Nonprofits’ missions change the world and improve their constituents’ lives with the generous support of their donors. Nonprofits can take these goals a step further by conducting advocacy campaigns that grow their networks and mobilize supporters to take action on key issues related to their mission. Of course, advocacy campaigns aren’t planned overnight, and you’ll need to develop a comprehensive nonprofit advocacy toolkit to help your campaign find success.
You might be hesitant to launch a nonprofit advocacy campaign out of fear of losing your organization’s 501(c)3 status. While nonprofits can lose their status if they spend excessive amounts lobbying, for most nonprofit advocacy campaigns, this won’t be an issue. The exact amount you’re allowed to spend varies depending on the size of the nonprofit, but as long as it’s not a substantial amount compared to other spending, your nonprofit’s 501(c)3 status will be safe.
In fact, rather than costing your organization funds, nonprofit advocacy, especially digital advocacy, has the potential to grow your nonprofit and encourage positive political change.
To help you launch an effective nonprofit advocacy campaign, this guide will share four tips for how to make an impact and sustainably run growing advocacy campaigns, including:
- Create an Advocacy Process
- Learn How to Write Policy Briefs
- Use Bill Tracking Software
- Stay Up-to-Date on Nonprofit Thought Leaders
Your nonprofit advocacy work shouldn’t be a one-and-done experience, but a new branch of your organization. Invest in essential resources, do the necessary research, and start making positive change in the world through advocacy.
Nonprofit Advocacy Tip 1: Create an Advocacy Process
Nonprofit advocacy takes many forms and includes educating supporters about key issues, engaging with elected officials, and furthering the nonprofit’s mission through reform and spreading awareness.
Many nonprofits launch advocacy campaigns to benefit their constituents by seeking political change. These campaigns also offer a nonprofit’s supporters another way to get involved and contribute to their cause. Subsequently, this makes nonprofit advocacy an effective way for nonprofits to deepen their connections with their current base and attract new supporters.
Larger nonprofits have the potential to create high-impact advocacy campaigns that draw public attention to their mission. However, smaller nonprofits can also affect change in their communities and grow their local support networks by tackling local issues.
This means that whether your nonprofit is small or operating at an enterprise level, you’ll need to have an organized process for launching your campaigns. You can improve and grow your nonprofit advocacy campaigns with the following steps:
- Use software to build an internal organizational structure. Traditional public policy efforts usually rely on hiring lobbyists, but nonprofits can form internal structures for their advocacy campaigns and designate an individual to oversee a legislative committee. The use of advocacy software, such as Muster, also helps to provide structure for a nonprofit’s advocacy communications.
- Engage in digital advocacy to attract supporters. Get the word out about your mission and public policy efforts by implementing digital communication best practices. Email your members and ask them to share your advocacy initiatives through their social media channels.
- Create “Action Centers” on your website. Action Centers are a place on your website dedicated to giving your supporters the tools they need to join your nonprofit advocacy campaign. Action Centers have a variety of tools and often include email templates, elected official directories, and information on your current campaigns.
- Provide updates on your advocacy efforts. Keep your supporters informed and engaged by providing regular updates throughout the entirety of your campaign.
- Recognize outstanding advocates for your nonprofit. Identify which of your members or supporters has been writing to their elected officials, attending advocacy meetings, or referring your online “Action Centers” to their friends through social media. Then, encourage these "super" advocates to speak to other members or potential members of your organization about their story and why they are so passionate about your mission.
Maintaining an active base of advocates is essential to your campaign’s success. By establishing a structured internal process for your campaigns, you’ll be able to create a continuous cycle in which you recruit new supporters, provide them with the necessary tools for your campaign, and recognize your members’ success.
Bonus: Find the right software to improve your advocacy process with Muster's ebook, 10 Factors to Consider Before Purchasing Advocacy Software.
Nonprofit Advocacy Tip 2: Learn How to Write Policy Briefs
If your nonprofit advocacy campaign manages to pick up enough support, you may end up attending a face-to-face meeting with a legislator on behalf of your organization on an advocacy mission. If (and, ideally, when) this happens, make sure to provide the lawmaker with a policy brief.
Leaving this informative and persuasive report with the lawmakers is a strategic move that provides key decision-makers with important information about your policy stance. Of course, nonprofit professionals who are new advocacy campaigns might need assistance drafting their first brief.
Anatomy of a Policy Brief
A policy brief is a succinct synopsis of a policy issue. While some policy briefs may be unbiased and objective, advocacy-specific policy briefs will include strong policy recommendations to convince lawmakers to pursue your nonprofit’s desired course of action.
The report should present these policy-relevant recommendations in a very clear manner and include the following elements:
- Executive summary. Policy briefs should include a short summary that provides an overview of the rest of the brief.
- Introduction with background information. Introduce the problem your recommendations will solve and provide any additional context needed for your audience to understand why the problem matters and action needs to be taken.
- Policy-relevant recommendations. Explain what your nonprofit believes needs to be done to solve the problems you have outlined.
- Photos and/or graphs. Visuals are optional, but a well-designed photo or graph supporting your recommendations can often be more persuasive than text alone.
You can edit the exact titles of these sections based on your nonprofit’s policy recommendations. For example, most nonprofits will likely title their introduction using language that references their cause and adequately frames the problem they are addressing.
How to Write a Policy Brief
Familiarizing yourself with the structure of a policy brief should be your first step in learning how to write one. From there, you can further your knowledge by studying example policy briefs from past campaigns and seeing effective strategies in action. Here are a few tips to help you start your research into what makes a policy brief successful:
- Keep it short. Policy briefs are typically a page to a page-and-a-half long, with roughly 700 words. Effective policy briefs will be concise and clear. A lawmaker does not have the time to read a full booklet on your policy recommendations. If you have complex data you want to share to make your recommendations more persuasive, consider including a graph, which can help you make your point faster while also providing a visual.
- Provide actionable recommendations. While you may want sweeping reform, remember that the lawmaker reading your policy brief is looking for realistic, pragmatic solutions.
- Create a sense of urgency. As mentioned, your policy brief should make a case for why the lawmaker needs to follow your recommendations now.
- Frame your brief in terms lawmakers will understand. A policy brief is ultimately a persuasive document and should be written with your audience’s knowledge and interests in mind. This means eliminating overly complex terms and framing your recommendations based on how they will impact the lawmaker’s constituents.
Whether you’re skilled at writing compelling advocacy materials or need extra help, don’t settle on your first draft. Conduct extensive research on the problem you are addressing, the potential ramifications of your recommendations, and the lawmaker to whom you are presenting your brief. Then, edit, proofread, and rewrite as necessary until your brief is as complete and persuasive as possible.
Nonprofit Advocacy Tip 3: Use Bill Tracking Software
Before your nonprofit launches an advocacy campaign, you should invest in the proper software to manage and organize your advocacy efforts. When paired with grassroots advocacy software, a legislative tracking service can empower your team with the digital tools to take a comprehensive approach to advocacy strategy. Legislative tracking software allows users to follow the legislative journey of bills that are of interest to them.
We've compiled a list of legislative tracking services that your nonprofit can use in conjunction with Muster's robust advocacy communications tools:
GovHawk offers a “personalized legislative and regulatory tracking solution for government affairs professionals.” They pride themselves on their usability, accuracy, and support, and their tracking covers all 50 states, Puerto Rico, DC, and the U.S. Congress.
BillTrack50 is an easy-to-use website covering state and federal bills and regulations. They offer both a free research service and competitively priced options for tracking. BillTrack50 specializes in sharing tools like maps, legislator scorecards, and an app that helps nonprofit advocacy campaigns keep their members up to date.
PoliticoPro, and, more specifically, their Legislative Compass option, is the bill tracking tool from news giant Politico. PoliticoPro currently offers tracking for federal legislation covering 16 policy areas, as well as select states (California, Florida, New Jersey, New York), making it a great choice for nonprofit advocacy campaign leaders.
GovTrack allows you to follow the journey of bills going through the United States House and Senate. You can sift through bills by topic, keyword, sponsor, and status for free, making it a useful tool for nonprofits with small budgets looking to affect change at the Federal level.
LexisNexis State Net
LexisNexis is a renowned legal and government research database. Although we've never encountered a client who uses their legislative tracking tool, their services should be considered by nonprofits looking for a reliable service.
State Specific Services
The National Conference of State Legislatures has presented a list of bill tracking services offered by each state legislature. Each state legislature offers some form of bill tracking service, although these services are likely less wide-ranging in what they offer than the other private services listed.
While not an absolute necessity, legislative tracking software can help your nonprofit keep track of changes in your policy environment and streamline your advocacy efforts. If you're looking to adopt bill monitoring or legislative tracking, it's vital to look at all your options and find what works best for your nonprofit.
Nonprofit Advocacy Tip 4: Stay Up-to-Date on Nonprofit Thought Leaders
Just as you might read your local newspapers to keep up-to-date with community events, keeping up with nonprofit trends and news helps your organization stay better informed about your sector. Learning from innovative nonprofit leaders and influencers can equip your nonprofit’s leadership to excel by introducing your organization to new strategies and ideas.
Nonprofit blogs and reports are an important part of your nonprofit advocacy toolkit, as they can provide new insight into how you can best leverage the limited resources at your disposal. Of course, there are many great resources out there.
To help you stay up-to-date with current nonprofit thought leaders, we’ve compiled a list of five thought leaders in the nonprofit, nonprofit technology, and grassroots spaces to inspire your nonprofit advocacy efforts:
- The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The Chronicle self-identifies as an online news organization, but it provides a fantastic balance of relevant nonprofit news stories and articles focused on providing tips for its nonprofit audience. The Chronicle also provides a daily newsletter, delivering its articles directly to your email inbox.
- GuideStar Blog. As a nonprofit leader, you’re likely already familiar with GuideStar and for good reason. Priding itself as the world's largest source of nonprofit information, GuideStar’s mission is to “revolutionize philanthropy by providing information that advances transparency, enables users to make better decisions, and encourages charitable giving.”
- Independent Sector. Independent Sector curates great content that is a must-read for anyone even thinking about running a nonprofit advocacy campaign. With a focus on policy and advocacy advice for nonprofit organizations, this organization's website is chock-full of resources for all nonprofit advocacy professionals.
- Nonprofit Quarterly. Often a go-to resource for many 501(c)3 organization leaders, Nonprofit Quarterly provides innovative thinking across a wide range of topics, from fundraising and nonprofit technology management to political advocacy and grassroots campaigns. Nonprofit Quarterly also offers a robust selection of resources, most notably many free webinars.
- Knight Foundation. An online hub for civic innovation, the Knight Foundation is an impactful organization with many different programming areas, from media innovation support to early-stage company funding. The Foundation's blog pulls great content from its own staff and also external thought leaders, providing readers with a wide range of insights from various professionals.
As a leader at your nonprofit organization, you may think you don’t have a lot of time to stop and read, but doing so allows you to work smarter, discover new opportunities, and expand your overall knowledge about your sector. Keeping your finger on the pulse of current nonprofit advocacy campaigns can help you steer yours to avoid common pitfalls and take advantage of any expected windfalls.
Nonprofit advocacy can transform your organization for the better, introducing new supporters to your cause while enacting tangible change at the local, state, or federal level, depending on the scope of your campaign. Plus, you won’t need to change how your nonprofit is run dramatically.
The advocacy growth strategies shared in this guide revolve around two central ideas: investing in the right resources and staying up to date on current trends in your sector. By following these strategies, your nonprofit can position itself to launch effective, strategic campaigns and identify actionable opportunities to gain more followers for your cause.
To further expand your nonprofit advocacy toolkit, here are a few resources that explain the ins and outs of advocacy campaigns in greater detail:
- The Ultimate Guide to Advocacy Campaigns (+ Best Practices). Advocacy campaigns have many moving parts. Get familiar with advocacy campaign fundamentals and best practices.
- Grassroots Advocacy 101: A Guide for Those New to Political Advocacy. If you’re new to grassroots advocacy, explore our 101 guide to learn the basics or reaffirm your knowledge.
- 5 Advocacy Examples to Inspire Action and Motivate Change. Interested in learning from previously successful campaigns? Explore these five examples of advocacy to learn more.