How Nonprofit Organizations Can Advocate With Confidence
An essential part of global competence is taking action to solve both local and global issues. This can be done not just by individuals but also by organizations. This piece shares some ideas from Shyaam Subramanian, Southern California Counsel, Alliance for Justice, a national association of over 100 organizations representing a broad array of groups committed to progressive values and the creation of an equitable, just, and free society.
By guest blogger Shyaam Subramanian
In the wake of a flurry of actions by the Trump Administration, from executive orders to controversial cabinet appointments, community-based organizations and the public at large in the United States have mobilized to speak out to members of Congress, stage protests, and shape public opinion. Recognizing the fierce urgency needed in responding to some of these actions, many nonprofit organizations are considering how to come together most effectively to protect the communities they serve and advance their missions. In the field of education, while schools and educators have important roles to play in serving students, nonprofits have the opportunity to shape education policy decisions through their advocacy and community organizing.
During this uncertain yet critical time, education-focused public charities* should consider not only providing direct services to underserved communities but also advocating for public policies that benefit them. From conducting research and education to sharing powerful stories, nonprofits can influence policymakers in numerous ways.
Nonprofits can be persuasive advocates because they know firsthand how public policy decisions directly affect the people in the communities they serve, are trusted sources of information about their communities, and can offer perspectives that are underrepresented in policy debates at the local, state, or federal level. For example, educational nonprofits are in a unique position to explain how decisions of the U.S. Secretary of Education will trickle down to our public schools or the concrete benefits to youth from widely available afterschool programs.
It's essential for nonprofits of all sizes to understand the role that they can legally play in advocacy and lobbying. Nonprofit engagement in the policy process is critical to ensure communities' needs are considered when elected and appointed officials make decisions that affect all of our lives. Through Alliance for Justice's Bolder Advocacy program, we provide support to nonprofit organizations seeking to influence public policy through trainings, publications, and technical assistance primarily on the legal rules regarding advocacy.
Here are seven concrete tips for your nonprofit to more strategically and sustainably shape policy outcomes:
- Assess your capacity to engage in policy advocacy. What do you consider to be your organizational strength? How committed is your organization to advocacy? Through Alliance for Justice's free online Advocacy Capacity Tool ACT!Quick, you can quickly identify your advocacy strengths and weaknesses. This quick advocacy capacity assessment is helpful since most effective advocacy work happens when groups and coalitions know where they stand and can leverage their organizational strengths to work for social change.
- Assess your capacity for community organizing. Community organizing is the process by which individuals in a given community come together to promote a common interest or cause. Whether it's making the case for global education or promoting multilingual education, it starts with affected parties coalescing and making their views known. To evaluate and understand your organization's readiness to engage and empower constituents, check out Alliance for Justice's free PowerCheck tool.
- Hold elected officials accountable. While public charities are not permitted to support or oppose candidates for public office, you can praise or criticize elected officials for their work for or against issues important to your organization and the communities you serve. Even if elected officials have officially declared as candidates, your organization can still oppose their proposals and policies that you believe will have negative consequences. It's important to stay focused on the issues rather than criticizing an elected official's personal characteristics though, and Alliance for Justice's factsheet on Praising and Criticizing Incumbents provides concrete examples of how you can do so.
- Use social media. Whether you use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat, social media can be an effective way to engage your audiences and share your messages quickly and widely.
- Advocate. Even if you have government or foundation funds that are restricted from being used for lobbying, there's still a lot of non-lobbying advocacy you can do, including research and education. For example, it may be lobbying when your organization attempts to influence legislation. But your non-lobbying advocacy could include encouraging community members to attend school board meetings or preparing a research brief educating the public about the importance of civics education in schools.
- You can lobby! Public charities may lobby. Learn about how much lobbying you can do and what counts as lobbying. For example, you will be lobbying if you call Senators to urge them to vote no on a bill. For more information about which activities constitute lobbying, you can review Being a Player or also contact Alliance for Justice when you have specific questions.
- Maximize the amount of lobbying you can do. Most public charities are eligible to make the 501(h) election to calculate their lobbying limits. By submitting a one-page form to the IRS, public charities can take advantage of narrower definitions of lobbying, lobbying limits that are higher in most cases, and increased clarity as to how much of their budget they can spend on lobbying.
But above all, tell your story! Policymakers want to hear about how policy decisions will impact people, and they want to hear from nonprofit organizations that work closely with people every day. Whether it's the decisions of the U.S. Department of Education or your local school board, you can make a difference. Be bold in your advocacy efforts, because if your community is not at the policy table, it will be on the menu.
The information contained in this article and any links are being provided for informational purposes only. The information is not a substitute for expert legal, tax, or other professional advice tailored to your specific circumstances, and may not be relied upon for the purposes of avoiding any penalties that may be imposed under the Internal Revenue Code.
*Public charities are publicly supported 501(c)(3) organizations that are tax exempt and to whom donors can provide tax-deductible contributions.