Supercharging Nonprofit Advocacy

Advocacy is a critical function of any nonprofit and is considered a core competency of many nonprofit organizations. It is the process of informing the nonprofit’s audience of its purpose and motivating them to act in support of that purpose.  Advocacy should be done in a variety of ways and should employe targeted methods to optimize impact.  Many nonprofits take a narrow client-centric approach to advocacy; however, the best nonprofits exercise the power of advocacy in much broader ways.

Comprehensive Approach

Nonprofits naturally act as advocate for their clients as it is typically the reason for the organization’s existence.  While that is critical advocacy, nonprofits need to engage far more broadly in order to remain viable and relevant.  By advocating at multiple levels, the organization can open up new revenue streams and gain access to new programs.  The nonprofit can elevate its people, but can go further to benefit its segment and the nonprofit sector.


Two important ideas about advocacy:


To teach is to learn.  – Japanese proverb


A rising tide lifts all boats.  – New England Council Slogan


The first quote ties directly to nonprofits’ need to remain relevant and that is one half of the nonprofit fiscal sustainability framework.  Nonprofits must be able to change to meet the needs of their clients as they evolve over time.  Advocacy, as an educational process, provides feedback to the nonprofit which it can use to change and meet client needs.

Think about the nonprofit organizations that have shut down or are struggling because they were unable to meet the changing needs of their clients.  Many of those were engaged with advocacy at some level, but they may not have had the feedback mechanism or were unable to respond to the changes they saw coming.  Advocacy at multiple levels may have helped uncover issues and find solutions.


The second quote relates to the need for nonprofits to advocate beyond their own clients or their own organization.  Advocacy for the good of the segment or the overall nonprofit sector can help all organizations.  This is a challenge for nonprofits that seems to be most comfortable going it alone.

Consider the threat of changes to the Johnson Amendment and the impacts that could arise from politicizing nonprofits.  The sector worked together to challenge those proposed changes because of a shared belief that the changes would ultimately damage the sector.


6 Ways to Supercharge Nonprofit Advocacy

  1. Program Advocacy
  2. Mission Advocacy
  3. Organizational Advocacy
  4. People Advocacy
  5. Segment Advocacy
  6. Sector Advocacy


Program Advocacy

Discuss what you do and how well you do it, as well as, the breadth and depth of program support you provide.  Cluster similar programs into management streams to build scale.  Show how your programs are evolving to meet changing client needs and how your programs are expected to shift from output to outcome and on to impact.

By doing so, the nonprofit can learn about similar programs or new programs that may fit into the organization’s program portfolio.  In addition, funders and donors will see that the nonprofit is capable at delivering service reliably and dependably, making the organization more attractive to funders.


Mission Advocacy

Discuss how your organization’s mission develops over time to better meet the needs of your clients and ensure relevance.  Show how your organization is diversifying in the ways it fulfills its mission and how it is broadening the scale or scope of clients it serves.  Provide information on the process by which the organization refines or redefines its mission to remain aligned with the need that the nonprofit strives to satisfy.

Advocating about mission is a significant part of nonprofit storytelling that goes beyond individual client advocacy.  This educates funds by putting client needs in a broader context and by showing that the nonprofit has plans in place to address changing client needs.


People Advocacy

A nonprofit’s greatest assets are its people, including staff, leaders and volunteers.  Nonprofits need to educate funders on the accomplishments of their people, including detailing the challenges that they need to overcome to support the mission.

This serves two purposes, first it provides recognition to the nonprofit’s staff and volunteers and shows that the nonprofit understands and appreciates the work they do.  Second, this educates funders on the incredible work these folks do and the difficulties they face.

In addition to educating funders, nonprofits need to invest in training their people to be advocates. Training staff and volunteers to seek opportunities to spread the message about the nonprofit is a valuable investment.  Also, encouraging staff and volunteers to assume the role of thought leader in topics related to the work of the nonprofit is a great technique to increase engagement and open doors to new funding sources.


Organization Advocacy

A nonprofit is more than its mission, it is that plus its people, its programs, its culture and a lot more, so educating people about the organization is an important form of advocacy.  This is sometimes done via the Annual Report, but it should be an ongoing process done via numerous conduits.

Educating about the organization is a great way to help funders understand the path on which the nonprofit is travelling.  It is the way the nonprofit can tell funders about its strategies and plans, as well as its hopes and aspirations.

Consider the power of aligning a nonprofits long range plan with a set of funders that are thinking about the same type of future impacts.  That type of coordination is impossible if funders and nonprofits do not share their future visions.


Segment Advocacy

Nonprofits are deeply impacted by business segment changes, so it is critical that funders be made aware of these changes. Proactively educating funders on the current environment and trends in your segment motivates funders to work with the nonprofit to prepare for or recover from the change.

Segment advocacy is a great way to identify potential strategic partnership opportunities with other nonprofits.  Those partnerships can be formed to pool resources for research or to find creative ways to increase revenue flows.


Sector Advocacy

As the quote earlier in this article suggests, increasing understanding of the overall nonprofit sector can be good for all nonprofits.  Get engaged with nonprofit associations and help promote the good work that the sector performs.

Join efforts to educate politicians on the impacts of legislation on your nonprofit, your segment and the sector.  Participate locally, as well as, at the national and international levels.  Learn the rules and understand the differences between lobbying and advocacy.

Overall, consistently spread word of the sector’s need for funding, donors, volunteers and leaders. Place your nonprofit’s messaging in context of the sector, which broadens your message and helps the sector while helping your organization.

For more on lobbying, check out this article from the Philanthropy News Digest: Is Your Nonprofit Leery of Lobbying?  Now is the Time to Get Over It


Bottom Line

Nonprofits know all about advocating on behalf of clients, it is truly a core competence.  However, for the long-term viability and relevance of your nonprofit, you need to go beyond and apply your advocacy prowess much more broadly.

  • Reach beyond and educate about the programs and mission your nonprofits fulfill. Advocate about your organization, its people, as well as your segment and the sector in general. Build a plan to find ways to incorporate all of those levels in your public messaging.
  • Find ways to engage with other nonprofits to grow opportunities and unite to rally against regulatory threats to the sector.
  • Teach, so that you might learn and advocate to bring in the tide and raise up the nonprofit sector.


For more on nonprofit advocacy, check out this NQP Article: Yes, You Can – and Should! Nonprofit Advocacy as a Core Competency


Does your organization utilize any or all of these forms of advocacy? Did I miss any?  If so, please share your thoughts, pros and cons, in the comments section.


About the author:

Michael F. Cade is a nonprofit advisor and executive coach, taking the nonprofit sector Beyond the Numbers.  He is a leadership pathfinder, helping nonprofits optimize operations and strategy to attain long-term viability and relevance.  His Framework for Fiscal Sustainability is an innovative approach for evaluating organizational health and securing the ongoing ability to deliver on its mission.

Mr. Cade publishes the nonprofit leadership blog  Not for Profit Beyond the Numbers

If you have questions or would like a consultation on a nonprofit leadership or operational issue, contact him at: