Before I even delve into nonprofit advocacy, let me address a common concern that many nonprofits have regarding this topic: nonprofits can’t lobby.
While the rules and regulations around lobbying are complex, advocacy and lobbying are very different. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management defines advocacy as, “Embracing causes to persuade others to support our issues and pour point of view,” something that we do as nonprofit professionals every day. Lobbying, the handbook points out, “is a very specific form of advocacy.” Lobbying is regulated by the IRS and means that you or others from your organization request that elected officials and other policy makers act a specific way on specific policy proposals. The IRS has a set of guidelines to help nonprofits determine how much lobby constitutes too much, which could jeopardize their status. However, advocating for a particular issue or cause, not connected to specific legislation or policy, is permissible and part of the fabric of the work we do.
It’s important to understand the difference between lobbying and advocacy is important as we, as nonprofit employees, are often the greatest advocates of our clients, our organizations, and our cause, and, most critically, our sector. As a sector nonprofits have unique concerns, specifically around issues like charitable donations, public support for culture, social services and education, and policies that affect workers such as healthcare and retirement. If we want to continue to work for a sector that is vibrant, viable and makes a real difference in the communities we serve, we also have to get involved in the issues that affect us. While these issues vary depending on your particular corner of the nonprofit world, I wanted to highlight a few organizations that are doing important work to advance the sector as a whole because they offer ample opportunities to learn about, and get involved in, nonprofit advocacy.
Independent Sector is a membership organization that brings together nonprofit and philanthropic organizations and provides research, policy briefs, an annual conference and advocacy for the sector, as well as resources on best practices and ethics.
The Freelancers Union: in addition to providing services such as insurance to freelance workers also engages in research and advocacy on behalf of freelance workers and hosts monthly members meetings that also act as strategy and information sharing sessions.
The Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest authors reports, holds media and stakeholder convenings, and educates and mobilizing sector leaders with the goal of increasing nonprofit advocacy. They offer trainings to help nonprofits deepen their social impact and adhering to laws around advocacy.
These organizations recommend simple ways to advocate: from links to email your representative about a certain issue to policy briefs and summaries that you can quickly read to be informed about an issue, there are many different ways you can get involved and support the sector. Certain fields also put together statewide and national advocacy days in state capitals and in Washington DC to meet with elected officials to discuss issues important to your sector. If you have particular concerns find out when these days take place and who is organizing a delegation to go and find out how get involved. In addition, talk to others at your organization and find out how your organization is already involved in advocacy efforts.
Overall, it is up to those of us working in nonprofits to educate ourselves, ensure that our voices are heard and that the good work we do goes recognized by society at large.
Eleanor Whitney is a writer, musician and arts administrator and project manager making it happen in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts and received her Master’s in Public Administration from Baruch College. Read all of Eleanor’s posts for YNPN-NYC.