters that focus on your space, regional news organizations that focus on the states you care about; and tailored Google alerts that supply information on your specific issues.
Tracking federal, state and local legislation directly is also important. When a bill is introduced in Congress or in the states, you’ll want to monitor it as it gains co-sponsors and gets debated in committee. Free tools such as Congress.gov and a 50-State Bill Tracker offered by the National Conference of State Legislatures can give you basic capabilities.
But the need to monitor multiple bills and keep track of large amounts of information soon makes that a messy prospect using only free tools. It can drain major amounts of time. Many organizations quickly look to professional legislative tracking solutions to get the job done. Professional tools monitor legislation at all levels of government, allow you to set up email alerts and contain all of your notes and information in one place. Most also offer reports, which can be circulated internally.
While many nonprofits start with free tools and then move to a professional solution, there’s an argument to be made to start with a strong, professional system. Starting with professional legislative tracking ensures that your organization is learning about issues from Day One and it gives you training and support as you begin your process. Most vendors will set up the system for you—including alerts on specific bills—and teach you how to optimise it.
As Lopez put it, “Professional tools make all of this dramatically easier. They allow you to put time into education and strategy rather than focusing on how to get good information. If your organization is serious, you should start with a strong system.”
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