Few words evoke more terror in nonprofit leaders than advocacy. Because of the fear, organizations without social change missions tend to forgo advocacy activities. Yet governments continue to shrink leaving more and more communities to depend on nonprofits instead of government for essential services.
At the same time, governments, whether federal, state, or local. are still a major source of funding for these programs and services. This dependence on government funds requires nonprofit leaders to educate government officials on the need for and cost incurred to run these essential programs. After all, government leaders will not prioritize a program, if they do not understand the need behind it particularly in their own community.
Additionally, government leaders are connected to their communities. Many constituents advise their representatives of their social service needs. Educated government representatives will refer their constituents to nonprofit programs and services.
Many nonprofit missions include a desire to educate the community on the needs of their clients. Often this education takes the form of presentations to diverse audiences, public service announcements, and other media opportunities. Reaching out to government leaders and personally inviting them to come as well as asking them to help with publicity is often vital to turnout success.
For all of these reasons, building relationships with government leaders is a key duty of nonprofit leadership. Surprisingly it is also a form of advocacy. In fact advocacy is educating government leaders on a topic whether it is connected to legislation, funding, or a general discussion of the needs of their communities. Given the competition for funding, organizations not involved in these activities are finding it increasingly difficult to survive let alone thrive.
Nonprofits are limited in the types of advocacy they can participate in. Those that are not careful can put their 501(c)3 or charity status in jeopardy. Nonprofits can and increasingly must educate leaders on the needs of the community, but they cannot advocate for a specific candidate or align themselves with a particular political party. This distinction can be easily crossed in election season. Nonprofit leaders (volunteer or staff) can advocate, financially support, and volunteer for a specific candidate or party but they need to make the distinction between their own activities rather than their activities as nonprofit leaders.
One of the mistakes I see most often is leaders sending candidate or party material using their nonprofit email address. Leaders carelessly leaving their position or connection to the nonprofit in their email signature line can also put the nonprofit at risk. Additionally, using nonprofit funds to attend a political event or support a candidate is prohibited.
Realizing the importance of advocacy activities for all nonprofits, the next post will discuss how leaders can advocate successfully.