A Voice for Nonprofits: What Makes an Effective Nonprofit Lobbyist?

There are still some sticky note tabs in my copy of A Voice for Nonprofits, which means that I’ll probably revisit it again in a few months, but this is the last post for now.

Despite the reluctance that many 501(c)3 executives express about getting involved in lobbying, and despite the rules that constrain that very participation, I think, ultimately, that many, many more organizations would advocate–vigorously–if they thought that they knew how to do so successfully.

I mean, the vast majority of nonprofit leaders, and the people whose work centers on providing programs, and certainly those most directly affected by the social problems to which the organization responds, are completely committed to eradicating those problems. They are looking for ways to ‘move the needle’ on the social conditions that plague us, collectively, and they are willing, in many cases, to sacrifice their time and energies to try to improve the lives of those they serve.

They would advocate, I truly believe, if they had a surer chance of success.

And, of course, there’s no guarantee.

There never is, in this world-changing business of ours.

But the search for signals, for paths that are more likely to lead to good outcomes, still occupies a lot of the time of people like me, academics (and, in my case, quasi-academics) and practitioners trying to help would-be advocates be great advocates.

While much of A Voice for Nonprofits centers on why so few 501(c)3s play leading roles in policy change, and how regulatory changes could reverse that, there is also some evidence about organizational practices, and even individual advocate characteristics, that tend to correlate with more successful advocacy engagement. I have pulled out some of those pieces below, but I want to hear from you: What makes an effective nonprofit lobbyist? Beyond legislative policy change, what characteristics distinguish effective advocacy organizations, and individual advocates, from those less successful? Who are your advocacy role models, and what about them is worthy of emulation?

  • Nonprofit advocates utilize a wide range of both confrontational (because we can’t be afraid to disagree) and more collaborative approaches. They do little hobnobbing, though, in the way typically associated with lobbyists; their currency is good information, passion, and a reputation for commitment to their mission, not free tickets to sporting events or golf junkets.
  • The most effective advocates, in many cases, have an organizational ‘home’ that affords them some immediate legitimacy. As the authors describe, especially on the local government level, “Developers and city hall do not negotiate with the “community” or the “people.” They negotiate with nonprofits.” Certainly free agents can change the world, but, for the long haul, having an organization’s support seems to make a difference.
  • Effective nonprofits enhance the status and improve the performance of government officials at all levels, and, in turn, are afforded access and influence. They trade in information and credibility, both commodities sorely needed by policymakers. They are more than willing to share the credit for good policy ideas, and they understand that making elected officials look good is good advocacy practice.
  • They strategically partner with other entities, especially other nonprofits, to convert their collective resources into advocacy potential. They find organizations that complement their weaknesses, and they use their leadership to harness what they have towards advocacy aims. It’s about making the best of what you have, and the most effective advocates are great at it.
  • They make it someone’s job. One of the foundational questions to assess an organization’s advocacy capacity is whether someone is expected to advocate and, therefore, held accountable for it. Ideally, advocacy is integrated throughout an organization, but the buck has to stop somewhere. And the person whose job it is has to really have the time and space, within the work day, to do that job, whether that’s the executive director or a program director or a stand-alone government relations professional.
  • They invest in information capacity, even hiring people with the initials after their names that afford respect for what they know. They gain competitive advantage with the quality, relevance, timeliness, and accessibility of their information, and they prioritize its production and dissemination as their most valuable resource.

What would you add to this list? What makes for an effective nonprofit, in the advocacy arena? And how do we grow more of them?

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