Nonprofit advocacy during elections: Better to lie low or get active?

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The election dilemma

Wondering what your nonprofit or charity should do – if anything - at election time? With a federal election slated for later this year, many Canadian organizations will have to decide soon whether they will take steps to advance their issues once the race is on. Some nonprofits make it a policy to carefully avoid any public role during electoral contests. But for any national organization with important policy issues or funding needs at stake sitting out the next election could be a serious missed opportunity.

The upside of getting active

Elections offer unique and important opportunities for nonprofits and charities seeking to influence public policy and budget decisions – provided your efforts are issue-based and non-partisan:

1. Elections present great opportunities to meet politicians and build relationships. Politicians of all stripes have to be more accessible during elections – how else to meet voters, right? This includes high-profile candidates – current cabinet ministers or rising stars – people you might normally have difficulty meeting. During elections it is very possible to get short sessions with politicians in their ridings - and even catch a minute or two with party leaders on the campaign trail. Contact during elections can help you build relationships and cultivate champions for your issues.

2. Commitments are easier to secure. Every party is concerned with appealing to critical demographics and regions of the country during an election. If a positive position on your issues will enhance their prospects with voters, commitments may well be forthcoming – provided, of course, that they are broadly consistent with party policy and the associated cost is manageable. Commitments are definitely worth seeking. As one political sage commented: “It’s hard enough to get politicians to act on their promises, but you won’t get them to keep promises they never made.”

3. Elections are a chance to show your issues are important. Being active during an election also provides an opportunity to raise the profile of your vital issues and to demonstrate that the public – or at least your supporters – really care about them. Your concerns do not have to become a major political issue in the election. In today’s world of political “micro-targeting” it is enough that they matter to a motivated segment of the population or a particular region of the country.

4. Election efforts demonstrate the value and importance of your organization to your stakeholders. Unfortunately, most of the great work nonprofits do meeting with government officials and lobbying to influence policy is invisible to the people you represent. Smart election efforts are good for engaging supporters and helping member retention by showing your organization’s leadership on the issues that matter most to your stakeholders.

Six keys to successful election advocacy

If your organization does commit to an active election advocacy program, here are six important tips for success:

1. Keep your efforts focused on your key issues. Distill your concerns and needs to a few main issues - three is a useful limit – issues that you can summarize in a few compelling bullet points and convey to candidates in a short conversation. Each issue should be tied to clear, achievable asks that will be readily understood by your supporters and the candidates. The goal should be to raise the profile of your issues and gain commitments from the parties on each of your major asks.

2. Avoid any hint of partisanship. Even if your issues are politically polarizing – as with hot button social policy questions - you’re wise to stay clear of aligning with any political party or endorsing their positions. Ideally, you try to gain support from all the major parties – so that no matter who wins the election, your organization wins. If that isn’t possible, just advance your issues, get the parties to say where they stand, and let the voters take it from there.

3. Engage your supporters or members in your efforts. Your organization’s supporters are your greatest asset in influencing the political process and government decisions. They are voters after all - and some of them are super-supporters who will actively campaign on your behalf. Fortunately, the various social media platforms now provide us with tools to engage supporters very cost effectively. Encourage your supporters via Facebook, Twitter, and the others, and by broadcast emails, to talk up your issues and spread the word to their social networks. As well, it’s worth considering using an online advocacy platform (e.g. Engaging Networks) to increase your impact by giving supporters a direct way to send messages to their candidates.

4. Raise the public profile of your issues using new and traditional media. You can generate public buzz around your issues very cost-effectively through social media (e.g. Twitter and YouTube), op-eds, pre-written stories placed in neighbourhood papers, and free news coverage in the broadcast media. If your organization has a budget for national media advertising that’s a huge asset – just make sure your ads focus tightly on your issues, stay politically neutral, and drive traffic to your online campaign through direct links or memorable URLs.

5. Co-ordinate closely your online and off-line election efforts. Social media and e-advocacy are great for generating and demonstrating support on your issues. But they are most effective in combination with on-the-ground efforts: private meetings with candidates (always including constituents), letters requesting support from the parties, questions at all-candidates meetings, and special events or rallies with supporters.

6. Prioritize ridings with strategic importance. Your on-the-ground activities will have the highest impact if they are concentrated in areas that are important politically: swing ridings (where the margin of victory was 10% or less in past elections), areas where your support is especially strong, and ridings with high profile candidates (e.g. rising stars, cabinet ministers and party leaders).

Obviously there are potential pitfalls in this kind of election effort - like being perceived as partisan, becoming too cozy with a supportive party, or alienating candidates by overly aggressive campaigning. However, your protective instincts and professionalism will likely keep you far from these dangers.

The potential gains for your organization from a well-planned and co-ordinated election effort are very substantial: heightened public profile for your major issues, commitments from the parties on your key asks, engaged and satisfied supporters, and closer relationships with elected officials - including important players in the new federal government and political champions in all parties.

With all this to gain, getting active in the next federal election may be a better bet than sitting it out.

Christopher Wilson is a senior consultant at Civica Public Affairs and Communications, an Ottawa-based consulting firm that specializes in work with nonprofits, charities and co-operative organizations. He is a veteran of many issue-based advocacy campaigns in federal and provincial elections over the past 20 years.

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