Thursday, April 26, 2012

Advocacy sells

There’s a cheap, efficient way for your non-profit’s  to reach more people than you are now while at the same time giving you a higher profile and positioning you as the leader among other similar charities.

What is it? Advocacy.

One of the key things that separates for-profits from non-profits is their ability to speak out on public issues. A charity can contribute to a public discussion on a given topic where a retailer cannot. Our society recognizes that not-profits have a bully pulpit. When they speak, they are seen as selfless advocates. So, built in to almost every charity is the inherent right to advocate.

At the same time, there is also a demand for advocacy. If you look carefully at the world of buzz you will see that many non-profits get the most positive attention from the media, politicians, stakeholders and the public when they advocate on their key issues. When a cancer charity announces a big donation, they get zip. When they publish a report on a critical lack of cancer services in their area, they get attention.

As a communications tactic, advocacy has many advantages. Reports, studies, articles, conferences, even one-to-one – there are many ways of advocating. And the threshold for starting an advocacy program are low. It doesn’t take much to point a finger at a key issue. Most times, what is really needed is packaging the advocacy – the issue explains itself. Anyone in the organization can do it. It doesn’t require special skills. Often times, all that it takes to lead an advocacy project is drive and commitment to the non-profit’s mission. It is also the perfect tactic to flow across all communications channels and is an excellent content filler.

In fact, most non-profits already advocate to one degree or another, they just don’t do so publically. Their efforts are often too subtle to have much communications value. But it wouldn’t take much to elevate that to something more.

The jewel in the crown of advocacy is that effect it has on the not-profit’s brand. The more you advocate, the more people recognize you as the leader, the authority on your given issue. So, when you advocate, you are reinforcing the best qualities of your brand.

It also has a positive impact on fundraising. Donors are hungry to do good, but sometimes the donation options they have are lacklustre, especially when they give to things that have no face such as pieces of equipment or scholarships for students they will never see. Advocacy has a real immediacy that quickly and efficiently illustrates the need for fundraising like no other marketing vehicle. An university could easily ask for donations for their bursary endowment fund with some success. But it would have more traction if it at the same time published a report that said deserving students were having to turn down admission offers from the university because they couldn’t afford it.

There are limits to advocacy. It has to be real and powerful, and that makes it a tactic that can only be used sparingly. Advocacy for the purposes of marketing can’t happen every day. If it does, the issue will become over-saturated. It is best used once in a while, but with great flourish and emphasis.

Also, while the public will accept advocacy, it will not tolerate partisanship. Society expects charities to be somewhat neutral in their political stance. Too much right or left, and the non-profit will start to sound like a political organization.

As well, many countries have rules about how much lobbying charities can do and still be charities. There may be a ceiling for how much advocacy a charity can do.

Within these limits, advocacy still remains a powerful and useful tactic. Some non-profit leaders feel squeamish about using it because they make these risks out to be more than they appear. There is a way to advocate and not get into trouble. You don’t have to attack the rich to advocate for the poor. You don’t have to blame politicians for the sorry state of mental health services. You don’t have to dump on manufacturers to get your point across about air pollution.

The place to start is with your issue. Think carefully about what your non-profit is trying to achieve and the thing that is preventing a solution. In  the case of poverty, perhaps it is low incomes. For the environment, maybe it is a lack of education. For health care, it could be our eating habits. Find the hot button, and then push it.

Now package your issue into something that will attract attention. Do a study, a survey or even a review of your issue. You’re looking for a key statistic that will turn people’s heads. When you find it, explain it in simple terms and then publish it across as many communications channels as possible – web, email, social media, PR, events and more. Use it as an excuse to go visit people who should be better connected to you, such as politicians, government leaders, leader donors, business leaders and more.

You’ll find that, pound for pound, advocacy is one of the best marketing vehicles for your non-profit.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent points, especially when you are trying to 'convince' others like your board why advocacy is important in a non profit setting.