Notes from Leadership Advanced Milwaukee: How Nonprofits Balance Service and Advocacy

Recently, my colleague Steve Zimmerman of Spectrum Nonprofit Services and I led a session for Leadership Advanced Milwaukee on Balancing Service and Advocacy. To recap, Leadership Advanced is a cohort-based, peer-centered, professional development program. How does the program work to strengthen nonprofit leaders and create stronger communities? Check out the new Leadership Advanced Overview video.

Why Nonprofits Need to Advocate

According to the research presented in Forces for Good on the six practices of high impact nonprofits, advocacy is one of the six practices of high impact nonprofits.  Conducting programs on the ground help meet the immediate needs of constituents as well as inform the system-level reform necessary to create long-term sustainable solutions.  Advocacy in this context is used to identify changes in public behavior, laws and public policy.

Many practitioners and board members in the nonprofit sector believe that advocacy is forbidden by the IRS regulations and that nonprofits are walking a slippery slope if they venture into this arena.  Well before we even go there, why should nonprofits pursue advocacy?

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What Crutchfield and McLeod Grant state is that there is a virtuous cycle between service and advocacy.  What organizations learn from delivering direct service programs informs what is needed to improve conditions for better outcomes for constituents.  Direct service also offers channels for implementing innovative solutions.  With this knowledge, organizations are well positioned to advocate for legislation, funding and raise visibility of the importance of their causes for public benefit.

Advocacy is not Lobbying

The term advocacy often conjures a vision of lobbying.  Lobbying is a very small slice of the advocacy pie.  There are many other approaches to advocacy that don’t include influencing elected officials regarding a specific piece of legislation.  These approaches include: civic engagement (involving others in your mission); information advocacy (providing analysis of an issue); and lobbying lite (talking about issues not legislation with public officials).

Approaches to Advocacy

In our Leadership Advanced Milwaukee session, we asked whether any of the organizations represented in the group conducted advocacy activities. Three of the eleven participants acknowledged that their organizations did conduct formal advocacy activities.  Interestingly, these three organizations represented the various approaches to arrive at balancing service and advocacy.  One organization started with advocacy as its primary focus and later added direct service programs to fill a need for services.  Another organization started with direct service and recognized the importance of a voice for their cause.  The third organization began with both direct service programs and advocacy activities.

At one point in my career, I held a position as Marketing and Communications Director for a statewide advocacy organization for children and families.  Every day, I was providing information and education regarding various policies and practices that affected children and families in New Mexico. We developed campaigns to inform the public about various pieces of legislation that would negatively impact those citizens that can’t vote, children.

Only once did I need to register as a lobbyist and that was when we were engaged in the drafting of a specific piece of legislation to create a youth development fund.  In that circumstance, my time was focused exclusively on that effort, to influence policy makers and elected officials.

Before you dismiss advocacy as something your organization “can’t do” check the IRS guidelines.  An organization with a budget of $500,000 annually can legally spend $100,000 on lobbying without jeopardizing its nonprofit tax-exempt status.

How Does Your Nonprofit Advocate?

Does your organization participate in advocacy activities? Leave a comment below describing your approach. If not, think about the impact you want to make with your services. What changes in the environment would increase that impact? Those barriers to increasing impact are the place to start with advocacy activities.