Last week I attended a large gathering of nonprofit leaders in Austin, TX. One of the keynote speakers was Diana Aviv, the CEO of the Independent Sector (IS). She spoke eloquently about their research on what strategies make nonprofit advocacy efforts most effective. Many nonprofit leaders—perhaps especially board members—don’t consider how advocacy could advance their missions. After hearing from over 500 nonprofit organizations, the IS identified five key approaches for effective advocacy. These may be very relevant for your nonprofit.

Before sharing that, I want to clarify what advocacy is. Advocacy is to identify, embrace, and promote a cause. Most nonprofits stand for some kind of cause. What’s yours? Advocacy comes into play most commonly when we are thinking about public policy and how it affects the cause we care about. Nonprofit leaders not only can advocate, they should.

As you think about the relevance of taking a stand, consider the five strategies that IS found were most effective.

  1. Keep a “laser focus” on long-term goals. These days most nonprofit leaders plan about 3, maybe even 5, years out. By long-term, IS means 10, even up to 25, years! While surprising, with a closer look it makes sense. Little significant change for a cause is going to happen in a short timeframe. Focusing on the long-term future condition you desire related to the cause you care about (e.g., eliminate poverty in our State) and then back tracking to develop specific, more near-term action plans, IS found is more effective for achieving significant changes that advance your long-term goal.
  2. Make building a foundation a priority. Successful advocates build a foundation. The building blocks of that foundation include research, developing viable solution options, creating and testing key messages with targeted audiences, and building relationships. This takes time!
  3. Understand the motivations of public officials. This requires relationship building over time but successful advocates invest the time and resources needed. It is also of note that IS speaks about gaining personal information to build trust and connection as well as information about the wants and needs of a particular legislator’s constituents.
  4. Use coalitions for short-term goals. IS found that collaboration is not needed, or effective, at all stages of the long-term advocacy process. For successful advocates, the particular goal and issues at hand determined when building and using a coalition was appropriate. Effective coalitions formed around specific, time-limited issues.
  5. Strong leadership. Successful advocacy had a strong leader at the helm who embodied high integrity, built trust, brokered information honestly, and articulated a compelling vision.

I hope this gives you food for thought! Consider the cause underlying your nonprofit work and if there is an advocacy role for you that may be underdeveloped.

I’ll write more about advocacy and lobbying in an upcoming blog, and give some tips about where the board fits in.

What experiences have you had with advocacy? Do your agree with the IS study’s findings? Do they resonate with your experience?  Please share with us by commenting below.