[NPFX Ep. 8] 2020 Election Year Strategies for Nonprofit Advocacy

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Welcome to The Nonprofit Fundraising Exchange, a podcast from IPM Advancement. Our mission is to help you raise more money so you can make the world a better place.

Today’s topic: 2020 Election Year Strategies for Nonprofit Advocacy

In this episode, we discuss:

  • What makes an election year different for nonprofit advocacy
  • Exactly what days to avoid messaging during an election year
  • Opportunities to elevate your nonprofit’s message above the noise of political messaging
  • When you should and shouldn’t take sides in the election
  • Why your mission still matters even in an election year
  • Election year mistakes nonprofits make with their advocacy strategy
  • How to turn an election year to your advantage

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As the upcoming presidential election gets closer, more and more media attention is getting consumed by politics. Many nonprofits are struggling to find ways to stand out from all that noise. In today’s episode, we’ll discuss strategies nonprofits can use during an election year to continue to advocate effectively for their causes, and even some ideas for how nonprofits can take what’s happening in this election year landscape and use it to their advantage.

Let’s meet our panel.

Samantha: This is Samantha Timlick, VP of Client Services at IPM Advancement.

Joe: Hi, I’m Joe Kubalek, and I’m Associate Director of Client Services at IPM Advancement.

Jack: Hello, this is Jack Padovano, co-founder of IPM Advancement.

Curtis: And I’m Curtis Schmitt, your moderator. So we’re following up on an episode we did last time on Nonprofit Advocacy Basics. So before we get into the topic today, which is 2020 Election Year Strategies for Nonprofit Advocacy, I’d like to ask — Samantha I’d like to ask you to kind of summarize, you know, for those who might have missed the previous episode, why is nonprofit advocacy important? In other words, what’s IPM’s case for including advocacy as part of a nonprofit’s overall strategy?


Why Advocacy Matters to Nonprofits

Samantha: Well, Curtis, the bottom line is that no nonprofit lives in a vacuum. So the very nature of the work that nonprofits do is to make the world a better place. And in order to do that you have to interact with the world, and advocacy is a very important way of doing that. You need to put your organization in a position to further your mission, so that you can create change by shaping public policy or doing other things that impact the world around you. It’s also about elevating the voices of the people you serve, making sure that they have a platform to talk about and move forward the things that are important to them. So you need to have a plan. That’s the first part of doing advocacy. You need to execute that plan and sort of see how it works. And you need to get help when you need it. So it’s okay to not know but the big thing is, don’t confuse advocacy with lobbying. There are rules and laws around lobbying that — you know, I’m not saying don’t lobby, you could do that too. Just make sure you know what you’re doing. Advocacy is a much broader umbrella that is really just about moving your mission forward. And like we talked about in the last episode, it can have other benefits for your nonprofit too, including impacting your fundraising, you know, improving fundraising results when you’re able to couple an advocacy Ask with a fundraising Ask. So there are a host of benefits. And if you missed the last podcast, you really should go back and listen to it.

Curtis: Great plug, great plug. So it sounds like even if you’re an organization that doesn’t typically engage in political or legislative work, advocacy is still important.

Samantha: Absolutely.


How Nonprofit Advocacy Differs in an Election Year

Curtis: Great. So let’s dive into what’s different in an election year. So when it comes to a nonprofits advocacy strategy, how is an election year different? What should they be doing that maybe they don’t typically need to be doing during a non-election year?

Joe: I guess the first thing to consider is the fact that there’s a lot more players in the field. Like, it’s just how it is, there’s a lot more people talking. And so you know, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone’s going to suffer from the same — or be impacted, I should say — by the same sort of variables and all that noise because every organization is different. But almost every organization can or will be impacted by some part of what’s happening with the election — who is in what spot where, it just matters at some level to the organization. And paying attention to that, typically, it only serves to better your mission. And so, I mean, we touched on this last time, but just staying tuned in to those elements specifically is probably how it’s, you could say, it’s different than an off year, a non-election year. It’s just how you can kind of really key in on your message and why it matters for the here and now, and cut through some of that other abstract noise.

Curtis: Great point there. So it’s important to keep doing it, even though it’s more crowded right now.

Joe: Yeah, and just to also kind of mention, we talk about the idea of kind of frequency of message and kind of your strength of message. And maybe that means you adjust your strategy accordingly. Because that’s, I mean, you asked about the strategy of it all and that’s like, maybe that means you need to message a specific group a little more frequently in order to make the impact that you might have had on an off year or something like that. So ratcheting things up a little bit may be in order for your organization in order to kind of be where you project you want to be.


Standing Out from the Flood of Political Messaging

Curtis: So given that there’s this sea of emails and letters and mailings that we’re all receiving during an election year, how can a nonprofit break through and make sure that their messaging stands out?

Jack: I get this question all the time, Curtis. With the onslaught of the political debates, TV and digital ads, phone calls, and mail, like you described, and the looming in-person and/or virtual conventions, it can be hard to connect with donors and raise money outside of political causes. While there’s no magic bullet here, I strongly recommend two things.

First, double down on best practices by asking and answering questions like: Is my messaging consistent? Is it compelling and relevant in today’s environment? Is my messaging getting sent to the right donors? Does it focus on the impact that my donor’s gift will have? Is my outreach to donors consistent and timely? If you can answer yes to most or all of those questions, do not let a presidential year stop you from communicating and asking your donors for contributions. Also, my gut tells me that nonprofit voices during this flood of hard-edged political messaging could actually be a welcome respite for many donors, you know, cutting through the clutter, because it’s not the type of clutter that they’re getting bombarded with every day.

The second thing I’d recommend — it kind of contradicts everything I just said but I’m gonna say it anyway — if you were to avoid messaging donors on any specific days of the year in 2020, I’d stay away from the six to eight days before Election Day because that’s when campaigns typically spend upwards of 50-60% of their entire budget on outreach.

Samantha: I wanted to jump in on something Jack just said about sort of recognizing the deluge. And I think it’s really important to remember that generally speaking, political outreach is very negative. And so nonprofits have this opportunity to be that positive voice in a negative world, you know, really to have an opportunity to empower people to make a difference during a time when sometimes they feel very powerless — which is completely counter to the whole democratic process; it’s supposed to be about making your voice heard and choosing the direction of the country, but it’s not often the way that voters and therefore donors feel. So by giving them an opportunity to share in some of the good stuff you’re doing, and even to take action on your behalf can really — well, you said it, Jack — can really be a welcome change during a time like this.

Curtis: What I really like about what you guys are saying is that it’s not about being louder. It’s about setting yourself apart so that the context could actually help. The fact that it’s an election year, if you’re doubling down on best practices, if you’re setting yourself apart by focusing on positive messaging, it can really help you perhaps even perform better because of what’s going on during the election year.

So last episode, we talked about IPM’s three-phase strategy for setting up an advocacy strategy for your nonprofit. What impact does an election year have on each of those phases? So to review those three phases are recruitment, engagement, and mobilizing.


Pay Attention and Look for Opportunities

Joe: Yeah, broad stroke form, I mean, it does depend. It depends on who your audience is, what your current engagement strategy is, and everything like that. But overall, you just got to be mindful of like, say for example, what Jack was talking about in terms of the run up to the election. You might have to shift your calendar, is really the bottom line. You might have to fine-tune it. And that’s really what it kind of comes down to is fine-tuning everything. You just got to be really tuned in to your strategy, you got to know that every step you take along the way, in all three phases, through your recruiting phase, through your engagement phase, and through your mobilization phase, you just got to be really keyed in. You can’t take any of those dates for granted. Or else you might, you know, one of those phases entirely could be entirely lost in the noise if you’re not paying attention.

So, you know, step one is pay attention. So like I said, though, I mean, it does depend on your organization. It does depend on what your current strategy is, what cycles you’re on. But there certainly are these — how would you say — like noteworthy moments in an election year that you just want to sidestep, step around, reorganize. And then maybe that means that you communicate more on the front end. You know, if every year you’re communicating in a specific manner, specific way and your donors are used to that, there’s nothing wrong with leading them into that switch. And so if anything, you better prepare them for whatever changes you might be implementing. And I know that you said it’s not necessarily about being loud, sometimes you do have to speak up, though, in order to make sure that everyone’s ready for whatever changes you might make. Frequency, a lot of times, is the solution, but it’s not always a solution. It does matter though.

Curtis: Yeah, good point. Great point.

Samantha: And I think you have to look for opportunity as well. We never know — in the case of debates, for instance — we never know what topics are going to come up, or what hot button issues might arise during an election, and that could be your moment. You think about things like gun violence or healthcare. Some of those things are more commonly raised. And some might not be. But it’s, I think to Joe’s point, it’s really about keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s going on, so that you know when you might need to sidestep or when you might need to step forward.

Joe: And Samantha had mentioned last time, the idea of making things as easy as possible. I think that’s another kind of really important takeaway is, there’s never going to be a better time to make things as easy and succinct, too; get your message across as clearly as possible because obviously the noise is kind of the thing that matters. So get your message across as clearly as possible and then make it as easy as you possibly can for anyone to take action on the advocacy side of things and you know, if there’s a donation follow-up, just tie it all in as seamlessly as possible.


Should You Take Sides?

Curtis: Great. Now in terms of political parties, and specifically the candidates, should a nonprofit stay neutral or should they take sides? Does this get a little bit into that lobbying that, Samantha, you were talking about earlier? What’s IPM’s take on that?

Samantha: You know, my answer on this is often my answer, which is it really depends. It depends on the nonprofit, it depends on the issues, and it depends on the candidates. Generally speaking, I don’t think it’s wise to take party sides. There are some nonprofits that are very clearly in a given lane, and they may choose to do that. But for most nonprofits, it’s not about parties, but it can be about candidates and where they stand. You may choose you know, if you’re an animal rights organization, you may choose to highlight the fact that a given candidate has really been a champion for your cause, or that alternately, a given candidate maybe has a spottier record in that department. So I think candidates are safe. I think that parties are less safe. But regardless of how you do it, you really need to strike the right tone and act with respect. Because I mean, with the way that politics works, your enemy today might need to be your ally tomorrow. Ultimately, you don’t want to be burning bridges, because you may find yourself in a position where you’re really going to need help from people in the future. And so that’s something to keep in mind.

Curtis: Yeah, I like that point about tone, about how you do it being important.

Samantha: Yeah, you can be strong without being rude. You know, you can take a side and stand for something without coming off completely off-kilter.

Jack: I’d also add that making sure that you advocate your position to all candidates, so both candidates running for president or all candidates running for a particular legislative district, you know, sending your message, whether it’s educating them about your issue or advocating for more funding, whatever it is, send it to everybody. There’s no reason why you can’t send it to all sides and have all bases covered. And let your constituents know that that’s happening, that it’s really not a party issue. It’s more a making-the-world-a-better-place issue. And so everybody needs to hear it.

Curtis: Great point. Yeah. So one of the things to come up in our conversation today and also in our conversation on Nonprofit Advocacy Basics from the last episode, is this idea that a nonprofit needs to keep its finger on the pulse of what’s happening — you know, that advocacy should always feel relevant and timely. Should we talk about any of the specific issues that are a part of this election and the opportunities they might provide for certain nonprofits? Or is there some more general advice we want to give about engaging with the candidates, like Jack was just talking about?

Samantha: I think that there are some specific issues worth talking about during this election season. But it really is an organization by organization decision. So it goes back to making sure that whatever the issue is that it ties directly to your mission, before you’re putting it forward. So instead of talking about, you know, the specific issues in this election, I think it’s more valuable to think about the kinds of things nonprofits need to consider when they’re deciding to engage. So one of the big ones is to consider that there might be changing of the guards. So there’s this opportunity to engage with perhaps current elected officials, but there’s also an opportunity to talk with those who are not elected yet. And I think particularly when candidates are looking to be elected, they might be more inclined to listen to more voices and take in more feedback because they’re newer to the process. They want others to see them as being willing to engage with constituents. So that’s really an opportunity.


The Importance of a Compelling Message

Curtis: There’s that word opportunity again. So following up on that, if a nonprofit were looking at the election landscape, and they were struggling to identify key issues that tied directly to their mission, as you just talked about, Samantha, what can they do to make sure that their advocacy concerns still feel relevant, and don’t come across as being completely tone deaf?

Jack: You know, Curtis, concerns like cancer, child abuse, animal welfare, HIV and AIDS — they don’t take a vacation during an election year. People still live with disease and abuse and mental illness. So I go back my advice in the previous podcast where I talked about doubling down on best practices, making sure that you’re doing all the right things around messaging and timing and all those sorts of things. I’d also recommend that nonprofits help donors see themselves in their work and make them feel part of the team and its success. You know, if you think about and watch political campaigns, they’re masters at this; they make you feel like you’re the only guy in the room and without your vote for them, the world’s going to implode. So I say to nonprofits, instead of fearing them, emulate them. That is one good thing that that they do, and there’s quite a few others.

Curtis: It sounds like, too, that — and this has come up I believe a couple times in this episode, and also in last episode — that IPM’s position is really that a compelling message is always relevant to somebody who cares about that cause no matter what else is going on around, you know, in the world or in fundraising or in advocacy. Is that accurate? Do you think that’s what we’re saying?

Samantha: Absolutely. I mean, just like we’ve spoken about in previous episodes about fundraising during COVID, it’s important to recognize what your donors are going through in their lives and how things like a pandemic can impact them. But it’s also important to recognize that your mission still matters. It always matters, and the people who care about it want to help move it forward. So give them the opportunity.


Advocacy Mistakes during an Election Year

Curtis: Great. Last time, we talked about some common mistakes that nonprofits make with their advocacy efforts. What are some common mistakes that nonprofits make during an election year? Are there specific things that we recommend they watch out for or that they don’t do?

Joe: I think some of the specific things aren’t really that sexy. Like, one thing that came to mind as Jack was talking about speaking to all the legislators that matter, for example, is making sure your data is in order. That’s a big thing that people aren’t really prepared for, organizations just don’t — it’s not top of mind. And so making sure all of your data is in order. Is there something that you need? Is there some homework you need to do going into an election year in order to set yourself up to better take advantage of the platform at hand? I mean, all of this kind of comes with preparation. It’s like, are you prepared for what’s ahead of you? And taking the time to think that through to the extent you need to. And I think data is, you know, the information you have on your donors is something that I think gets a little bit lost. I mean, we think about it, but maybe not to that extent, and how it ties into an election year.

Then other than that, it’s I’d say it’s on the fringes. It’s not like you’re gonna find a silver bullet or here’s the one thing that everyone does wrong. But ignoring the election all together, not a good call; saying that, “Oh, the election makes me irrelevant,” not a good call. It’s in those extremes that I think you’re gonna find yourself in trouble. And it’s not a small bit of trouble, like you’ll lose contact with your donors, or you’ll waste your money. It’s not a good position to be in. But I mean other than that, I would say making sure you got your knowledge base in place for your, you know, your legal side of things if you are going to be speaking around any sort of specific piece of legislation or individual.

Samantha: Joe, just to clarify something you said: You were talking about making sure your data house is in order. So by that were you meaning, making sure that your data is up to date, and so for instance, the addresses are accurate or you know what district somebody lives in, in case you’re gonna be doing that type of outreach?

Joe: Yes, exactly.


Hi, this is Curtis Schmitt interrupting the panel discussion for just a moment. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, I’d like to invite you to check out IPM’s Nonprofit Resource Library on our website. There you’ll find lots of additional free resources like whitepapers, infographics, and blog articles.

One resource we recommend for listeners of this podcast episode is our whitepaper entitled How to Build an Army of Activists. In it, you’ll learn the three steps to creating an effective advocacy strategy for your nonprofit.

You can download this whitepaper and more at ipmadvancement.com/resources. Now let’s return to today’s panel discussion on 2020 Election Year Strategies for Nonprofit Advocacy.


Build Your List and Track Response

Curtis: So before we do takeaways, is there anything that hasn’t come up yet in our conversation that the panel thinks is important for nonprofits to consider regarding advocacy during an election year?

Samantha: I think that there’s something that we haven’t spoken about. And that’s that advocacy is really a long game. When you’re going to mobilize, it’s often going to be in a rapid response kind of situation, where you need to get people going right then and there. You have to lay the groundwork for that well in advance and election years are a really great time to do that. Because people are more aware of the political landscape and recognizing their ability to interact with the process. And going back to what I said earlier, you know, there’s sort of this negative stuff going on, or they might feel a little less empowered. And so I think inviting them to join you in this special list or with this special opportunity where they can become an advocate for your cause and sort of using this time to build your list. If you don’t have an opportunity to mobilize right now, this is a great opportunity to take that first step and really recruit your audience and use the election as an opportunity to keep them engaged.

Jack: I think another piece that we really didn’t touch on very much is making sure that you track the actions that your donors are actually taking in your database. So when Joe talked about the database, that made me think, making sure that once you get returns — did somebody sign a petition and who signed the petition? — attach that to the record. Because referring back to it as having taken an action on your behalf, is really important intel and a predictor of who is going to take an additional action in the future and or make a contribution.


Takeaway Advice for Nonprofits

Curtis: Great. So I’d like to ask each member on the panel, what’s one key takeaway that you would like listeners to remember from this episode? Joe?

Joe: I’d say pay attention to the small stuff. It does, I mean, an election year, it warrants that attention. And do your homework; do your homework now rather than, you know, before you’re in the middle of everything. Once everything’s, you know, too amplified, it’s hard to have clarity of objective. Head into it with having done your homework, you know all the intricate details of what you want to do, and you’re ready to kind of roll with those new developments as they come up, as people talk on TV, etc. You’re going to be able to adapt and pivot to your advantage in the end.

Curtis: Jack, what’s your takeaway?

Jack: Don’t hesitate to communicate with donors in an election year. The only exception to that is the six to eight days before Election Day.

Curtis: And Samantha, your takeaway?

Samantha: I’m really gonna kind of go with Joe on this one. I think it’s not just pay attention to the small things, but just pay attention. Just like anything else in your donors lives or your followers lives or the lives of those on whose behalf you work, an election is a big deal, and it’s going to impact people. So you need to be paying attention. You need to be looking for opportunities, and you just, you got to be ready to adjust and pivot when those things arise.

Curtis: Thank you. Excellent takeaway advice from the panel. And that wraps up our conversation on 2020 Election Year Strategies for Nonprofit Advocacy. Thanks to the panel for sharing their insights and expertise. For any resources that were referenced in our discussion today, we will link to them in the show notes. If you liked this episode, please subscribe in Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. And leave us a review. We also invite you to explore our growing library of whitepapers, infographics, and blog articles in the Resources section of the IPM website. That address is ipmadvancement.com/resources. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.


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