Understanding Nonprofit Advocacy – A Comprehensive Guide [with Examples]

When it comes to advocacy, nonprofit organizations have a duty to ensure they don’t cross the line into political action. However, they also have a right to advocate for their mission. Finding the balance can be tricky! Read on to learn what actions you're allowed to take and what might be risky. Plus, check out some examples to see nonprofit advocacy in action!

6 minutes read
Understanding Nonprofit Advocacy – A Comprehensive Guide [with Examples]

Nonprofits are allowed to educate the public and encourage real change in the policies and laws that affect their mission. But where do those actions cross the line and become a problem for the IRS?

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover the ins and outs of nonprofit advocacy. We’ll go over the actions the IRS does and doesn’t allow and show you the steps to plan your own nonprofit advocacy campaign.

First, let’s define nonprofit advocacy.

What is Nonprofit Advocacy?

Nonprofit advocacy involves actions made to support and amplify a nonprofit’s mission in the public. These actions can be things like signing petitions, holding protests, leading summits, and informing voters about issues in a non-biased way.

Nonprofit advocacy helps advance an organization’s mission by changing laws and gaining more support from the public. It also boosts a nonprofit’s visibility, which leads to more donations. Board members typically assist with advocacy, too, and use their connections to help.

While some advocacy involves lobbying, it’s important for nonprofit management to know the difference between the two.

Difference between advocacy and lobbying

Advocacy informs lawmakers and other stakeholders about the value of your mission, whereas lobbying involves actively attempting to influence legislation. You can see where the line gets blurred!

However, plenty of actions deemed as nonprofit advocacy also fall in the category of lobbying. Many nonprofits get frustrated at the lack of clarity about which actions are allowed for nonprofit advocacy. Luckily, the IRS does have some clear-cut rules.

What Does the IRS Say about Nonprofit Advocacy?

There are many different kinds of nonprofit organizations like 501(c)(4) or 501(c)(6), but the most common kind of charitable nonprofit is a 501(c)(3) organization. When you agree to the requirements of a 501(c)(3) organization, you agree to withhold from engaging in “political campaign activity.” But where does nonprofit advocacy stop and political campaigning begin?

The IRS states that nonprofits are allowed to participate in an “insubstantial” amount of lobbying. This means that nonprofits can participate in advocacy, and even lobbying, as long as it is not their primary function and they don’t use a significant amount of resources toward this goal.

If you want to learn more about your financial responsibilities as a nonprofit, check out our guide to nonprofit auditing. To get even more specific, here are some nonprofit advocacy examples and actions that are safe and some that are risky.

1. Advocacy actions allowed by the IRS [with examples]

1.1 Volunteer advocacy

Volunteers advance your advocacy because they’re so passionate about your mission! You can have volunteers lead advocacy activities, brainstorm new ways to connect with the public, and even meet with elected officials.

Running your advocacy program with volunteers is a great way to ensure you’re adhering to the IRS’s guidelines, too. Need help retaining volunteers? Read our 8 ways to motivate and engage your nonprofit volunteers.

COARE is an entirely volunteer-led nonprofit advocating for public awareness of marine life and ecosystem health. Their expert volunteers serve their mission because they’re so passionate about this cause! We love how they highlight the possible impact underneath every donation amount on their Donorbox donation form!

volunteer advocacy campaign on Donorbox

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1.2 Social advocacy

There are tons of social advocacy examples out there because it’s such a popular choice for nonprofits. Harnessing the power of the people is a great way to advocate for your cause. This involves actions that connect people and get them excited about your mission so they reach out to their elected officials to act.

California Black Health Network does a lot of social advocacy work in the areas of health, racial justice, poverty, mental health, and more. They help lawmakers in the state of California develop laws and policies in line with their mission. Their crowdfunding campaign created on Donorbox, shown below, helps them conduct their social change advocacy work.

social advocacy campaign on donorbox

1.3 Hosting advocacy events

Hosting events is a great way to increase your nonprofit advocacy. These exciting events help generate interest in the issue at hand and can encourage both the general public and lawmakers to get involved.

If you’re planning an advocacy event, use Donorbox Events to manage your ticket sales. You can choose to charge for tickets or make them free. Plus, add the option for people to add-on a donation to your organization – which can help turn your advocacy event into a fundraising event, too!

Hispanic Access hosted its advocacy week called Nature and Nurture in 2023. The week included both virtual and in-person events hosted in Washington D.C. and covered topics ranging from how to tell lawmakers effective stories to Latino conservation and climate policy.

1.4 Signing petitions

This classic action has stuck around because it works. Showing politicians a list with hundreds of signatures can convince them to reconsider their position.

Nowadays, there are several sites that host online petitions to make signing even easier. Friends of the Drew Forest hosts their petition right on their website for easy access. Their goal is to preserve 53 acres of Drew Forest and save some of the oldest trees in their county.

signing petitions for nonprofit advocacy

1.5 Providing educational materials

This last action may not seem like advocacy, but it does a lot of work toward convincing others about the importance of your mission. Educational materials are such vital resources in your nonprofit advocacy, and providing them helps empower people to support your mission.

Part of The Transformation Project’s mission is to educate the public in South Dakota about gender identity and expression. To fulfill that mission, they provide educational materials that help advocate for trans people in their communities.

2. Actions that can be risky

While the actions above are allowed – and even encouraged! – these actions are a little riskier.

  1. Naming specific candidates while encouraging voting
  2. Targeting people from specific political parties
  3. Running voter registration drives in areas where a candidate has a lead
  4. Coordinating activities around a politician’s campaign

All of these have a common theme – making your political leanings known to the general public. These actions run the risk of tarnishing your reputation as a nonprofit and even bringing consequences from the IRS.

How to Plan a Nonprofit Advocacy Campaign

Now that you have a better idea of which types of activities are allowed and which ones to avoid, let’s look at some steps to plan your own advocacy campaign.

1. Decide on a goal

It may seem obvious, but every successful nonprofit advocacy campaign needs a clearly defined goal. This can be as simple as educating X amount of people about your mission, or something more ambitious like swaying a lawmaker’s vote.

Your goal should be SMART –

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Once you have your goal in mind, you need to make sure you have your team in place.

2. Compile your advocates

Depending on your goal, your advocates might be other nonprofits or local organizations like schools and churches, or they might be the individuals most likely to help your campaign succeed.

These individuals are typically donors, too, so looking through your donor data is a great place to start. Donor management is a great way to compile your lists.

You can sort your donor and donation data on Donorbox by different filters to find people who might be interested in helping with your advocacy campaign. Things like giving to certain campaigns and donation amounts are good indications of how passionate your donors are about your cause – and how likely they are to participate in advocacy.

donorbox donor management

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3. Fundraise to support your campaign

Any solid nonprofit advocacy campaign needs financial support to be successful. You’ll need to create materials to educate the public about your advocacy and cover the expenses of events, advertising, and more.

Donorbox helps you fundraise with a variety of methods to drive momentum and engagement for your advocacy. The tools are easy to use – for you and your donors! – and encourage recurring giving to support you throughout your advocacy campaign.

Crowdfunding is a popular choice for advocacy campaigns because it’s story-driven and shows the power of the crowd! You can also turn your crowdfunding campaign on Donorbox into a peer-to-peer one to harness the power of your supporters by enabling them to fundraise for your advocacy campaign. This will help boost the campaign outreach as well as donations. Learn more about Donorbox Peer-to-Peer on the website and our blog.

Want to get started with Donorbox? Sign up here. Follow our step-by-step guide or watch this quick video to start fundraising for your advocacy campaign today:

Fundraise for Your Campaign - Sign Up!

4. Plan your touchpoints

A successful advocacy campaign plan will be flexible, but you should have some planned touchpoints. These will include:

  • Hosting events
  • Emailing your supporters
  • Posting on social media
  • Reaching out to elected officials

And more. Planning these out in advance will ensure you don’t miss a beat and your campaign remains strong.

Over to You

When it comes to advocacy, nonprofit organizations have a duty to ensure they don’t cross the line into political action. However, they also have a right to advocate for their mission.

This important work can look like hosting events, distributing educational materials, signing petitions, and more. A solid nonprofit advocacy campaign might use many of these actions!

Fundraising helps support nonprofit advocacy with the necessary funds to make real change happen. Donorbox helps thousands of nonprofits with all kinds of fundraising through powerful tools like Text-to-Give for convenient mobile giving, Donorbox Live™ Kiosk for in-person donations, Crowdfunding and Peer-to-Peer, QuickDonate™ for easy repeat donations, Recurring Donations, Memberships, and more.

80,000+ organizations have chosen us already to raise more than $2B in donations.  Sign up and start fundraising like a pro.

Want more tips and resources on nonprofit management, finances, audit, accounting, donor management, fundraising, and other crucial topics? Check out the rest of our Nonprofit Blog. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive a curated list of Donorbox’s best resources in your inbox every month.

Lindsey Baker

Lindsey spent years wearing many hats in the nonprofit world. Whether she was helping arts nonprofits with their messaging and content, planning a fundraising gala, writing an NEA grant proposal, or running a membership program with over 400 members, she learned how to navigate – and appreciate! – the fast-paced world of fundraising. Now, she loves sharing those hard-earned lessons with the Donorbox community.

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