It Takes a (Volunteer) Army

When it comes to advocating for change, nonprofits have an incredibly powerful weapon at their disposal — their volunteers. By leveraging this base of supporters, a nonprofit can light up the phones and fill the mailboxes (and email inboxes) of policymakers.

The key, of course, is for the troops to understand clearly what advocacy is … and isn’t. At the nonprofit level, advocacy seeks to inform legislators, policymakers and the community at large how public policy decisions impact service provision. An advocate educates, explains, persuades and informs.

By contrast, lobbying refers to advocacy efforts that attempt to influence specific legislation. So how do you mobilize your army of volunteer advocates?

•          Consider (all) your allies. The trick is to think through all of your allies — everyone from staff, board members and volunteers to funders, clients, vendors and friends. As allies, they have a special dedication to your cause — and they work cheap! As an added benefit, using your volunteers for advocacy work creates a powerful opportunity to move these supporters up in their level of commitment to your organization.

•          Consider (all) your options. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, you can engage your volunteer army in much more than simply writing letters and working the phones. Your volunteer advocates can directly engage elected officials by:

  • Arranging meetings with lawmakers to learn their views on issues of concern to your constituents
  • Inviting elected officials to organizational meetings, events and even tours of your facilities and program areas
  • Sending lawmakers literature on issues of importance to your constituents
  • Attending town hall meetings with lawmakers
  • Communicating with policy-makers through social media

•          Consider your message. Obviously, a personal message has more impact than a cut-and-paste form letter, which can give the impression of an organized pressure campaign (and is often disregarded by the recipient). Better: Create a general template for volunteers to follow, but ask them to add their own style and voice. You might simply indicate places in the letter for writers to add a personal anecdote or perspective.

•          Consider your methods. For best results, you’ll want to match the method to the situation. For example, for urgent matters (such as a pending vote), nothing beats the speed and immediacy of a well-thought-out email. Phone calls might make more sense when you need to gather intelligence.

For example, a phone conversation allows the volunteer to better gauge the reaction of a legislator to the issue at hand. Input from the call might provide guidance as to what part of the message is most compelling — or even how to tailor it to turn an unreceptive legislator around. And while letter-writing campaigns are certainly tried and true, a faxed message may be a timelier approach to reaching elected officials at the federal level. Due to the anthrax attacks of 2001, federal postal mail is now delayed significantly for security screening.

•          Consider your reporting obligations. The good news is that there really are no specific reporting, registration or license requirements for organizations that carry out advocacy work. Of course, any expenses to carry out those activities will need to be accounted for on your organization’s annual IRS Form 990 filing and financial accountings.

Mobilize Your Troops

Because advocacy does not endorse or oppose specific legislation, nonprofits can make their voices heard without running afoul of state and federal lobbying laws — or jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. Just make sure that you always emphasize your organization’s mission and/or exempt purpose in your advocacy efforts.

Building Bridges with Legislators

Effective public policy advocacy doesn’t just happen. It starts and ends with active, positive partnerships with your elected officials:

•          Put your elected officials on your organization’s mailing list (just make sure the data is updated as elections occur).

•          The Legislature moves quickly and deadlines are critical, so be sure to learn the nuts and bolts of the legislative process. Read a book, attend a workshop or log on to a webinar.

•          Time your meetings with elected officials during the summer and fall when they are not tied up with the legislative calendar.

•          Keep an eye out for “Day on the Hill” or other capitol visitation days, where volunteers can meet with their individual legislators face-to-face.