Grassroots Advocacy 101: A Guide for Those New to Political Advocacy

June 7, 2016 at 1:00 PM

Among nonprofits and organizations that practice government relations, grassroots advocacy is a ubiquitous term. While aware of the term, the average person on the street may not understand the complexities of grassroots advocacy. Developing campaigns that build awareness, capture supporters, and create political change is no easy task. Nonprofits, civic groups, and more work tirelessly to empower their supporters to make their voices heard.

What Is Grassroots Advocacy?

Grassroots advocacy is the process of communicating with the general public and asking them to contact their local, state, or federal officials regarding a particular issue. In contrast to direct lobbying, grassroots advocacy is often citizen-based activism. 

It's a fairly straightforward concept. 

The confusion surrounding grassroots advocacy stems from misconceptions about lobbying. Some people may make assumptions and say, "don't we have lobbyists who do this for a living?" and the answer is, technically, yes. However, there is a difference between lobbying and grassroots advocacy. 

Direct lobbying conducted on behalf of an organization is exercised by lobbyists, government relations teams and can involve members or staff of an organization. Grassroots advocacy, on the other hand, is considered indirect lobbying. Grassroots advocacy initiatives aim to involve citizens personally affected by an issue at the heart of an organization's mission. They care about it so much that they “plant seeds” of concern — growing awareness and engaging citizens organically, like grass. Hence the name.

Even corporations, who in the past have relied on direct lobbying, are now utilizing grassroots advocacy. Whether it be for corporate social responsibility, to create better business outcomes, or secure a better work environment for their employees, grassroots advocacy is being adopted more and more across a spectrum of organizations.

Who Conducts Grassroots Advocacy?

There are a core group of organizations that conduct grassroots advocacy — organizations classified as 501c3's and member-based trade/professional organizations classified as 501c6's. While both are nonprofits with ultimately the same objective, to affect policy, how they approach grassroots advocacy can be very different. 

For member-based organizations, 501c6's, advocacy is a core component of their member engagement strategy (along with education and events) and is vital to proving the effectiveness of their organization. These associations often have a core group of supporters to build their advocacy around and supplement their digital efforts with in-person advocacy. These organizations conduct advocacy because at stake is an issue that will directly affect their members and livelihoods. 

The sole purpose of a charitable organization is to fight for the cause at the heart of its mission.

What better way to do this than create political change?

With grassroots advocacy, 501c3's can use their extensive network of donors, stakeholders, and supporters to drive grassroots action. With that being said, there is a great deal of confusion around lobbying and advocacy for charitable organizations. There are more regulations in place for 501c3's when it comes to political activities, but that doesn't mean you can't fight for better policy outcomes.

“But I don't want to put my 501c3 status in jeopardy.”

Don't worry. You're not going to. But, if your concerns haven’t been alleviated yet, I would recommend taking the 501(h) election. This will simplify the reporting you'll have to do for your "lobbying" efforts and clarify the constraints the IRS has in place about expenditures on lobbying.

When is the Most Effective Time to Launch Grassroots Advocacy Campaigns?

There's no one true answer here, but that's okay! It's very dependent upon your organization, its reach, and how the policy environment looks. Here are a few examples of the most effective times to run a grassroots advocacy campaign:

  • When Your Issue Is Getting Exposure.
    • If you have eyes on your issue and people are talking about it, that's the time to launch a campaign and capture that momentum.
  • When You Want To Generate Awareness.
    • Advocacy and education go hand in hand. If you want to educate supporters and elected officials on a piece of policy or an issue, create a campaign.
  • When Your State Legislative Body Is In Session.
    • If you are an organization that works within a particular state, the optimum time would be when your state legislature is in session. (Virginia's, for example, starts in January and runs 60 to 30 days depending on the year).
  • Anytime.
    • If you're working locally, there's always an opportunity to create a campaign, and that also applies at the federal level. 

As bills and issues pop up, organizations will spring into action and leverage members, supporters, and the general public to use their voices and take action. Regardless of whether you're actively running a campaign or not, it's essential to keep your supporters informed and listen to them if they feel you should be advocating for something.

Where is Grassroots Advocacy Conducted?

When we talk about where grassroots advocacy campaigns are conducted, we're referring to the 3 levels of government — this often dictates the size of your potential supporter base and whom you're targeting in a campaign. 

  • Local: Think city council, a school board, your mayor. A common hesitation that people have about grassroots advocacy is that they think their issue isn't significant enough. That’s not true. Local grassroots advocacy sometimes becomes the most effective because the policy directly impacts every citizen's day-to-day lives in a town or county.

  • State: This is where a large volume of grassroots advocacy occurs. Every state has its respective legislative body, governor, attorney general, etc. Advocating at the state level requires highly engaged supporters and a well-managed campaign as the legislation moves between different committees and legislative bodies.

  • Federal: These issues are often the most daunting — reaching out to Congress, the President, a regulatory body, and gaining traction is no easy task. However, with technology at your disposal, it is easy to drive grassroots action by creating scalable campaigns allowing people across the country to raise awareness and contact their respective representatives about a national issue.

How Can You Create An Effective Grassroots Advocacy Campaign?

Creating an effective grassroots advocacy campaign often requires a two-pronged approach: in-person advocacy and digital-based advocacy.

In-Person Grassroots Advocacy

There are many ways people can gather to help drive political change — the most obvious being a rally, march, or protest. We consider this more awareness building than anything, and for many issues, generating a large enough crowd to have an effect will be next to impossible. Marches require organized, cohesive leadership that helps make sure messaging and efforts stay true to the core group's cause. That being said, a rally that is organized and effective can genuinely help spark a movement and get people involved.

A great way to get people educated, organized, and involved physically is by holding a lobby day. Utilized at the state and federal level, a lobby day is where an organization gathers a core group of its supporters to visit elected officials and have face-to-face conversations about crucial issues and legislation.  

Some tips for holding an effective lobby day for in-person grassroots advocacy

  • Meet the day or morning before you're scheduled to have your lobby day. This ensures that everyone is on the same page, knows how to conduct themselves, and is educated on the topics. 
  • Send your supporters in with talking points, literature, and other relevant materials. This ensures the conversation stays policy-focused and that a cohesive message is being delivered across all fronts.
  • Have a system in place to track your efforts. Whether it be a spreadsheet or your advocacy CRM, have your supporters report back on how their meetings went, what issues seemed significant to the legislator, and what didn't.

Want to learn more about holding an effective lobby day? Check out our blog on the topic. 

Before a bill is passed, it must travel tirelessly through multiple committees and legislative bodies in its respective government. While this is occurring, there are critical points where the public can come forward and make their voice heard in a meeting. This could be a city council meeting at the local level or the Finance Committee in your state — this is a time where you can call on key advocates to tell their story and relay their concern as a constituent. This is another excellent way to get key stakeholders in front of elected officials to help create change. 

Digital Grassroots Advocacy

There will always be a place for in-person advocacy, and it will continue to remain vital for government relations efforts. However, the real power lies in creating compelling digital grassroots advocacy campaigns that reach more people, drive more action around an issue, and are measurable for the organizations running them. 

There are many ways a person can engage with their elected officials digitally, and with the use of advocacy software, the process is incredibly easy for them. Email advocacy, patch-through phone calls, social media, video messages — all of these methods are effective, measurable, and help drive political change. 

With tools like Muster, organizations can quickly and easily send out targeted campaigns to their supporters, embed action centers on their website, and make their campaigns shareable via social media. With a few clicks, this allows their advocates to be matched with their elected officials, send a message to them, and help spread the word. Every action taken grows the cause and the organization's grassroots advocacy network a little stronger. 

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What makes using a digital advocacy platform for your grassroots campaigns even better is capturing all of this comprehensive data around your efforts. See the issues your supporters are most engaged in, what campaigns gathered the most new supporters, and how many messages your organization managed to send to elected officials. These are things only possible with a grassroots advocacy platform.

Some Tips & Tricks For Improving Your Grassroots Advocacy

A Well Designed Website or Microsite

Ensuring your supporters have a great experience with your website or microsite will help increase engagement rates and new supporter sign-ups. 

If you don't know, a microsite is typically a one to three-page website focusing solely on one particular issue. With a microsite, it's easy to map out your supporter's journey — making sure they become educated on the issue, take action, and then share. 

Email Marketing

Regardless of whether or not you're currently running a campaign, having a solid email marketing strategy to leverage for your grassroots advocacy is crucial. It keeps people engaged and educated about issues, but you can also use your organization's events, education efforts, and more to feed into your advocacy. 

Balancing A United Front With Personal Messages

Elected officials, especially those at the local and state level, love to hear personal stories from their constituents. One powerful story from a supporter can leave a lasting impact. How do you balance that with your talking points, though? It's tricky, but if you know you have a lot of supporter stories to pull from, leave some room for message customization in your campaigns. It will also help keep your messages from looking too uniform. 

4 strategies to improve your digital advocacy blog cta

Why Does Grassroots Advocacy Matter?

From the tiniest town, all the way up to the federal government, the duty of elected officials is to listen to their constituents and address their concerns. 

One of our civic responsibilities as citizens of the United States is to inform our elected officials on essential issues to our communities and us. Our representatives cannot constantly craft solutions to their constituency's problems if they aren't hearing from them. Grassroots advocacy is an effective and powerful way to communicate with elected representatives and start a policy-centered conversation to create systemic change.

Grassroots advocacy software makes it even easier for organizations to rally their supporters around an issue by simplifying the process for everyone involved. 

Organizations can quickly and easily send out targeted campaigns to their supporters, embed action centers on their website, and make their campaigns shareable via social media. With a few clicks, supporters can be matched with their elected officials, send a message to them, and help spread the word. With every action taken, the cause grows a little stronger.

 

Corey Vaughn

Written by Corey Vaughn

Corey leads marketing and brand efforts at Muster — creating content and initiatives to help nonprofits reach their advocacy and engagement goals.

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