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Advocate for Your Cause: Communicating Your Organization’s Value to Stakeholders

By Debra Thompson, Margie Taylor, and Ben Kafferlin

Those who work in government relations at the federal and state levels and local elected officials are often shocked at how poorly nonprofit leaders educate the community and advocate for policy changes and/or funding to support their cause. More often than not, this is because nonprofit leaders erroneously believe that advocacy is lobbying and feel that they should not engage in those kinds of activities or that their trade association “handles it for them.”

Advocacy is the active participation of individuals, or organizations, in order to promote, uphold, educate and inform on the benefits of a mission or cause.[1] It aims to influence public-policy and resource-allocation decisions within political, economic and social institutions. Advocacy is vital to philanthropic work because it can lead to long-term structural change, it can be a tool to improve everyone’s lives, and it is tactical fundraising.

Nonprofits should advocate because you are attempting to create a better community – city, county, region, state in some way....and need to tell your story about how your work changes lives.

Advocacy incorporates:

  • communication about the mission,

  • developing public education programs,

  • participation in policy research (universities/state governments/federal agencies), and

  • active involvement with planning commissions, county governments, regional development districts, statewide and multi-state organizations such as the Appalachian Regional Commission and national groups.

Nonprofit advocacy helps your community leaders anticipate and solve problems because charities are the only institutions with a view of both the concerns most important your clients/families and the daily realities of how government programs impact your constituents. Nonprofit advocacy helps your community see potential problems because you have access to research and best practices. Nonprofit advocacy serves those who have quiet or no voice --- children, poor, the disabled who seek employment, children without family supports.[2]

Popular culture often creates false impressions about the public policy process. Although a common perception is that legislators don’t care, the truth is that most policy makers sincerely want to make the best decisions. Hearing views from you and your colleagues is one way to help them make better and more informed decisions!

Here are some tips that you can follow when advocating for your organization:

  • Understand where you are. This strange misperception exists that “government” is this one big monolithic thing, when local, county, state and federal governments and the funding that is available at each level are all very different.

  • Get to know your local elected officials and administrators at various levels: DCED (Department of Community and Economic Development) staff, Planning Director, County Commissioners. Don’t march into someone’s office “demanding” that this individual “works for you” and that your nonprofit is “owed” support (you might be surprised how many people do this!).

  • Recognize that legislators and funders are people! Meet with them and share the problems you are trying to solve. Tell them you need to raise $X to solve a community need. Don’t force solutions by telling them that your organization “deserves” a grant from X funding source. Leaders may have better ideas about a type of funding that would be a better fit for your organization; listen to what they have to say.

  • Do your research. know the parameters of the type of grant that you think might work for your organization. Don’t be asking for funding that your organization clearly does not quality for.

  • Bring a “mutual supporter” when meeting with elected officials. If you don’t have a personal relationship with the individual, bring a board member or supporter who does.

  • When asking for a letter of support for a project, give the person you are asking the “talking points” that should be in the letter. Ask them to make a personal phone call on your behalf.

  • Send personal thank you notes after meetings. Remember, you are building relationships with people.

In preparation, your Board of Directors and staff should discuss

  • the what (to advocate for),

  • the why (does it meet your mission and vision?)

  • the who (who will be responsible for overseeing this part of your work?) and

  • the how (which tactics might you engage in to make your point?).

  • how stakeholders (staff, clients, members, or funders) might consider organization’s choices, or if they may have opinions on the types of action that are consistent with the organization’s mission. [3]

All nonprofit organizations can use their voice for the public good. What matters is understanding that your nonprofit can and should engage in advocacy and community education – and get started doing it!


[1] Buetzow, Kyle. 2019 “Nonprofit Advocacy 101: 5 Steps to Change the World” [2] National Council of Nonprofits, 2019. “Why Should Your Nonprofit Advocate? [3] Mason, Dyana P. 2018. “Yes, You Can - and Should! Nonprofit Advocacy as a Core Competency” Nonprofit Quarterly

Debra Thompson is President & CEO of Strategy Solutions and is a consultant, trainer and peer reviewer for the Standards for Excellence:® An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector.

Margie Taylor, CFRE is a Senior Consultant with Strategy Solutions who focuses on major gifts fundraising.

Ben Kafferlin is a principal at Kafferlin Strategies management consulting firm and a county commissioner in Warren County, PA.

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