An Introduction to Advocacy as a Change Strategy for Nonprofits

Advocacy as a Change Strategy for Nonprofits

Advocacy can be an effective change strategy to achieve healthier, more equitable and thriving communities.  Advocacy is the act of creating change by influencing decisions, practices, policies, and resource allocation within political, economic, healthcare, education and other social systems. It bridges the gap between community needs, evidence-based solutions, and the decisions made by policymakers and institutions, ultimately working to create a more just, equitable society.

Caption: Adapted from the Nonprofit Association of Washington

Advocacy activities can include educating, relationship building, organizing, coalition building, communicating, and lobbying. Effective advocacy enables nonprofits to shape the public debate on important social issues and ensure that underserved communities have a voice in the policies that impact their lives. Nonprofits often have questions about why advocacy is an important strategy and to what extent they can become involved. Let’s break it down.

First page of Worksheet: Message Development
Worksheet: Message Development
Tool - Workshop/training
Brought to you by BMSG
Screen grab of Community Tool Box: Advocating for Change
Community Tool Box: Advocating for Change
Brought to you by KU Center for Community Health and Development: Community Tool Box

Why is Advocacy an Effective Strategy for Community Change Work?

Engaging in advocacy is an effective strategy for nonprofit organizations to create greater impact by:

  • Raising awareness and mobilizing support:  Advocacy efforts can raise public awareness about an issue, increase understanding, and generate support for a cause. By effectively communicating your message, nonprofits can mobilize supporters, engage volunteers, attract donors, and build a broader base of stakeholders committed to the mission.

  • Addressing systemic barriers: Nonprofits often encounter systemic barriers that hinder their ability to create meaningful change. By advocating for policy changes or systemic improvements related to their causes, nonprofits can address the root causes of issues and bring about lasting change that aligns with and reaches beyond direct service provisions.

  • Influencing policies and practices: Nonprofits have an important role in advocating for their beneficiaries and communities. Advocacy is essential for catalyzing change and allows nonprofits to use expertise, experience, and influence to actively address social, economic, and environmental issues affecting their constituents.

  • Enhancing sustainability: Engaging in advocacy can help nonprofits become more sustainable by shaping policies and funding priorities that align with their mission. It can also create opportunities for collaboration with other organizations, build strategic partnerships, and attract long-term resources.

  • Safeguarding the mission: By engaging in advocacy, nonprofits can help protect their mission from potential threats (i.e., misinformation) or harmful policies that may negatively impact their beneficiaries. Advocacy allows nonprofits to safeguard the values, rights, and interests of their constituents and ensure their voices are heard in decision-making processes.

Cover page of Public Will Building
Public Will Building
Brought to you by Metropolitan Group
First page of Advocacy Resource - Coalition Checklist
Coalition Checklist
Resource - Guide/handbook
Screen capture of Why Should Your Nonprofit Advocate? webpage
Why Should Your Nonprofit Advocate?
Resource - Website/webpage
Brought to you by National Council of Nonprofits

Equity Considerations for Advocacy Efforts

Advocacy can be a powerful strategy to address root causes of inequity, challenge discriminatory practices, and mobilize individuals and communities to drive positive change. Advocacy has historically played a pivotal role in advancing civil rights movements. It has been instrumental in securing legal protections against discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other factors. Equity considerations should be central to advocacy approaches and can be strengthened by:

  • Ensuring inclusion of those most impacted in defining the issues and informing the solutions

  • Balancing data with story in casemaking to deepen understanding of the problem and opportunity

  • Building civic muscle and shared power for meaningful implementation and sustainability

Cover page of Tool for Developing a Resident Engagement Strategy
Tool for Developing a Resident Engagement Strategy
Tool - Toolkit/toolbox
Brought to you by ReThink Health
First page of Putting Prosperity Within Reach: Advocating for Equitable Public Policies
Putting Prosperity Within Reach: Advocating for Equitable Public Policies
Resource - Guide/handbook
Brought to you by Prosperity Now
Cover page of primer on Racial Equity Policy Design and Advocacy
Racial Equity Policy Design and Advocacy: A Primer
Brought to you by Prosperity Now

When Do Advocacy Activities Become Lobbying?

Depending on your organization’s legal status and tax  structure and your source of funding, you might be concerned whether you are allowed to advocate. To answer this question, it is important to first understand the difference between advocacy and lobbying. Advocacy and lobbying are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but lobbying is just one type of advocacy. 

Advocacy and lobbying are related concepts, but they have distinct characteristics and legal definitions, especially in the context of nonprofit organizations and political activities. The key difference between advocacy and lobbying is the level of involvement in influencing government policies and decisions, particularly through direct communication with legislators or government officials to influence specific legislation or policies. 

Here's when advocacy becomes lobbying:

  • Direct Communication with Government Officials: Advocacy generally refers to activities aimed at raising awareness, educating the public, and promoting a particular cause or issue. However, when an organization engages in direct communication with government officials, such as legislators or their staff, for the purpose of influencing specific legislation, policy, or government actions, it typically crosses into the realm of lobbying.

  • Specific Legislation or Policy Focus: Advocacy often addresses broad issues and seeks to create general awareness or change public opinion. Lobbying, on the other hand, focuses on specific legislative or policy changes. If an organization or individual is actively working to support or oppose particular bills, regulations, or government actions, it is engaging in lobbying.

  • Expenditure and Reporting: In many jurisdictions, lobbying activities are subject to specific regulations and reporting requirements. When an organization spends money on lobbying, such as hiring lobbyists, conducting advocacy campaigns targeted at legislators, or organizing lobbying events, it is engaging in lobbying and may be required to report these activities and expenditures.

  • Legal Definitions and Thresholds: Different countries and regions have varying definitions and thresholds for what constitutes lobbying. It's important to consult the legal framework in your jurisdiction to understand when advocacy activities might cross the line into lobbying.

    Nonprofits, in particular, need to be aware of these distinctions because they are often subject to specific regulations regarding lobbying activities to maintain their tax-exempt status. In the United States, for instance, nonprofit organizations are subject to rules outlined in the Internal Revenue Code. To maintain their tax-exempt status, they are typically allowed to engage in some lobbying activities, but there are limits on the amount of lobbying they can undertake, and they must report their lobbying expenditures.  

    Advocacy becomes lobbying when it involves direct communication with government officials to influence specific legislation or policies and when it meets legal definitions and thresholds that classify it as lobbying, potentially subjecting the organization to additional regulations and reporting requirements. Lobbying is the only place we have to think about rules as a nonprofit. It is important for nonprofits to navigate advocacy activities in alignment with their tax-exempt status and any applicable national and local laws and regulations. Refer to your organizational guidelines if your anticipated advocacy strategies will include lobbying.

    Learning from Communities Using Advocacy to Create Change

    Three youth talking Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash
    Bright Spot: YES! Youth Empowerment Model
    Resource - Model Policy
    Brought to you by 100MHL
    child on parents shoulder giving a high five to another person  Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash
    Bright Spot: Parent Ambassador Program
    Resource - Model Policy
    Brought to you by 100MHL
    Screen capture of Advocacy in Action webpage
    Advocacy in Action
    Resource - Data Bank/repository
    Brought to you by National Council of Nonprofits
    First page of Advocacy vs. Lobbying: What’s the Difference? Understanding Regulations for Researchers and Nonprofits
    Advocacy vs. Lobbying: What’s the Difference? Understanding Regulations for Researchers and Nonprofits
    Resource - Policy Brief
    Brought to you by Research-to-Policy Collaboration
    Cover page of StriveTogether 2019 Annual Report
    StriveTogether 2019 Annual Report
    Resource - Report
    Brought to you by StriveTogether INC.
    logo then preschool teacher with two children
    Using the Equitable Economies Library to Make Lasting Change
    Story - Original
    Brought to you by Community Commons