Five Questions to Improve Nonprofit Advocacy Efforts

Philanthropy has a history of great success, from the anti-apartheid movement to Sesame Street. Donors today want to have a similar impact. According to the Harvard Business Review, “[they] don’t want to fund homeless shelters; they want to end homelessness.” But a dramatic change in social policy takes effort, time, and the willingness to advocate purposefully.

Philanthropists want to make change happen; it’s what drives them to fund nonprofit advocacy efforts. The political climate today is intimidating, though, and most donors want to stay away from the melee; but a 2017 Bridgespan study shows that of the 15 most socially impactful stories from the last century, “80 percent involved changing government funding flows, policies, or actions.”

Unless donors want to see the issues they care about suffer setbacks by opponents, they need to strategize and put their money where their mouths are. Here are five questions for philanthropists and their grantees to consider to get the most out of their advocacy.

What Are the Rules of Engagement?

In a 2016 poll, 85 percent of American voters polled said that they wanted charities and nonprofits to have the same freedom to communicate with policymakers that corporations and unions do. Some confusion exists about what the US Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section 501(c) — the law governing tax-exempt organizations — allows philanthropists to do regarding advocacy.

501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations

The most common type of nonprofit is a 501(c)(3) public charity. The IRC defines these organizations as having any of the following purposes:

  • Charitable
  • Religious
  • Educational
  • Scientific
  • Literary
  • Testing for the public safety
  • Fostering national or international amateur sports competition
  • Preventing cruelty to children or animals

The IRC prohibits these organizations from participating in or influencing political campaigns on a candidate’s behalf, and violations may result in loss of their tax-exempt status or imposition of heavy taxes. Nonprofits can lobby though — within limits — without losing their tax-exempt status. How much time and money nonprofits spend on lobbying activities are the two limits imposed.

The IRC defines lobbying as the contacting of, or the urging of others to contact, lawmakers to propose, support, or oppose legislation. Advocating for an issue’s adoption or failure is also considered lobbying. Nonprofits can educationally address policy without it being considered lobbying; for example: distributing educational materials, conducting research, or holding educational meetings.

501(c)(4) Tax-Exempt Organizations

Nonprofits that solely promote social welfare are another type of tax-exempt entity, called 501(c)(4), but contributions to them are not tax deductible. They can lobby without limits and can even get involved politically, to some extent. These groups are sometimes created by 501(c)(3) organizations to do their advocacy work, but it must align with their mission.

Who Is Your Opposition?

Almost every issue has two sides, and for nonprofit advocacy to be effective, it must counter that opposition. Advocates need to consider all sides and try to anticipate who their challengers are. Anticipation requires research and maybe a little thinking outside the box to get a complete picture. Opponents may come from unanticipated places, and may not be vocal enough to draw attention.

An advocacy campaign should have a clear understanding of the opposition’s message, once they’ve identified who their opponents are. An effective strategy is to steer the conversation away from their arguments and focus instead on the charity’s main issues. A defensive position is not a strong one because it puts control in the offense’s hands; being proactive is being in control.

Do You Have an Opportunity Map for Strategizing?

Opportunity mapping “illustrate[s] where opportunity-rich communities exist, assess[es] who has access to those neighborhoods, and help[s] to understand what needs to be remedied in opportunity-poor neighborhoods.”

Grantees can use mapping as tangible information for their donors and, together, they can prioritize their allocation of resources. Susan Wolf Ditkoff, who has worked extensively with philanthropists and institutional donors, says that opportunity mapping “draw[s] out critical information, such as a state’s political makeup, pending litigation, pertinent legislation and laws, opposition forces, and allies and coalitions—the elements of a cogent strategy.”  

Are Your Messages Aimed at Gaining Support or Pleasing Your Base?

The phrase “preaching to the choir” comes to mind here; focusing on your existing supporters takes energy from gaining new support. While an organization can’t ignore its base, it can craft campaign language to draw in support from groups that may be on the fence.

Polling has been shown to be an effective way to understand what a target group wants and what matters to them. The polled participants can then give feedback about the charity’s messages, and advocates can create effective campaigns.

In the highly partisan atmosphere that we live in, advocates must enlist the help of groups on the other side of the political spectrum, or at least bipartisan support. While advocacy often has a political bent, we are human after all; we can find common ground.

Are You Using Technology to Educate and Advocate?

Although social media isn’t the only technology available, it is a powerful tool that can help a nonprofit campaign succeed by educating and building support.

Studies show that successful nonprofit campaigns devote about 50 percent of their online content to news, updates, and education. The most effective strategy is to use multiple platforms to reach the most people. One of the most popular ways to do this is by using images and videos as the “front door” to the campaign — believe it or not, puppies and kittens work.

Nonprofits can use social media to strengthen the relationship with their existing support network. Q&A forums stimulate conversation, while recognition and kudos bolster support. When an active communication forum is open, advocates can engage the public and build relationships, maybe even spurring action.

Social listening tools allow organizations to monitor the impact that their campaign is having. Diana Onken, director of the Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), says that listening tools helped their group launch one of their most successful email campaigns: “The insight we gained through social listening required a significant change in our messaging timeline and tone.”

Making Big Change Happen

Philanthropists want to help make grand and worthy policy changes, but that won’t happen unless they are willing to step up. Asking these five questions will inform donors and their grantees, helping them meet and overcome challenges as well as discover new opportunities. Real, impactful change is possible if they employ the right strategy is employed.