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Posted 01/25/2023 in nonprofits by April Mastroluca

Advocacy; Are you at the table or on the menu?

Advocacy; Are you at the table or on the menu?

Is advocacy a “should do” or a “must do”? It depends on where you want to sit at the table.

Imagine you are having a meal together. Your family and friends come over for a dinner and you set the table so everyone you invited has a seat and can take part in food and the dinner conversation. When someone unexpectedly shows up late, you might not have enough food or a place for them to sit and they end up sitting off to the side, struggling to be included in the meal and the dialogue happening around them. 

Actively engaging in advocacy is like having a seat at the table. Your voice can be heard regarding issues that matter to your organization, your clients, and the needs you provide in the community. When you don’t participate in advocating for those you serve, your issues, challenges, and solutions won’t be heard by lawmakers and decisions will be made without you.

When talking to nonprofit groups, I talk about the importance of being advocates for the clients they represent. Occasionally, I will get push back; “We aren’t allowed to do advocacy, we are a nonprofit” or “We don’t have a reason to advocate”. This is when I take a deep breath and ask “Why?”.

Why do you believe you can’t advocate as a nonprofit? 

“Our lawyer said so.”

  • The IRS clearly spells out the ability for a 501c3 organization to advocate for an against issues and the rules about how and when it is appropriate.

“We did it once and we had board members with their own agenda so it got messy.”

  • Your board needs to be trained on advocacy for nonprofits, so they understand the rules

“It’s just too much work.”

  • Yes, work is involved but the rewards can benefit your clients and help improve their lives. Isn’t that your overall goal as a nonprofit?

“Everything is fine, we don’t need to advocate.”

  • Things change all the time, and if you aren’t paying attention, you can get caught off guard and end up scrambling or worse, lose funding because someone made a decision without input from the people who would be affected.

Your organization has a duty to advocate for its mission. It is important that nonprofit organizations serve in this role because your organization is working directly with those in need or providing programs that benefit the community. You have the expertise needed to tell the story about the problems or challenges the community you serve is facing and how your organization provides solutions that improve or enriches the lives of people in need.

Advocacy is an area that is often overlooked. Sometimes it feels like it is just one more thing to add to an already crowded plate of duties that were served to you at the nonprofit buffet of responsibilities. The reality is advocacy matters because without it, organizations and the people they serve are left to the whims of politicians and their perceptions of the reality we face every day.

In politics, it is said that if you aren’t at the table, you are probably on the menu. It’s time to take your seat at the table and share your story, don’t sit back and let someone else have the opportunity to create a menu without your input. Chances are, you probably won’t like what is being served.