Getting an advocacy campaign started is simple, it’s sustaining the campaign that gets tricky, so set yourself up for success by doing some prep work first to connect with and solidify your network and base and to raise your organization’s profile with some key contacts before creating and launching an advocacy campaign.
Make sure the lawyers on your board are on board
As fiduciaries and service providers of nonprofits, lawyers are uniquely positioned to help identify and understand the detrimental impact of threats to your organization (like the lack of contracts, or unfavorable clauses in contracts) and missed opportunities (like legislation that does not speak to issues that are central to your mission). Lawyers also have the skills to empower nonprofits so that they may fully exercise their lobbying rights and leverage their resources to advance their charitable purposes without running afoul of lobbying laws. And yet, attorneys tend to be overly cautious when advising charities, warning them to tread lightly when engaging in lobbying rather than showing them how far they can go. This article, written by one of the authors of this how-to guide and published in The PA Lawyer, a publication of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, can help the lawyers on your board begin to understand the federal tax law lobbying limitations and can help put them at ease about these limitations laws, so that they will be a resource and supporter (rather than a nervous naysayer), helping your organization to navigate any challenges ahead.
Clearly define (and begin to articulate) the change you would like to make
See how long it takes you to explain that change and set about getting that explanation down to just a few minutes.
Write up a simple fact sheet with all the information that makes your case on a single page. Remember, attention spans are short these days so use pictures if you can and clear language to convey the most important points quickly. For more on choosing the right pitch wording, see Topic #7 on Messaging Matters. To capture more details and to provide more support for your fact sheet for those who support your position and want a deeper dive and more details, develop a separate white paper. Check out Pat Libby’s The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You (Oxford University Press, 2022) for ideas and more about developing each of these pitch pieces.
Expand your network, update your contacts, and engage with them, and get ready for outreach!
Nonprofits have a head start on other groups that are seeking to make legislative change because most organizations have a base of supporters who already care about the mission. Engaging your existing network in advocacy projects is a fantastic opportunity to give your organization’s base another way to support your work, but you will also want to make intentional efforts to connect with others outside of your usual network, so that you can speak to a broader audience and attract the broad support that will be needed to effect policy change. Before you launch an advocacy campaign, you will want to be sure your contacts are up-to-date and engaged and also connect with others who are aligned with your organization’s policy interests but who may not be in your usual network of supporters.
Once your message is refined and your contacts are up-to-date, it will be easier to start adding the information to the outreach you are already doing – and to expand your network. You will also want to be sure to take advantage of outreach events to educate your supporter base and the public. Add information about your advocacy work to board meetings to expand connections and include information about it in press releases. These are all easy and low capital ways to get started making change.
Identify your legislators and connect with them
You can prepare for your advocacy campaign by setting up an initial meeting with your own legislators. Even if you don’t have an “ask”, having a connection with your legislators is crucial. For one, they can help you expand your community reach. You can invite them to events and ask for help publicizing these events. Legislators send newsletters and post flyers in their district offices, make use of them. Also, by having made contact earlier and working to establish a relationship, if there is a grant for which you are seeking a letter of recommendation or if you need their help making a legislative change, you will not be making that initial contact by asking for something.
You don’t need to go to Harrisburg or DC to do this! Many organizations have made the mistake of expending time and money to travel great distances to talk with their elected officials when they need only have visited them locally at their headquarters.
Elected representatives are directly accountable to you as a constituent so they are likely to be a friendly audience. If you haven’t already, invite your elected officials for a tour of your organization’s work, give them a chance to see what you do, and explain in person why it matters. Seek their guidance on next steps and you may just find a key ally.
Don’t know who your legislators and elected officials are and how to find them? Use this link to find your legislator.
In Pennsylvania, there are 203 state House seats and 50 state Senate seats, and each voter is only represented by two of these 253 legislators (one state Rep and one state Senator).
Based on your registered voting address, you can use the link above to locate the name of the Pennsylvania Senator and Pennsylvania House Member Representative for your district. Use this search function to locate the elected representatives for the districts your nonprofit serves, too.
You can use this same link to locate the name of your federal legislators – Pennsylvania’s two US Senators and the US House Representative elected by the voters in your federal district. The search function can help you locate the elected US representatives for the districts your nonprofit serves, too.
If you click on the state legislators’ names, the site will tell you how long they have served, their terms, education, and other helpful information including their contact information.
Local legislators throughout Pennsylvania can be harder to find because they are not always posted online. Pennsylvania has 67 counties with a web of complex local governments, including county commissions, boroughs, townships, and municipalities. You may need to look at tax bills to find out what municipality your organization serves. In Pennsylvania, a zip code is not necessarily an indicator of which municipality someone lives in.