Blog post by Mike Brand
Let’s talk about advocacy. Many nonprofit organizations regularly engage in advocacy to advance a particular cause. Some organizations’ primary function is to advocate for change. There are also countless organizations that do not engage in advocacy, or at least think that they don’t. And they are missing out!
If your organization falls into that last category keep reading! I’m going to tell you how your organization can benefit from advocacy and how you can move your nonprofit ambassadors from knowledge to action.
What is Advocacy?
When people hear the term advocacy they often think of a major protest or perhaps an organization like the ACLU pops to mind. But we are all advocates. Even if you aren’t engaging in advocacy as part of your day-to-day activities you have advocated for yourself at some point in your life. Did you ever make the case to your boss for a raise? You were advocating for yourself.
Even our children are little advocates. They advocate for a later bed time, one more story, or five more minutes on a video game. In each one of those examples, your kids were trying to influence you, a decision-maker, to support their position on a particular issue.
That’s all advocacy really is, actions taken to influence decisions in support of a cause, often with the intention of bringing about change.
You probably have been doing some kind of advocacy this whole time and didn’t even realize it. Convincing a donor to shift their funding, swaying your board to support a new initiative, etc.
Why do Nonprofit Advocacy?
Whether you are a large national organization, or a small community-based nonprofit, if you have a cause or an issue that is connected to your mission, advocacy can directly help you.
For example, if you work for an organization serving people with disabilities, you could be advocating for a law to be passed that requires disabled workers to be paid the minimum wage. Or, if your organization runs afterschool programs for kids you could engage with your local or state representatives and advocate for government funding to support your program.
The possibilities are really endless.
Advocacy also offers your supporters a way to get more involved in your work and support your cause. So often we only give our supporters two options, donate or volunteer. But, by giving your nonprofit ambassadors the tools to move from passionate and knowledgeable supporters to advocates, you open up new opportunities for engagement.
Developing a Nonprofit Advocacy Strategy
Like any new program we develop, you always want to have a clear strategy that guides you. Taking the time to map out your advocacy strategy will help you in the long run, and make your efforts that much more successful.
- Start with Questions – these questions will help you frame your strategy and keep you on track.
- What do you want to achieve? – This is your goal, the change you want to see happen, the thing that will further your cause.
- Who can help us achieve it? – These are the decision-makers, your target audience, the individuals, groups, or organizations you are trying to influence.
- What can they do to help us achieve our goal? – This is what we call “The Ask.” The ask is the thing you are asking your decision makers to do. Asks need to be explicitly clear with a tangible outcome. The more concrete your ask is, the clearer your strategy will be and the easier it will be for you to measure success.
- Who will the decision-makers listen to? – These are your nonprofit ambassadors, your messengers. You need to identify who the best nonprofit ambassadors will be. Often, they will change depending on who the decision-makers are that you are trying to influence.
- How can we convince them? – What do they want to hear? What is the best case you can make to get the outcome you want? Just because you are convinced doesn’t mean you will convince someone else. You need to put yourselves in their shoes and figure out the best argument you can make for that particular decision-maker.
- Do your research –after you go through all of these questions, you have to do your research. If you’re going to advocate on a particular issue you need to understand the issue, your target audience’s history on the issue, and know the arguments for and against your ask. The more research you can do, the more informed you and your nonprofit ambassadors are, the stronger case you can make for your cause.
- Develop your talking points – no matter what campaign you engage in you need a clear message. Talking points help you and your team stay on the same message. While you need to have some facts and figures, you also want to use stories, anecdotes, and personal narratives. You’re trying to make a connection between you, your decision-maker, and your cause. A personal story provides that interpersonal connection that will help you make your cause real.
- Decide what actions to take – In the next section I’ll give you some examples of different ways to engage in advocacy. Deciding what kinds of actions you want your nonprofit ambassadors to take will depend on your resources. Be honest with what your capacity is, and what you and your team are capable of when deciding what to do.
Moving your Nonprofit Ambassadors from Knowledge to Action
Once you have your plan and you’ve recruited nonprofit ambassadors that are willing to take action, you need to decide what action you are going to take.
What you have to understand about advocacy is that all actions are not created equally. The actions you can get the most support for may not have the greatest impact. While the actions that may have the greatest impact, you might struggle to get ambassadors to commit to taking the action.
Consider the below diagram, what I call the hierarchy of engagement.
Towards the bottom of the pyramid you have the actions that generate the most engagement from advocates with the least amount of effort. Actions like petitions are a relatively easy lift—only having to sign your name and contact information—which means more people are willing to do it, but it also means that unless you have huge numbers, the overall impact is likely low.
As you move up the pyramid you will see that the actions require more work on the part of your nonprofit ambassadors, but these actions also tend to have more of an impact on your decision-makers.
Direct in-person advocacy, at the top of the pyramid, is definitely by far the most effective
Whether you are trying to influence a member of Congress, your board of directors, or a city council, in-person engagement allows you to make the best case for your cause. The ability to have a face-to-face meeting where your nonprofit ambassadors can tell the decision-makers why they care about this issue, why the decision-makers should care, and what you are asking the decision-makers to do, is simply the most effective.
Now, that doesn’t mean the other forms of action are worthless; far from it. In fact, many causes have had huge advocacy successes using only online petitions from companies like Change.org and Avaaz. And, I have personally succeeded in getting members of Congress to cosponsor legislation using only social media to engage with them.
The best and most successful advocacy campaigns actually use more than one tactic at the same time. You might have some of your nonprofit ambassadors send in form emails, others making phone calls, and a few setting up in-person meetings. The key is to ensure that everyone at every level of engagement is sticking to the same talking points so that your message is clear across all levels of engagement.
You need to be realistic about what actions you and your community are able to take
If getting signatures on a petition is the most you are able to do right now, that is better than doing nothing. It also gets people primed for future actions. You should always be thinking about how to move people up the engagement ladder to the next level of the pyramid.
As your nonprofit ambassadors get more comfortable with advocacy the greater the likelihood is that they will participate at a higher level in the future. Build a foundation and work your way up. Consider bringing people in at the lower levels of the pyramid and building up towards higher-level engagement.
If you can show your nonprofit ambassadors that their efforts have yielded results, you have a really good chance that they will want to come back for more.
Having a clear ask is so important to measuring success. If you don’t have a clear ask it will be much harder to determine if you won.
You need to follow up to see whether or not the decision-maker took the action you were asking him or her to do. You also need to follow up to see if your goal was met. If it wasn’t, you might want to try another tactic to move the decision-maker, if the ask is still relevant.
Sometimes we win the battle, but not the war. You have to understand that success is a sliding scale, and we might not always achieve 100% of what we were asking for.
If your campaign was to get $100,000 in government funding for your after-school program but you only get $50,000, that might still be a huge victory, especially if last year there was zero money appropriated for your cause. You can show your nonprofit ambassadors that their efforts directly led to a $50,000 increase in funds. Did you meet your goal? No. Did you still have a win? Yes.
It’s important that you remember, and you remind your nonprofit ambassadors, that advocacy is a marathon not a sprint and change takes time. But, the more engaged you are in advocacy the more opportunities for success you have.
So get out there. Get advocating. And help move your nonprofit ambassadors from knowledge to action!
Want to learn more about the steps to developing an effective advocacy campaign?
Check out my CharityHowTo webinar, How to Influence People, Inspire Action, and Create Change for Your Cause: A Beginner’s Guide to Advocacy.
About the Author
Mike Brand is an Advocacy and Strategy consultant with over 13 years of experience in grassroots and direct advocacy. Mike has developed winning advocacy campaigns for various causes, trained thousands of activists to be better advocates, directly influenced national legislation, secured the passage of federal legislation, and ghost wrote letters to the President on behalf of members of Congress.
For Further Reading
For other idea’s on getting your nonprofit started with advocacy, check out this article by our friends at