Advocacy: The Benefits For Nonprofit Organizations

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Advocacy: The Benefits For Nonprofit Organizations

Type “nonprofit organization” into a search engine and you will get quite a variety of definitions. If you skip the legalese definitions — such as a “corporation or an association that conducts business for the benefit of the general public without shareholders and without a profit motive”1— you will discover that there is an interesting definition that pops up:

Nonprofit organizations are devoted to furthering a specific social cause or advocating for a particular point of view.

Nonprofits tend to be very good at focusing on the first part of this definition; that is, doing things to further their organization’s social cause. Too often ignored, however, is the second portion of the definition: advocacy. This is a mistake. In an era where non-profit organizations are competing for funding while stretching their resources, advocacy can be an amazing tool to help nonprofits increase their outreach.

Why do so many for-profit corporations go public? It is in order to reap the benefits of having the public-at-large invest in their company. Not-for-profit corporations can tap into the same public support through advocacy. In short, advocacy is garnering public support (and funding) for your organization's cause.

There are three questions that must be answered in order to understand how advocacy can best help nonprofits. The first is whether nonprofits are legally allowed to advocate; the second is whether advocacy has any benefit for non-profit organizations; the third is how nonprofits evaluate the effectiveness of their advocacy.


The law is very clear that nonprofit organizations may not participate in partisan political activities. The penalty for doing so is quite severe: a nonprofit organization will lose its exempt status. This is where the difference between advocacy and lobbying becomes very important. Political lobbying includes activities such as supporting particular candidates, making financial contributions to political parties or campaigns, creating political action committees, or creating partisan voting guides. These activities violate the law, and, as a couple of religious nonprofit organizations found out in the 1990’s, can endanger the organization’s nonprofit status.2

Advocacy, when done properly, can be entirely legal and beneficial to a nonprofit organization. Moreover, when advocacy is done well, it advances the nonprofit’s mission and goals. Proper advocacy can take the shape of publicly educating and commenting on issues of key importance to your organization, educating candidates on the issues important to your organization, and weighing in on decisions made by government agencies.


Advocacy has a long-lasting impact because its outcomes include:
- influencing policy development and adoption
- improving government policies
- increasing public awareness about issues
- changing the public's attitude and values regarding significant topics
- increasing the public's involvement

Moreover, advocacy efforts will specifically help a nonprofit because they will:
- strengthen support from other people and groups
- increase awareness of the organization and its cause

The work of nonprofit advocates is to motivate members of the community and policy creators to get involved in the organization’s cause. In order to best accomplish this goal, nonprofits should plan and set goals for an advocacy campaign. Goals should include some form of the following:
- improving public policies
- strengthening the organization’s base of support
- improving the nonprofits relations with other groups
- creating change in the lives and conditions of the community3

Keys for an effective advocacy campaign include:

Specific Advocacy: A vital element for organizations to be effective in their advocacy is to be precise and purposeful. Nonprofits should target a specific cause for their advocacy, and then work like crazy to gain funding, support, and exposure for that particular cause. Take, for example, a nonprofit corporation that champions internet based businesses. Considering the national scope of its constituents, it would be a mistake for that nonprofit to try to advocate for or against every piece of local and state legislation that could affect internet businesses. Instead, the nonprofit should focus on advocating Congress in Washington, D.C. As Steve Jobs put it, “Quality is more important than quantity. One home run is much better than two doubles.”

Media Advocacy: A powerful tool that nonprofits should utilize is media advocacy. Imagine the benefits of having a steady stream of publicity for your foundation’s issues and activities. By creating and cultivating a relationship with the media, a nonprofit’s advocacy can bring attention to its mission, its fundraising efforts, and its volunteer needs.

Board Member Advocacy: A nonprofit’s board members are an excellent internal resource to utilize in advocacy efforts. Board members frequently have connections to those who develop public policy. Additionally, they generally have influence in the community, which can assist with fundraising and volunteer efforts. To ensure that board members who advocate for nonprofits do not violate any laws, rules should be developed regarding who can publically speak on behalf of the organization and what the criteria is for public policy positions.

Long Term Advocacy: An important part of successful advocacy is sustaining the efforts once they have begun. As Confucius stated, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”


Evaluation of advocacy efforts is necessary for two reasons. First, it provides the nonprofit with an opportunity for ongoing feedback. Secondly, it provides the organization with credibility when discussing the nonprofit’s cause with other people, most especially potential funders. Although most organizations understand the importance of evaluating their processes and procedures, they tend to balk when it comes to evaluating advocacy:

[M]any foundations consider advocacy efforts to be hard to measure - that is, beyond the scope of what can be evaluated effectively. This perception is based on an understanding that the changes desired by advocates often take a very long time to achieve, are difficult to think of in terms other than policies won or policies lost, and are influenced by myriad players and external factors that are often out of the control of those working on the issues.4

However, the view that advocacy evaluations are difficult and not worth doing is being replaced. Nonprofits are seeing the value of evaluating their advocacy efforts. Evaluation reports allow an organization to be nimble and change with circumstances. They are essential to creating effective advocacy campaigns.

Who should do the evaluating? Evaluations can be performed internally or externally. In order to get the best evaluations, a nonprofit should use both. Internal evaluations can be performed by a staff member with evaluation expertise. If there is no one qualified for performing advocacy evaluations in the organization, then the nonprofit must get a member of the staff trained. Even more important is obtaining the objectivity of an external evaluator. An independent perspective on the nonprofit’s advocacy program is invaluable.

The evaluation should provide the nonprofit with information about 1) the impact the advocacy efforts are having upon the intended community or cause, and 2) a procedural evaluation which measures the organization’s efficiency in implementing its advocacy campaign. It is important to note that advocacy evaluations should be ongoing during the course of the advocacy campaign. That way, the organization can adapt its strategy to changing conditions.5


Effective advocacy is a legal and valuable means of advancing a nonprofit organization’s cause. Therefore, nonprofit organizations should be advocating Congress in Washington, D.C. as well as their state and local legislatures.

2 Mixing Politics with Nonprofits: How to Engage Politially Without Violating IRS Regulations. Vanden Berk, K. Retrieved from
3 A Guide to Measuring Advocacy and Policy. Retrieved from
4 Effective Advocacy Evaluation: The Role of Funders. Morariu, J. and Brennan, K. Retrieved from
5 Monitoring and Evaluating Advocacy. Retrieved from

Sidebar 1:
If you feel that you really need to perform lobbying, and it may potentially violate the restrictions on a 501(c)(3) corporation, then you should consider starting a separate nonprofit 501(c)(4) organization. Although donations to a 501(c)(4) nonprofit are not tax-deductible, there are no restrictions placed upon any political activities taken by a 501(c)(4).

Sidebar 2:

When a small Alzheimer’s Association in Washington, D.C. received a donation of $140,000, they weren’t sure how to put it to best use. At first they thought about using the money to provide care to local Alzheimer’s sufferers. Although this seemed like a good idea, the reality of what the $140,000 could provide quickly sank in — it would only buy one hour of care per year for the 33,000 local Alzheimer’s patients. The association wanted to do more, so they decided to try advocacy. The group used a portion of the money to hire an advocate to perform work aimed at the legislature. The strategy worked — big time. A new law was passed which provides the families of Alzheimer’s patients around one million dollars per year for respite care. In effect, the advocacy efforts turned $140,000 into one million dollars per year for the nonprofits cause.

Reference: Lobbying Success Stories: Examples of How Nonprofit Lobbying Has Changed Organizations and Changed Lives. Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest (2005). Retrieved from

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