Long-term strategy seen as key to effective advocacy

To be effective, nonprofit advocates need to gear themselves for a long haul, be methodical, understand what drives public officials, build coalitions for the short term, and show strong leadership, a new study says.

Effective advocacy has become increasingly urgent in the face of a federal government committed to reducing the budget deficit by cutting spending, a weak economic recovery that “continues to leave millions of people without sufficient support,” a “deeply divided partisan Washington, D.C.,” and the landmark Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 that “lowered the barriers to participating in the political area for business and trade unions,” says the study by Independent Sector.

“Nonprofits face great challenges getting their voices heard,” Independent Sector says in a statement.

The study, “Beyond the Cause: The Art and Science of Successful Advocacy,” is based on over 100 interviews, three surveys, three case studies, a review of existing literature on advocacy and lobbying by charities, and research on publicly available information about 528 organizations’ engagement in sector-wide public policy issues.

The study found five strategic approaches were “common ingredients” in successful advocacy both for corporate and nonprofit lobbying groups:

* Sustain a “laser-like” focus on long-term goals.

It is common among the most successful groups engaged in advocacy in Washington, D.C., to set goals over 10, 20 or 25 years, the study says.

“Little can be accomplished in a year” unless there are extenuating circumstances, like a national crisis, or if years of planning have taken place and a chance opportunity is seized, it says.

* Prioritize building the elements for successful campaigns.

Successful advocates “constantly invest in relationships with public officials, deepening their understanding of the issues and of the legislative process,” the study says.

Those “building phases” include conducting research, developing policy solutions, building relationships with potential allies, testing key messages with targeting audiences, building out grassroots and “grass-tops” contacts, and “deeply understanding the priorities of public officials,” the study says.

That work is “time consuming, expensive, ongoing, and must be conducted by an organization with the ability to maintain the knowledge and relationships garnered throughout the process,” it says.

The most successful advocates, it says, were as active during the building phase as they were during the campaign phase.

* Consider the motivation of public officials.

Building relationships with public officials takes time, the study says, but “few investments are more valuable to achieving success in the public policy arena.”

Successful advocates, it says, invest a lot of time “in understanding the policy environment and the players, including a thorough knowledge of public officials’ backgrounds, family histories, connections, and the priorities of their constituents.”

* Galvanize coalitions to achieve short-term results.

Coalitions can help aggregate “diverse voices, skills sets and other assets necessary for advocacy,” the study says.

While successful organizations did not always use coalitions as their only vehicle for advancing their cause, it says, coalitions that were successful “tended to form around a specific issue at a given moment in time and disband once their goal had been achieved or retool for the next issue.”

Key to effective coalitions, it says, are “strong leadership, a shared vision, clear decision-making structures, and members who brought complementary assets to the table and who put some ‘skin in the game.'”

* Ensure strong, high-integrity leadership.

Successful advocacy groups are headed by individuals with “high integrity and transparency,” a reputation for “being an honest broker of information,” relationships that “reflect a level of trust between the leader” and colleagues and target audiences, and the “ability to articulate a compelling vision and mobilize people around it,” the study says.

Still, despite their successes, many organizations engaged in advocacy efforts that were “duplicative, uncoordinated, and did not maximize their combined assets,” the study says.

And in the face of escalating sector-wide challenges, it says, the sector should develop “shared, long-term goals,” increase the “number and depth” of relationships with a broader range of key public officials, improve coordination among organizations, and increase the “visibility and clout of the sector, particularly with government officials.”

The study calls for “strong leadership to organize the sector around a common agenda.”

With Congress set to look more closely at the charitable sector through tax reform in 2013, it says, the nonprofit and philanthropic sector should “align its efforts by creating a joint strategy that will enable organizations to better serve the growing needs of American communities.”

Todd Cohen