Michigan nonprofits are on the front line of service and of need, so it is our obligation to identify issues that affect the people we serve and advocate for changes we would like to see on their behalf.
Michigan nonprofits have lived through the storm of a near-Depression economy. During that time we have served as a support and safety net for those we serve. And because nonprofits are on the front line, we are able to see and interpret what is happening at the grassroots level and at the local and state levels. We should therefore be working to inform policy through advocacy.
Yes, things have gotten better across the state, but there will always be a need for Michigan nonprofits to be a constant voice and advocate for those we serve. We are true change agents who have an unflinching responsibility to educate and advocate on issues. We cannot shy away from being that voice.
Our boards and staffs, as well as our networks and allies, are essential to bringing our voices to the forefront in sparking change and maintaining what is important to us. We also have the exciting opportunity to help give voice to those who have remained voiceless. Often the stories of those we serve can be extremely powerful in painting a picture of what is at stake. As we build advocacy strategies, we must reach out and bring diverse interests into our conversations.
While it is true that there are rules and regulations that define the parameters of lobbying for nonprofits, it doesn’t mean that we should shy away from having our say. What it does mean is that we must educate our board members, executive teams, staffs and volunteers about the rules of engagement. As nonprofits, we can and should lobby!
We should also use other advocacy strategies and tactics to inform policy. Skills such as organizing, nonpartisan voter engagement, briefing sessions with policymakers and legislators, research and public education are all important tools in the nonprofit advocacy toolbox.
In trying to bring about change, it is important to build and foster ongoing relationships with policymakers, legislators and stakeholders. This relationship building cannot be a one-shot effort. If you want to make an impact on policy, it is a lot easier if you and your organization create ongoing dialogues that are an exchange of ideas and positions.
In order to frame issues appropriately, we must listen carefully, not just talk. So often when nonprofits rally the troops, we are so passionate about what is at stake that we take little time to educate ourselves on what it takes to create a win-win situation. The best advocates know that policy change and system change take time and commitment. They understand that true change happens when we move beyond “either/or” to “both/and.”
It is always important to remember that our Michigan nonprofits have earned a seat at the table right along with the other sectors. We have an important opportunity through advocacy to bring about the changes we want to see.
Here are a few tips on building a strong nonprofit advocacy machine:
- Get training on effective advocacy for staff and board members.
- Understand the differences between advocacy and lobbying.
- Get everybody on the same page.
- Build and maintain ongoing relationships with policymakers, legislators and allies.
- Read and listen carefully. You can’t fully advocate for change if you don’t understand all aspects of your issue.
- Organize your allies and think outside of the box about who those allies might be. They aren’t always who you think.
- Develop fact sheets, position papers and other presentations that clearly tell your story.
- 'Empower other voices. Think grass tops and grassroots.
- Looking for a guide to nonprofit advocacy? MNA's Nonprofit Advocacy: A Michigan Primer can help your nonprofit stand for its mission.
Donna Murray-Brown is the President & CEO of Michigan Nonprofit Association