There are many ways to effect change through public advocacy, and some are definitely easier than others. Here are just a few:
Making a change to a local ordinance can be a very simple process that can be extremely impactful for an organization that primarily operates within one municipality. Local ordinances often are the starting point for local campaigns and can show the growing support of a movement. If your organization works on an issue such as housing, urban agriculture, animal welfare, or other topics where a supportive local rule can make a large impact, or if you would like to start small and build local support for a statewide or national change (think plastic bag bans), changing an ordinance may be a great way to start.
One of the simplest and most direct public advocacy campaign approaches is to effect a change to a corporate policy. Rather than deal with a complicated legislative process of convincing a majority of elected decisionmakers, a nonprofit organization may need to only convince a single person – or a group of several individuals – to create corporate change. One example is the fur-free campaign. Using market pressure and strong messaging that fur is cruel and unnecessary in fashion, companies acted quickly to take fur-free pledges, transforming the industry far more quickly than a legislative ban would have. The drawback to these campaigns is that as quickly as policies are changed, they can be changed back, and they lack the uniformity and enforceability of changes to the law.
While it is the most expensive way to enact change and certainly vies with legislation for the length of time it takes, litigation is nonetheless a frequently used tactic. Organizations like the ACLU use the courts to prevent the enactment of laws not just in the states they challenge but also to deter other places from enacting similar laws. If your nonprofit is threatened by a legal change and feels the need to institute a suit, that is a weighty decision for you and your supporters to make. However, you can always weigh in or join forces with other organizations in challenging a law or its enforcement through an amicus brief.
Legislative change is uniform, enforceable, and difficult to undo but it can also be time consuming and expensive even if that’s just in staff and volunteer time. The legislative process is cumbersome and duplicative, and it does take a lot of dedication to get a bill through, but once you succeed it can completely change outcomes for your organization.
This guide focuses on effecting legislative change. For more resources and support, check out these two must-read how-to lobbying guides: Pat Libby’s The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You (Oxford University Press, 2022) and Bob Smucker’s The Nonprofit Lobbying Guide, Second Edition (Independent Sector, 1999). Both provide roadmaps and super helpful tips for effective lobbying campaigns and also provide helpful legal summaries. Both are breezy reads!
A Call to Action
While many nonprofits choose to hire professional contract lobbyists, as they should especially when a matter is of great concern, an organization doesn’t have to spend money or hire a lobbyist to engage in advocacy and lobbying activities that can create systemic change. Here are a few simple steps you can take to help the nonprofits you serve:
- Encourage nonprofits to become members of the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations (PANO) for updates and engagement opportunities and identify other mission- and value-aligned associations that advocate and lobby for the interests of their nonprofit members.
- Subscribe to the National Council of Nonprofit’s free biweekly e-newsletter, Nonprofit Champion (formerly Nonprofit Advocacy Matters), for updates about federal, state and local policy matters of concern to most nonprofits.
- Engage in planned and coordinated advocacy opportunities on behalf of your organization such as: speaking to journalists about a community problem, recruiting volunteers, visiting elected officials to share data about the nonprofit’s successes and positive impact, attending an advocacy day at the state capitol to build relationships, sharing stories from the front lines with public officials, writing an op-ed, etc.
- Look up your state legislators and encourage them to join Pennsylvania’s newly relaunched (in June 2023) bipartisan Nonprofit Caucus. The general goals of this caucus are to make it easier for nonprofits to operate in Pennsylvania, provide a venue for nonprofits to convey issues and address nonprofit legislative matters.
- Update nonprofit board service contracts to require board members to engage in advocacy. Download our Template Board Service Agreement.
- Check out what other organizations are doing and follow their lead. PCCYFS’ written advocacy work on Act 127 (discussed in Topic #1 above) was wonderfully done, and the beauty is that some (or possibly all) of its involvement may not have even constituted lobbying — at least under the federal tax law limitations. Check out their white paper. For other great samples, see the American Lung Association and PCAR.