What Nonprofits Should be Doing Around Advocacy

What Nonprofits Should be Doing Around Advocacy

A question our grant writing and management experts often field from clients is whether they should get a letter of support for their grant from a government official. The short answer is probably yes.

The longer answer is that there is far more you can do to advocate for your nonprofit or program than soliciting letters of support. The key is building relationships with government officials in the same way you would other donors, like corporations.

Many nonprofit organization leaders get nervous when you talk to them about government advocacy for fear of losing their 501c3 designation. They fear their advocacy efforts will be considered lobbying. Lobbying and advocating are two distinctly different things.

Lobbying influences how one votes. A lobbyist is specifically hired to influence.

Advocating influences why one votes for or against. An advocate is a role one is called to serve.

There are many activities that fall under advocacy that are not lobbying. These activities are beneficial for nonprofitsuniversitiesschool districts and hospitals to engage in when pursuing grant funding.

Government officials, whether city, county, state or federal, are elected to reflect their local constituencies as they make decisions to pass laws which better and strengthen our society.

They should not only be aware of the concerns and challenges of the people they serve and represent, but also the availability of services to help their constituency.

Smart ways you can educate those officials in your geographic area about your cause:

Write an email every month. Provide information on your target population, couched as part of their constituency, and the impact you have on the community.

Write a letter annually. Include the facts and budget. It could start along the lines of:

I’m from <organization> that provides <these services> with a budget of <amount.> The return on investment is <amount> with a spend of <amount> per person. Without this funding, we would serve <number> fewer people.

Include information on your board and executives and the expertise they bring to the organization.

Offer to call congress to testify or give presentations.

Invite them to tour the organization and offer to let them hold a congressional meeting outside of Washington, D.C. and/or announce a new piece of legislation that is relevant to those you serve or the community. Know what committees they sit on and how this work pertains to your work and cause.

Send a thank you note or follow up email. State your appreciation for their time and response and offer to share your data and outcomes with them.

Two great tips: Do not mail letters to Washington, D.C. Instead send mail to the official’s district office. For email, get the address of a specific staff person and email him or her, not a general inbox. The staffer is a good source to tell you what is coming down the road, so you can be prepared.

Remember, staffers work on issues, so don’t be afraid to meet with them instead of the elected official. In your letter or email to the official, ask who the relevant staffer is for your issue, and for his or her email address.

Have leave-behind materials ready to hand out. This collateral should include hard data and anecdotal data that makes the information believable, and focus on no more than three bullet points, written in clear, concise sentences and language. All marketing materials should include a message of advocacy.

Develop and know your talking points by heart. Always be ready to discuss issues affecting your organization and cause, such as why your service(s) is essential, how it impacts the official’s district, and what that means to your organization and community.

Ask for a letter of support or commitment. Not all grants allow letters of support. See if there is a way they can be a partner in your grant, such as offering one hour of civics education for participants.

Make an inquiry about the Congressional Research Service. Let the recipient know that you are beginning to write a grant for your organization and ask if the Congressional Research Service has anything that could help.


Advocacy is an on-going process, not a one-time event. This process is part of being a good steward for your organization and building relationships with those who can advocate, not lobby, on your behalf. Elected officials aren’t obtuse. They might not have had the time or occasion to think through your mission and its long-term impact. By advocating for your organization, you can provide food for thought and possibly gain an additional advocate fighting on your side.