Speak up and persistLobbying is part of the political landscape. Simply understanding the role of nonprofits in the lobbying world isn't enough, however. As a nonprofit, you must determine an action plan for lobbying.
Here's help getting started.
Understand your organization's lobbying motivations
Before taking action on a particular issue, spend time considering all the factors at play in your organization. Common motivations for lobbying include the ability to:
- Highlight damaging gaps in social policy. Lawmakers often rely on nonprofit leaders and other advocates to point out breaks in social policy, especially at the grassroots level. One of the main purposes of lobbying is to make sure representatives and other lawmakers have all the information they need to make responsible, well-informed choices.
- Work collaboratively for a bigger impact. From social movements to viral campaigns (such as the ALS ice bucket challenge), major social advances can take years — or decades — of work. Joining together with others striving for the same goal could build momentum more quickly while allowing everyone to share the burden of enacting change.
- Create and implement unique solutions. Lobbying is an opportunity to think creatively about what will most benefit the people you're serving. You can then ask your legislators for specific, nonpartisan help.
So, how do you accomplish all of this? How do you make sure you're presenting the right message to the right people at the right time, without violating any lobbying guidelines for nonprofits? Once you've identified your motivation for heading down the lobbying path, you can move on to devising a strategy.
Know the formula
Consider this simple three-step formula to begin your lobbying efforts:
- Focus on the audience. Who are you talking to? What are you trying to persuade them to do? A letter to a governor about a local educational crisis will need a different tone than a press release sent to the city council. Figure out who you're trying to persuade and direct your efforts in their direction.
- Craft a persuasive message. Are you trying to persuade someone to sign a petition or grant a large fellowship? Be clear about what you need. Also, remember that persuasive messages can be in writing or in person, such as interviews with key people or testimony at public hearings. Messages delivered by service recipients or their family members can be especially compelling.
- Write case studies. Developing case studies is a critical part of the advocacy process. Interview individuals, families or other participants and record their stories. How have their lives improved as the result of your programs? How has your organization changed the community for the better? What more needs to change? Case studies are useful for personalizing the issues your organization is trying to solve.
To be sure your lobbying activities don't endanger your organization's tax-exempt status, review guidelines for prohibited lobbying activities.
Keep it simple
If the lobbying process still seems confusing, don't be daunted. Because social change is typically a slow process, it's easy to get discouraged and feel like your efforts aren't making a difference. If you're overwhelmed by the work ahead, remember that at its heart lobbying is actually a fairly straightforward exercise with two key phases:
- Speak up. Be the voice of reason in this troubled world. Advocate on behalf of those who can't advocate for themselves. Raise issues. If possible, use your organization's theoretical megaphone to draw attention to societal problems others don't yet see.
- Persist. Major social changes don't happen overnight. Progress can take years, or even decades. Don't give up. Whether you're advocating for minor amendments in public policy or on behalf of an entire social movement, the path to change requires persistence.
So, take a deep breath and map out your "persistence" strategy. What action will you take today? Next month? In five years? Set achievable goals that will address social problems from multiple angles. Write letters to representatives highlighting key social issues (being careful to avoid advocating for specific legislation). Interview participants and build your first case studies. A customized timeline will help you tailor your efforts to ensure continued progress.
D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center: A nonprofit's guide to lobbying and political activity (2016)
Oklahoma Policy Institute: Yes, non-profits can (and should) lobby by Tyler Parett (2016)
Center for Non-Profits: Non-profit organizations can lobby (2013)
Grassroots Advocacy Blog: Why your nonprofit should lobby lawmakers (part 1) by Abby Curcio (2016)
American Bar Association: Nonprofits and lobbying by Nayantara Mehta (2009)