The Difference Between Advocacy and Lobbying
Nonprofit organizations have critical knowledge and experience that must be communicated to decisionmakers for them to understand how their actions impact the lives of community members in their jurisdictions. But, because nonprofits are tax exempt, the IRS has placed some restrictions on the types of lobbying, not advocacy, activities that a nonprofit can do. Understanding the key differences between lobbying and advocacy activities will help your organization exercise its right (and responsibility) to participate in the public process.
What is lobbying?
The IRS defines lobbying as any attempt to influence specific legislation by:
Nonprofit organizations must track and report both the time and money that they spend on lobbying activities to the IRS every year. A good rule is to keep all lobbying activities to less than 5% of your organization’s total budget.
What is advocacy?
Advocacy is the act of arguing in favor of something such as a cause, idea, or policy. There are no restrictions on nonprofit advocacy, but it is good practice to identify a board member or establish a board committee to set your organization’s advocacy priorities and oversee your activities to ensure compliance with all IRS guidelines.
Examples of advocacy activities:
Illegal Activities for Nonprofits
There are some things that, as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, you may not do and retain your tax-exempt status. Your organization may not endorse candidates for public office. You may not make campaign contributions. You also may not rate candidates in terms of their stance on a particular issue, though you can educate the public about each candidate’s viewpoint.
IRS guidance on the allowable advocacy and lobbying activities for 501(c)3 organizations.
IRS Measuring Lobbying Activity: Expenditure Test
IRS Measuring Lobbying Activity: Substantial Part Test
Alliance for Justice: Worry Free Lobbying for Nonprofits
Develop an Advocacy Plan
It is important to complete a plan before you start advocating, because, as you will find, each part of the plan can affect the others.
Normally, planning your goals comes first--but you may have to change those plans if you find, as you plan further, that the tactics you were hoping to use are not legal, or won't work. When you plan everything together--and ongoing--you can both build support and make adjustments as you go.
For instance, your goal might be to close down a refinery that had been guilty of dumping toxic chemicals in the environment. You find, when you check into the list of possible allies, that the economic impact of closure would be devastating to the community. So, you adjust your goal to one that would change safety practices in the refinery and permit closer community oversight.
If you had publicly stated your goal of closing the place, before talking with others or filling in the other steps of your plan, you could have antagonized many of those whose support you would need. These might include many people in the community who depended on the refinery financially. And it would have been hard to win them back, after publicly coming out against their interests.
MAKING YOUR PLANS
Planning is best done as a group activity. One way is to write up ideas on the chalkboard. Then, after they have been debated, record the ideas you've chosen in a permanent place. The actual format of the plan is not important. What is important is that you write it down in a form you can use, and that lets you check one part of the plan against the rest. A loose-leaf binder (or computer file) with separate sections for each category may be all you need.
GOALS (OR OBJECTIVES)
If you are asked what the goal of your advocacy campaign or group is, your answer may come out in the form of a mission statement: "We intend to reduce pollution of the local waterways." However, for planning purposes, goals should be split down into much more specific steps. Remember that it's better to keep your focus on a relatively narrow, manageable group of issues, rather than letting yourselves try to cover too much ground and lose strength in the process. It's also important to split up the goals according to your timeframe.
Long-term goals spell out where you want to be, by the end of the advocacy campaign.
Intermediate goals get you much of the way:
Short-term goals have some of the same functions as the intermediate kind. They help keep a group motivated, providing more immediate benchmarks in the form of action steps.
WRITING OUT YOUR GOALS
In terms of planning, it pays to examine each goal before you write it down, to make sure it meets certain criteria. Specifically, each goal should be SMART + C: Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Relevant; Timed; and Challenging.
Here's how SMART + C goal-planning works:
Instead of, "We'll hold a meeting," your goal should be: "We'll hold a meeting for parents of teenage children in Memorial Hall to invite input on the initiative."
Not: "Smoking in our community will be reduced," but instead: "The percentage of smokers in our community will decline by 30% by the year 2000."
PLANNING YOUR GOALS
The simplest way may be to use a loose-leaf binder or computer file, with one page for each of your major goals. On each page, provide space for "short," "intermediate " and "long-term" objectives, with two or three objectives under each sub-heading.
Do you have the resources to reach those goals? That is what you will pin down in the next part of the planning process.
YOUR RESOURCES AND ASSETS
Once you have your goals written down, it is easier to make an inventory of the resources you will need, in terms of organization, money, facilities, and allies--and the assets you have already.
Resources for advocacy may be different from those needed to run service programs in the community. You will not be needing massive financial support over a long period of time, as would be the case if you wanted to open a day-care center, for example. That is the good news. The bad news is that the sort of charitable foundation that might fund a day-care center most generously may not want to put any money at all into advocacy.
While you may not have much cash, you might be rich in other resources--especially people. Your list of available resources will vary, according to the size of your group and its needs, but might include any of the following:
Since advocacy is stressful, make sure your assets are solidly in place. Do you have internal problems that need to be solved in your group, such as relationships between staff and volunteers? Disagreements about use of funds? These need to be sorted out now if possible, during the planning stage.
PLANNING YOUR RESOURCES AND ASSETS
The simplest way to plan is to write out a list of resources and assets in a binder (or computer file) so you can add new ones as you go along. Keep one section for each of the headings above: Funds, People presently available, People expected to be available, Useful community contacts, Facilities, and Access to other resources.
Did you come up short on the most vital resource of all--the people who are willing to help? Then the next section might help you build it up, as you survey the degree of community support you have now, and how much you might expect in the future. When you look into your community support, for the next part of your plan, you may find a few surprises.
YOUR COMMUNITY SUPPORT (AND OPPOSITION)
For this part of the plan, you will write down lists of expected allies and opponents. Part of this may be simple. For example, if you are planning to restrict the logging (and erosion-causing) practices of a big local lumber company, it does not take a rocket scientist to guess that the owners and employees of that company are unlikely to be on your side, but local environmental groups will likely give you their support.
But sometimes it is not so simple, which is why it will pay to do some careful planning, including personal contact and listening. It may be that people you expect to be opponents may also be allies under certain circumstances; and those thought to be allies may oppose your efforts.
You want to get a big strawberry grower in your community to cut down on the pesticide used on his fields. It is getting into the river; and the farm workers and some of the people who live nearby claim it makes them sick. But the mayor of your community normally sides with business interests, no matter what. In the past, he has made statements hostile to many environmental causes. Furthermore, he is an old golfing buddy of the strawberry grower. You naturally pencil him in as a possible opponent. But wait. This mayor owns land just downstream from the strawberry grower and plans to put in a big development of expensive houses ("Strawberry Fields"). The last thing he wants is a cloud of pesticide upstream, and upwind. He may not want to tackle his buddy in public, but you find to your surprise that behind the scenes, he will be your ally.
PLANNING FOR COMMUNITY SUPPORT (AND OPPOSITION)
This can be as simple as making three lists on binder paper: one for allies, one for opponents, and one for unsure (possible allies or opponents). These lists will be useful as you approach the next part of the planning process: deciding specifically whose behavior you want to change, and who can help you do the changing.
TARGETS AND AGENTS OF CHANGE
For this part of the plan, it's important to know very precisely what caused the problem your advocacy group is addressing.
Who are targets and agents of change? Let's suppose you want to take on the many business people in town who are supplying cigarettes to kids. You know they are out there: you've already done an informal survey of kids smoking outside the junior high, and they tell you that buying tobacco is quite easy, in spite of the law.
In many cases, it is not that simple. For example, what about the police, who should be enforcing the law. Are they going to be targets of change, as you work on their enforcement of the law? Or are they to be agents--going in to make the bust?
Sometimes, there may be crossover from one status to another, such as:
Although targets (or agents) are often institutions or groups, it may be easier to focus on one individual. For example, you might plan to change the thinking of one elected official or agency head at a time rather than going for a massive shift of opinion. Or it might seem feasible to tackle one senior executive in a company that is not hiring local people who need decent jobs.
PLANNING YOUR TARGETS AND AGENTS OF CHANGE
You can simply write one list of targets, one of agents, and one of possible hybrids: people who could switch from one category to another.
At this point in the planning, you will have a clear idea about what you want to achieve, what are the main obstacles, and what are the resources--in terms of money, facilities and people--that can help you reach the goals. The next steps involve drawing a clear roadmap showing how you will get there from here.
PLANNING YOUR STRATEGY
In a sense, advocacy itself is a strategy--it's the way you have decided to reach your particular goal, because you can't get what you want without taking on some institutions and people who have power and getting that power structure to change.
Now you need the specific strategies that will help you reach your goals. As an advocate, you will also have to make sure that your strategies:
Many people tend to assume that because you are involved in advocacy, your strategy will involve confrontation. Yes, it may - but often, that's not the best approach.
For example, in a program aiming to curb youth smoking, you might decide on a mix of strategies, some of them quite adversarial, and some not.
Less confrontation / conflict:
CHOOSING A STRATEGIC STYLE
As you can see, many different actions fit under the definition of "strategy," and they may incorporate many different styles--from friendly persuasion to "in your face."
Your choice of style will depend to a great extent on your knowledge of the community, and of what will work (as well as your knowledge of your members and allies, and what they can do best and most comfortably). The people and institutions of a community are connected in complicated ways, and people may see their own interests threatened if certain institutions seem to be under attack. Yes, you can change people's attitudes - but this may take time. A raucous demonstration at the wrong time might solidify old prejudices, making it harder in the long run for people to change.
On the other hand, sometimes a public demonstration is essential to bring an issue to the attention of the public (and the media). In some circumstances, it can help fire up the enthusiasm of your members and bring in new ones. The point is that you need to think hard about what effect it will have, based on your knowledge of the community, your targets and agents, and the root causes of the issue.
Although it is a good idea to do as much forward planning as possible, an advocacy campaign is likely to be dynamic, adjusting with changing circumstances. Obviously, not everything can be locked in.
For example, you might be all set to barricade a logging trail in an environmental cause, when you hear that a state senator is about to propose legislation that would go some way towards accomplishing what you want; your barricade might cause some senators to vote against him. Or you might hear rumors to the effect that your people would be met with massive force. Or you might be told that alternative old logging trails are to be opened up. Or that you had somehow overlooked another area of the watershed where logging could produce even more environmental damage.
Here are some things that you should keep in mind, as your advocacy campaign progresses, involving surprise developments from good news; rumors; unmet needs; or bad news.
If something that your group applauds has happened in your community (for example, if some group has made a good policy change), you will want to reinforce it.
You will need to stay ahead of developments by keeping your collective ear to the ground. If you hear that something contradictory to your aims is about to happen (for example, if you hear that a new housing development is not, after all, going to provide the low-income housing that was promised), you need to investigate.
If your studies of community needs turned up major gaps, (for example, if the immunization rate for infants is exceptionally low), then you would want to create plans to make sure those needs are met (for example, apply pressure for resources for mobile vans to promote access).
You may need to be flexible, with the ability to deliver a quick response if something bad happens, such as the threatened demolition of low-income housing.
It may be useful to brainstorm strategies in the group and write down those that you feel will help you attain your goals. In some cases, simply writing the chosen strategies in a form that you can store easily (for example, in a loose-leaf binder or computer file) is all you need. Others may prefer something more complex.
Here's one possible format, which has a built-in double-check to make sure each strategy is on target.
Goal: Funding for school-linked clinics
Launch a lobbying effort to win over elected officials to fund school-linked clinics.
Strategies are the broad strokes: they do not spell out specifically how something will get done. That is the job of the tactics (or action steps) that you choose? the next part of the planning process.
Tactics are the action steps. The icing on the cake. The finishing touch. The part that shows. Tactics can cover a wide range of activity, from writing letters to speaking up at City Council meetings, from filing complaints to setting up negotiations, from boycotts and demonstrations to carrying out surveys.
As you plan tactics, you will need to make sure that they:
You will find plenty of discussion of specific tactics in other parts of the Community Tool Box. Some of these relate to the development of programs, but some fit well under the rubric of advocacy - that is, they involve identifying specific targets of change, and encouraging that change for the good of the community.
As you plan tactics, it may be useful to ask yourselves these questions about each of them:
There are many different ways of writing out your tactical plans. For example, you may find it useful to attach your plan to each major objective. Here's an example of one way you can do that:
Table: Turning goals into action steps
By August 2023, provide the community with data on youth's views about sexuality, including availability of contraception, methods of contraceptive use, and sexual activity.
By May 2023, the school subcommittee will secure support from school administrators and teachers to survey high school students on issues related to sexuality.
By May 2023, the school subcommittee will secure informed consent from parents and students to distribute the survey.
By June 2023, the school subcommittee will prepare a survey to distribute to high school youth.
By June 2023, teachers will distribute the survey to all high school youth.
By July 2023, the staff will summarize the results and prepare a report.
By July 2023, the chair of the school subcommittee will communicate the results of the survey to the school administrators, teachers, parents, students, and the general community.
Here's another approach, which will also bring your resources and opponents into the planning process.
Resources and support needed
Reduction of teen smoking by 40%
Pete, jane, with kids
May 15, 2023
PUTTING THE PLAN TOGETHER
The entire plan, covering all six of the above steps, should be formally written down. The process of writing will help clarify your thinking. The written version will be available to bring us back in line when "scope creep" occurs: we wobble away from our basic plan.
As we have suggested, some groups might be happy working with a loose-leaf binder, with separate sections for each of the main planning steps. However, others may prefer to get all the planning for one major action onto one "Campaign Planning Chart."
In this example, budget cuts have been proposed that will affect the funding for a clinic that offers the only health care available to the poor in the neighborhood. Your group is advocating an increase in funding for the clinic, and opening a new clinic to serve an area now without health-care facilities.
Resources & Assets
Support / Opposition
Targets / Agents
Better health care for the poor in Jefferson County.
Possible targets of change:
Possible agents of change:
Developing an Advocacy Plan in 5 steps Advocacy Plan Guide501 Commons.org Resources for Advocacy & Community Engagement
Tell Your Advocacy Story
Storytelling for Advocacy This worksheet gives tips and an overview of why we tell stories.TED Talks on Storytelling