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Advocacy & Community Engagement

Most of the major movements that have changed America have their roots in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit organizations have brought us child labor laws, food regulations, women's right to vote, civil rights, equality for LGBT communities. And, as the labor movement points out, the weekend!

Nonprofits as Advocates

When we hear “there are rules about that,” we tend to shy away from the area. But most nonprofits would increase their impact if they were to increase their organization’s advocacy efforts. Much of the sector needs to shift from just responding to problems in our community to trying to address the root causes of those problems. Generally this means changing public attitudes, local and national policies, and market systems that underlie our work.

If you are already engaged in advocacy and would like to measure the effectiveness of your efforts, A Guide to Measuring Advocacy and Policy [PDF download] will be helpful. To assess your nonprofit's readiness to engage in advocacy projects, check out the Advocacy Capacity Tool.

Additionally, these organizations, projects, and resources will help you get started or further develop your efforts:

Role of the Board in Advocacy and Community Engagement

"Stand for Your Mission" is a campaign designed to build awareness around the importance of board advocacy to advancing an organization's mission. Board members "stand for their mission" by being strong ambassadors to civic leaders, decision-makers, and the public at large.

Initiated by Washington's own Campion Foundation, BoardSource, and a wide host of national partners, "Stand for Your Mission" provides free resources and tools to equip board members to enact meaningful societal and policy change. The ultimate goal of the "Stand for Your Mission" campaign is to change the board so that advocacy becomes an expectation for every board member.

Follow our blog for tips in engaging your board.

Lobbying on Legislation

The rules about nonprofits doing advocacy are focused on lobbying, which is when an organization tries to influence the outcome for a particular piece of legislation through communications with legislators or their staff. All lobbying is advocacy, but not all advocacy is lobbying. Nonprofits can hire lobbyists and use staff to do lobbying too, but it is important to know the rules about how much of your resources can be spent in this way and how to register as a lobbyist.

Independent Sector offers great information about advocacy and the following links about lobbying:

The tools and methods of community engagement are changing quickly. Influencing Public Policy in the Digital Age: The Law of Online Lobbying and Election-related Activities from Alliance for Justice addresses some of the specific issues that arise in the use of online tools for lobbying and advocacy.

Read our blog post talking about how nonprofits can stay engaged with congressional and state leaders.

Community Engagement

Other forms of advocacy are providing education to the public or government staff and officials about an issue, engaging voters to provide information about an issue, and giving citizens information about how to track and influence government or get involved in grassroots nonpartisan issue campaigns.

Community engagement efforts can broaden understanding of the issues your organization is addressing and, thus, increase people's willingness to give of their time and money to support your cause. It can also be a tool for activating clients of nonprofit services, so that they are directly involved in changing perceptions and building social capital among people who they do not normally interact with.