Harnessing the Power of Persuasion to Achieve Your Mission
Nonprofit leaders, both professionals and Board members, often underestimate the importance and power of issue-advocacy in advancing their mission. There are important constituencies to tend to, in addition to your clients and donors, who can help you do a better job delivering your projects and programs. Almost every nonprofit should consider dedicating a portion of its overall work to impacting public policy and community attitudes to enhance and enrich the nonprofit’s direct services and activities. More so than for-profit companies, nonprofits rely on public policy, government actions, and community support for their success – though it’s not always obvious.
Advocacy and a proactive public affairs stance can help you advance your mission, as long as you keep those activities in perspective. They are there to support your mission, not supplant it. Naturally some nonprofits are primarily formed for the purposes of advocacy and changing public policy, but most are dedicated to providing direct service. Even for the latter, without effective advocacy for public policies that best serve their clients, providers cannot deliver their missions to their greatest potential.
Contrary to popular belief, it is completely legal for nonprofits to take public positions on issues relevant to their missions. If a child welfare agency wants to encourage legislators to vote for additional funding for children’s services, that’s OK. Or if an environmental nonprofit supports new clean air regulations, it is fine to inform the public how they might benefit. There are many excellent resources to provide you guidance in this area (see, for example, those available from the Alliance for Justice, but here are three rules of thumb to start with:
Many nonprofits engage in two basic types of “public affairs” activity:
Government Relations: activities centered around elected and appointed officials for the purpose of aligning government policies, regulations, and funding with the organization’s programs and clients’ needs. This can be either in indirect ways, such as with legislation that could affect your mission or jurisdiction’s budget, or in direct ways, such as seeking a specific appropriation or earmark. It could also include specific interactions with government agencies, such as securing building permits for a new or expanded facility or changing regulations regarding hours of operation.
Community Relations: activities focused on the general public and specific stakeholders. Again, this could be something more general, such as promoting public awareness of, and support for, the issues you are addressing with your mission, or more specific concerns, such as securing neighborhood support for that new facility or extended hours of service. Not only may these activities help with your government relations agenda, these audiences are always potential clients or donors for your organization as well.
Both of these activities are usually closely tied to media relations, including the use of social media. Furthermore, while public affairs activities often involve one-on-one efforts between staff members and government or community leaders, successful community relations may involve disseminating information broadly in public at events such as community meetings, or outreach to groups such as Homeowners Associations. With these activities, it is essential to listen as much as talk – the goal is to identify, gauge, and address community concerns, and you always want to demonstrate that you are a good citizen and neighbor.
The key to an effective and well balanced public affairs role for any service-providing nonprofit is to do it without mission drift and without compromising your basic level of programs, projects, and services. Easier said than done. So why not just focus on your job and leave the advocacy to others? In some cases this happens. With environmental issues, for example, some organizations fight for policies against building on open spaces and wildlife habitat, while others execute the actual conservation projects that preserve the land. But without supporting the public policy that makes those projects feasible, the “executers” would have nothing to do.
What kind of skill sets does a nonprofit need in order to implement a good public affairs program? You need people who know how government works and how communities make decisions; in short, people who know the process. You also need people who know key public officials and community leaders; in short, people who know the people. This kind of expertise can be hired from consultants, or you can develop it over time internally, if you have people – staff, board members, or volunteers – who have the time and interest in this kind of activity.
But nonprofits should not embark on a proactive public affairs program without thoroughly working through all of the issues and challenges it might entail. Approach public affairs as you would approach any significant new activity – with strategic planning and critical thinking. Weigh the pros and cons, the costs and benefits. And involve your Board in, at the very least, establishing your organization’s policy toward public policy.
Above all, know what you are getting into before you go down the path. Work through how any public affairs efforts will genuinely benefit and enhance your organization’s mission, and decide on a process for ensuring your public affairs activities are staying in balance with your primary services and programs. Organizations can certainly evolve from direct service missions to advocacy missions over time – but make sure if your organization does so it is a thoughtfully planned change, attentive to all the necessary organizational and legal steps to make it a successful and smooth transition.
The biggest challenge for any nonprofit embarking on the public affairs road is to do so within your means and consistent with your overall mission. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, but don’t be hesitant to reach out to government and the community. So long as your public relations efforts are mission-driven, proportionate, and executed with intention, this work promises to enhance your programs, allow you to better serve your clients, and significantly increase your impact.
ESC offers low-cost, high-quality, customized support for a variety of nonprofit management issues. To explore how ESC can help your nonprofit with mission-driven public affairs or other strategic needs, contact Associate Director Jesus Romero by email or call 213.613.9103 x11.
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