[NPFX Ep. 7] Nonprofit Advocacy Basics

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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: Nonprofit Advocacy Basics

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How to use advocacy to help your nonprofit meet its mission
  • The importance of empowering your supporters and the people you serve
  • The key ways advocacy differs from lobbying
  • Where to find activists for your cause, and how to mobilize them when they are needed
  • The importance of keeping supporters engaged, especially when there’s no pressing advocacy goal
  • How to use advocacy to help boost fundraising
  • Mistakes that will undermine your advocacy strategy
  • The impact of COVID-19 on nonprofit advocacy
  • How to decide if hiring an agency to help with advocacy is right for your nonprofit

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Having a strong advocacy strategy is crucial to a nonprofit organization’s ability to make a profound and lasting impact for the people they serve. Not only will it help you inform and influence policymakers, advocacy can even help boost fundraising. In today’s episode, we’ll cover the fundamentals of creating an effective advocacy strategy for your nonprofit.

For those organizations that are new to advocacy, we’ll outline a three-part process for building an army of loyal activists. And if you’ve already been doing advocacy but aren’t seeing the results you want, we’ll also explore what might be going wrong and what you can do to improve your efforts.

Let’s meet our panel.

Jack: Hello, I’m Jack Padovano, co-founder of IPM Advancement.

Joe: And I’m Joseph Kubalek. I am Associate Director of Client Services here at IPM.

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


Why Advocacy Is Important for Nonprofits

Curtis: Excellent. Thank you all for joining me today to talk about nonprofit advocacy basics. So let’s start with something real basic. Let’s define advocacy. So what is advocacy in the context that we’re talking about here?

Jack: You know, Curtis, when I think about advocacy, I think of it as the art of expressing a point of view. You know, and that point of view can be as simple as advocating what I want to eat tonight for dinner, or where I want to spend my next vacation — of course when we can travel again. In the professional setting and as it relates to nonprofits, I think about advocacy as expressing an opinion on public policy, like reducing gun violence; or a cause, like protecting children from abuse; or advocating for a specific piece of legislation, like legalizing marijuana for medical use.

Curtis: Good. So then let’s look at the purpose of advocacy in terms of a nonprofit. Why does IPM recommend that nonprofits have some sort of advocacy strategy in place?

Jack: You know, there are many reasons why nonprofits should advocate for those that they serve, you know, and I’ll give you my top four reasons, not in any particular order. But the number one thing that comes to mind is that advocacy helps a nonprofit meet its mission. So Autism Speaks, for example, advocates for policies and programs in support of individuals and families with autism. And as we speak, this week, they’re collecting stories on how COVID-19 impacts people with autism, because elected officials often turn to them and ask them for stories on why they should support specific policies on autism. So these stories not only help persuade and make the case to legislators to support legislation, particularly regarding research, or insurance coverage, or employment and housing, but it shows legislators why they need to be supportive of those issues. And which brings me into my second reason: elected officials are not experts by any stretch on your point of view. So it’s up to you to educate them so they understand the positive impact that your point of view makes on their constituents’ lives. Third reason: whether we like it or not, the government makes decisions every day that directly impact the funding and regulation of nonprofits. So it’s really in the best interest of a nonprofit organization to be consistently in front of them arguing for tax incentives for charitable giving, tax exemptions, grants, things like that. And I think the fourth reason, you know, who doesn’t see the value of having a good relationship with policymakers who make these important decisions? Connecting and building solid relationships with what I’ll call key community influencers can make or break a nonprofit’s advocacy goals. There are others but that I think those are the top four for me.

Curtis: Yeah, those are great. Just to kind of encapsulate what you said, it sounds like IPM’s position is it’s not really enough for a nonprofit to have programs that they deliver to the people that they serve. There are also other factors, like legislators and policies and things that affect their ability to effectively achieve their mission. And advocacy allows them to do that.

Samantha: I think that’s right. And I think the other thing is that it also allows a nonprofit to give the people that it serves — I’ll say people, you know, loosely because we know there are groups working with the environment or animals or whatever, but it all comes back to people — it really allows them to empower the people that they serve to have their voices heard. And that’s, you know, one of the primary functions of what nonprofits do in order to make the world a better place.

Curtis: What about an organization that doesn’t have an obvious political or legislative agenda — something like a museum, for example? Is advocacy still important for that nonprofit?

Joe: I definitely think that just as Sam was saying, there’s — it creates opportunity to identify within the organization those pathways that you can actually further your organization down the road. And you can, you know, especially if you’re an organization that deals a lot with an ever-changing landscape or something closely tied to a political agenda, or anything like that, as a nonprofit, your advocacy route is kind of the go-to methodology for your outreach. But at the same time, it’s still an avenue that you can explore for say, for example, for a museum to stay relevant with your constituents and let them know you’re still there. And take that opportunity to maybe educate them on how your mission statement ties into this current event or issue and you can have the opportunity to loop it all together.


How Advocacy Differs from Lobbying

Curtis: Now I know there are a lot of rules that govern how a nonprofit does lobbying, for example. How is advocacy different from lobbying? And is there another set of rules that govern advocacy?

Joe: Well, I won’t get in too much into the rules side of things. There’s a lot of like, you know, weeds that you could get into as far as what you can and can’t do, you know, depending on what your messaging is, but overall, your lobbying agenda is — I mean, you typically start with an agenda that is very specific; you kind of start from the end and work your way backwards. There’s an event, there’s a vote, something very specific that you’re aiming at, and what can you do in that timeframe? Whereas, you know, many times with your advocacy messaging, it’s more organically grown around the issue at a larger scale — something where it’s educating them on the core of whatever that issue is, regardless of, you know, the next vote or the next political touchpoint that comes in its path.

Curtis: So it sounds like lobbying is more about taking a position, you know, vote this way or something like that. Whereas advocacy is about educating people: There is a vote coming up, and these are the issues involved.

Joe: Right. And again, like taking that opportunity to kind of make your — as from the organization’s standpoint, why does this matter? And how does this piece of education really matter to our mission statement?

Samantha: I think you hit on a good point there, Joe. And that’s that the advocacy is really sort of the Why. Whereas the lobbying might be the What, the specific outcome or thing that you are going for; whereas the advocacy sort of supports that from a broader perspective.


3 Steps to Build an Army of Activists: Recruit, Engage, Mobilize

Curtis: I like that distinction. Samantha, I know you wanted to talk a little bit about IPM’s model for creating an advocacy strategy. In fact, IPM recommends a three-phase model. Can you give an overview of what that is? And then we can dig a little bit deeper into each of those three phases.

Samantha: Yeah, absolutely. So like you said, it is a three-phase model. And really, it starts with finding people who are interested in your cause, and getting them to engage, getting them to sign up through whatever means you choose. And that will sort of depend on the outcome that you’re looking for, how you want to mobilize them when the time comes. The second step is really to keep them in the loop. So the last thing that you want to do when you’re building this army of supporters is to bring a bunch of people to your cause, and then say nothing to them until it’s time to take action because people become disengaged or honestly can even forget that they’ve signed up for something. And it’s just not an effective — you don’t get the effective outcome you’re looking for. So after you have kept them engaged and kept them in the loop, then the last step is to actually call them to action when the time comes. So that’s the very basic framework of how we like to go about doing this sort of thing.

Curtis: Regarding that first step, finding people, where can a nonprofit find activists for their cause?

Samantha: You know, I think about this a lot like I think about fundraising. And that’s to say that there are a variety of outreach opportunities. And that when you combine them and use a multi-channel approach, just like in fundraising, that’s where you’re going to get the best results. So online outreach is really popular in terms of finding activists. That’s going to be, you know, your digital ads, your social media pages, signups on your website, that sort of thing. Telephone outreach can really work especially when folks come to inbound events. So say you’re doing a telephone Town Hall, or a webinar with a call-in component, that’s a great way to build a list. And actually through our telephone Town Hall service we offer there’s a way where on the call, you can say, “If you’re interested in joining our list of volunteers, for instance, or if you’re really interested in this issue and you’d like to join our special task force, press one, and we’ll connect you with an agent who can take down your information so we can be in touch.” So that’s a great way to sort of have the leads come to you when you’re offering value like that. And then of course, you can also use direct mail. So a flyer or an offer in direct mail. Really any of the channels and as many of the channels as possible, working together is the best, the best way to do that.

Curtis: Great. So then how do you keep followers engaged so that they don’t lose interest?

Samantha: Well, really, it’s just about keeping them in the loop. And you’re going to do that primarily through the same way that they came onto your file. So if they came on through your social media pages, you’re gonna want make sure you’re sharing content there. If for instance, you’ve created a separate subsection of your donor database, so you invite people to become members of a special group, you’ll message them according to that special group; often that’s done via email. So you want to sort of think about it as it’s okay to share this sort of content broadly with your audience. But you also want to give something special to those people who have signed up for this engagement so that the actual stuff you might ask them to do is, some of it’s just going to be news or behind the scenes updates, or even sharing content from other nonprofits or other entities you think is valuable and speaks to your general advocacy mission. You want to give them ways to take action that are simple, but that require a little bit of something from them. So maybe you’re just asking them to retweet something or share your message or talk to your family and friends, you know, talk to five people this weekend about autism awareness. I know Jack was speaking about Autism Speaks, so something like that. Newsletters are great, conference calls like I mentioned, that’s a great way to bring people in but it’s also a great way to keep people informed. And, like we’ve talked about in previous podcasts about the messengers, who’s delivering these messages, you want to have a variety of voices. So personal stories are a great way to keep people involved. Folks like to have that connection to other individuals. And so bringing in other voices and just having them sort of bolster that content is helpful. It’s a lot like stewardship. So engagement is to advocacy, what stewardship is to fundraising.

Curtis: I like that. So let’s talk about mobilizing your followers. What are some practical tips for making an effective advocacy Ask? How should nonprofits do that?

Samantha: Again, you often want to stick to the way that folks came on your file with the exception probably being direct mail, because lots of times when this opportunity comes for your folks to make their voices heard, you don’t have a lot of time. If you do have time you want to lead into it. Let them know that something is coming so they can prepare accordingly. You always want to keep your message short, clear, compelling, of course, timely — let folks know when they need to do this by — and personally meaningful so that they really understand the value of taking action at this time that you’re asking them to do it. Make sure that they know exactly what you want them to do, why you want them to do it, and how to do it. So if you are going to ask them to, you know, call an elected official’s office, provide them with the phone number. We like to do calling programs, outbound calling programs, where we either provide the phone number for an elected official so someone can call in or we can even connect them directly to their elected official’s office, so that they can just stay right there on the phone. Text is great, because people can interact right then and there. And then of course, digital is great. So when you are mobilizing, you want to think about the action you want them to take and then pick the vehicle that is most connected to that action. So like I mentioned, if you want them to make a call, call them, transfer them right then and there. If you want them to go online and submit something or post something, send them an email, send them something on Facebook, so that they’re already online and engaging right then and there. Always meet people where they are, where you want them to take that action, and where you can find them.

Curtis: I like what you said about making it easy for people. Russ Phaneuf and I recently, in a recent episode, we discussed making the donation process as frictionless as possible. And it sounds like there’s a parallel here. Is that what you’re getting at?

Samantha: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, think about times in your own life when you’ve been asked to do something. If you know exactly what you need to do, and they’ve made it super simple for you, you’re much more likely to take that action. And you know, I find myself doing this. I can be very passionate about a cause but I’m also busy. So if I can’t take action right then and there and make it happen, there’s that chance I’m going to set it aside, I’m going to forget, it just feels a little too daunting. So yeah, keeping it simple is definitely important.


When Advocacy Can Help Boost Fundraising

Curtis: This idea of there being a parallel between fundraising and advocacy, it leads me to my next question, which is: Should those things ever be mixed? Should we keep them separate? Should you pair advocacy Asks with fundraising Asks? What are your thoughts on that?

Jack: By all means, pair them up. We had a client a few years ago that didn’t believe in pairing them up. And we convinced them to actually do a test in the mail. And the test comprised of, we’re going to make an advocacy Ask — I think, in that case, it was to sign a petition — and then we’re going to ask for a contribution. And then the other control was just a fundraising Ask by itself without any without signing the petition. And we saw a 30% increase in response to having two action items: sign the petition and make a contribution. Also, not only was response up, but the average gift was higher in the case where we paired them up. So, you know, based on that from then on, in almost 100% of the cases when we had the opportunity to pair them up, we did. And this has worked across all clients — we yielded the highest ROI on appeals where we did pair them up.

I’ll give you an example. It’s the work that we did for the Everglades Foundation. Florida’s water supply was being threatened by overbuilding and pollution, which caused drinking wells to be overtaken by salt water. And obviously we can’t drink salt water. So the issue became very important to Floridians. So we wrote and designed a mail piece that clearly defined the problem for readers. And we asked them to take two actions: One, sign a letter to the governor asking him to commit to protecting and not harming the Florida Everglades — and we included that specific letter in the mail piece. And secondly, make a contribution to show your personal commitment to Florida’s future and having clean water. And that one-two punch works because it gives donors two ways of participating, almost kind of like a menu of sorts. With that said, there were a group of people that did not make a contribution, but who did sign the petition. But what we found as a very effective way to market those people again, is to go after that — to mail that group a second Ask for a contribution. And I think we did it both in email and with a hardcopy mail piece, thanking them for signing the petition, and then we made a second Ask for money. And the results of that segment were through the roof. So pairing up an advocacy Ask with a fundraising Ask is definitely the way to go.

Curtis: It sounds like the advocacy Ask is the primary, that’s the featured Ask. And then the secondary Ask is the fundraising Ask. Have you found that that’s the way to go? Or can it work either way?

Jack: I think it works best as you described it. Use advocacy as the hook because it lends itself very naturally to describing what the problem is. Hence the solution and how you’re going to make that solution come to life.


Common Mistakes Nonprofits Make with Advocacy

Curtis: So let’s talk a little bit about when advocacy goes wrong. What are some mistakes that you’ve seen nonprofits make in their advocacy efforts?

Joe: I think Jack’s example is kind of like a perfect case study on how it really highlights where people can go wrong. With that particular piece, it was current, it was relevant, it made sense. It just connects all the dots. And so if you’re not up to date on your current events, you don’t know what’s important, or what is the most relevant thing to your donors, how are you going to — your hook’s not going to have any barbs, you’re not going to sink anything in. And so that’s pretty much it. It’s like when you miss the boat on that, you’re not — at a minimum — you’re not capitalizing on what the potential of your message is. You only stand to benefit by being in front of them with something they care about, with something — chances are you’re going to be tying into other messages that they’re hearing that they care about as well, and then you’re tying it into your mission statement. And so it’s like the perfect avenue, you know, through your advocacy messaging, to get people to take action one way or the other. And that’s, I think, really what keyed in on that example, why it works so well is it’s here, it’s now. And that’s really what we found is, like, you take away as many excuses as possible. And advocacy messaging is really what gets you there. It’s like, well, what reason do you have to not take action? So not staying in tune with why your message is important in the first place, why you’re saying what you’re saying right now is probably one of the bigger mistakes that I’ve seen. I mean, it’s a flop at that point, no one’s listening.

Jack: I’d add something else to that. Another mistake people make with advocacy is not circling back with donors on how effective their advocacy was. It doesn’t always work. Signing a petition or a call to a legislator or written piece of correspondence to an elected official — sometimes it fails. Regardless of the outcome, it is critical that you circle back with those donors and let them know what happened. Let them know that their effort mattered, whether you got that piece of legislation passed or whether you didn’t. But being completely transparent and upfront, and closing that loop is a critical piece of making advocacy work. Because when you go out for the next time and ask, they’re gonna wonder, “Well, what happened with that last petition that I signed? Did it really make a difference?”

Curtis: Yeah, sounds like it reinforces the idea that this is a partnership. It’s not a one way thing.

Samantha: Absolutely. And the other thing I would add that’s sort of in line with that — it actually goes along with what both Jack and Joe said — is, you know, we’ve talked before about mission creep and making sure you sort of stick to your lane and know what you’re doing. That might be another pitfall that folks can fall into with advocacy is, maybe there’s an issue that is personally meaningful to the founders or the president or the board but it doesn’t actually tie in very well to the mission itself. And when you start putting forth that type of messaging, it can really just confuse people, because then they’re sort of trying to figure out well, you know, what does this have to do with what the organization does? And how is it really, if I’m passionate about what this nonprofit does, how is this really moving forward that work? So that’s another thing. I don’t think that’s terribly common. But I think especially in these days where, you know, let’s be honest, there are a lot of things to have opinions on and you know where you you might want to get involved. And you just need to be aware of that and keep an eye out.


The Impact of COVID-19 on Advocacy

Curtis: How has COVID-19 changed IPM’s recommendations, if at all, regarding advocacy?

Samantha: The biggest change is really just that you want to avoid in-person Asks. So you’re not going to be asking your folks to go knock on doors or meet in person with their elected officials, you’re not going to be hosting any sort of watch parties, or picketing, or anything like that where you’re encouraging large groups of people to come together or even small groups of people to come together. But the nice thing about advocacy is that a lot of the times, you can create a groundswell on an individual basis. So if you can generate enough phone calls, enough emails, enough petitions, I mean, even though those people are taking that action independently, you bring it all together, and that’s when it’s really meaningful, but they don’t have to directly interact.


Should You Hire an Agency to Help with Advocacy?

Curtis: Great. Jack, I have a question for you. Regarding IPM’s work with nonprofits in this area, if a nonprofit was looking to get started in advocacy or to take their advocacy efforts to the next level, what is it that IPM can do to really help them with that?

Jack: Well, if you’re thinking about hiring an agency like IPM, I would only do it if A) you don’t have an advocacy strategy in place currently and one would be helpful for all the reasons we’ve all just mentioned. Or B) you have an advocacy strategy in place, but it isn’t meeting its goals; it’s not working. And if you do hire an agency like us, be sure they have a proven track record — in both fundraising and advocacy. There are a lot of good agencies with fundraising experience out there that have little to no advocacy experience or expertise at all. And there are even fewer that do mostly advocacy. And there are fewer still, like IPM, that really do both. So there are more than us out there. And the key like in hiring any agency is to vet them, and go to them very specifically with what your need is. So if you don’t have a strategy in place, time to hire at an agency. Or if you have one in place that isn’t meeting its goals, again, time to hire some expertise on the outside.


Takeaway Advice for Nonprofits

Curtis: Well, let’s get some takeaways. What’s something that has either come up in this conversation or hasn’t come up in this conversation that you think is really important? If a nonprofit was going to take one thing away, what would that be? Let’s start with Jack.

Jack: First and foremost, create an advocacy strategy. Period. It’s a proven way to propel your mission forward. And if you want to help, contact IPM.

Curtis: Joe?

Joe: Pairing up with that, looking for the opportunity. Find those opportunities where you can really hone in on that advocacy message with your particular organization, and then just maintain that relevance as best you can, and don’t disengage.

Curtis: And Samantha?

Samantha: I would say it’s just that advocacy is another tool in your toolbox. It doesn’t matter what you do; there are going to be times when you need individuals to take action on key issues that impact your work. And the only way to really do that is to have an advocacy strategy in place and to have a group of willing people who are ready to take that action.

Curtis: Thank you. Great advice all around. So that wraps up our conversation on Nonprofit Advocacy Basics. 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 white papers, 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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