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Using our Power: six steps to deliver on the promise of nonprofit advocacy.

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

It has been almost three years since the country rose up to protest the murder of George Floyd.

The summer of 2020 promised a national reckoning with systemic racism. Yet little of the public angst led to systems change. 2023 began with the murder of Tyree Nichols but the calls for justice did not approach the response to George Floyd.

Many people still care deeply about climate change, police reform, LGBTQ rights, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, antisemitism, homelessness, poverty, women’s access to reproductive health care, and other issues. They want change. They march, issue statements, write letters, and elect public officials who support their goals. All good but not enough to create change.

There are robust barriers to change. The politics of a deeply polarized country. A history of racism. Deeply entrenched systems that require culture as well as policy and rule transformation. Apathy. Those who benefit from status quo will fight harder to keep it than those who challenge it. These barriers are a challenge but not a reason for nonprofits to step back from advocacy.

Tyree Nichols

No sector understands the need for systemic change more than nonprofits. No sector is more committed to the issues that demand attention. And as one of the largest parts of the American economy, no sector has greater potential to exert considerable political influence. But as the National Council of Nonprofits has noted, only a very small percentage of nonprofits actively engage in advocacy. We need the knowledge, imagination, and strength of the nonprofit sector to push for change.

For the past three years, we consulted with foundations and other nonprofits around advocacy. Before that, we worked for thirty years as lobbyists, coalition-builder, policy advocates, and healthcare and human service executives. We follow the success stories of those groups who seek to ban books and those who seek to ban garbage incinerators.

We learned that, with the following six steps, organizations of even a small size can punch above their weight.

  1. Identify specific advocacy goals - in public policy, program design, system implementation, funding, laws. These goals form the basis of the advocacy agenda. It is easy to get distracted by a laundry list of things that need changing. Keep the focus. Read Case Study | ILCHWA

  2. Get the Board on Board. Inspire and orient the Board to the implications of investing in advocacy for both their fiduciary responsibilities and their stewardship roles. Boards can be an incredible asset, bringing insight, personal connections, and reputation to an initiative. Read Case Study | Michael Reese

  3. Join, or if there isn’t one, convene a coalition to reach goals. This is a strategy to share work and glory, to build out networks of influence. Most importantly, coalitions of significant numbers of concerned citizens and endorsing organizations creates the perception of power essential to persuading decision-makers to support your goals.

  4. Play to win. Activities like brainstorming with like-minded people, drafting position papers, and convening coalitions quickly become meaningless without movement to the end goal. Work gets stuck in the “getting ready” phase, in echo chambers and meetings to have meetings. Keeping focused on the end-goal takes disciplined implementation of a plan of action including accountability. Monsignor John J. Egan, an activist priest who was head of the Office of Community Affairs at DePaul University, used to begin the weekly meetings of the Payday Loan Coalition in the 1990s with one question to members seated around the table: “What have you done for this cause this week?” Successes and setbacks never stopped him from demanding that members speak up about their work to move the cause forward. If you are a foundation which wants to invest in advocacy, consider investing in organizations that have demonstrated an ability to push decision-makers to change policy, program, funding, or systems. This means going beyond what advocacy activities foundations usually fund like policy research, strategic planning, message development, listening sessions, convening groups, and conference presentations. The Wieboldt Foundation uses some very subtle techniques for identifying community organizations that move or have potential to move the needle. Their success rate in choosing impactful community organizations is impressive.

  5. Approach this as a marriage, not a date. It demands commitment over time, over years in fact. In Oregon, nonprofits advocated for $150 million in state support to address affordable housing, one of several successes. Their work was funded by the Meyer Memorial Trust who invested $15 million from FY15-19 to support organizations engaged in advocacy, policy and systems change working to insure that “every Oregonian has a decent, safe, and affordable place to call home.”

  6. Identify, train, and allocate time to staff to do the work. Foundations can support this investment by supporting advocacy staff with training and funding even if they cannot direct funds to lobbying. CEOs and Executive Directors have important roles to play in the work. Realistically however, even if they are experienced advocates, they have too many responsibilities- board work, fundraising, staff leadership- to be point on an advocacy initiative. Instead, organizations committed to advocacy need to identify and prepare people to do the work. A trained advocate understands how to leverage select activities to build the power necessary to win. They know about developing policy, convening coalitions, crafting persuasive fact sheets, building relationships with influential people, educating, and sometimes lobbying elected and appointed decision-makers, and following through to make sure commitments translate into detailed change. They don’t stop until they get results. Sadly, there is little investment in the recruiting, training, and funding of advocacy staff. Universities and state and federal associations try to fill in this gap by providing one-time training programs and advocacy tool kits. But these efforts rarely translate into the level of sustained action needed to reach advocacy goals. In contrast, the Council for National Policy, a prominent funding network for right-wing causes, invests in the Leadership Institute, an educational institution which prepares conservatives for success in politics, government, and the news media. They train the activists in groups like Moms for Liberty which advocates for parental rights in schools.

At Rakove and Strassberger, we have been giving a great deal of thought about how to create a cadre of emerging advocacy leaders in all types of nonprofit organizations. Through our newly expanded program of workshops, we are doing just that.

— Roberta Rakove and Suzanne Strassberger

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