Smart for Good | A Tale of Two Nonprofits: Why You Can't Afford to Ignore Advocacy

By: Laurel O'Sullivan, Principal and Founder, The Advocacy Collaborative, LLC

Let’s face it. Over the last decade state funding for social service organizations has gotten progressively worse, particularly in states like Illinois. Chances are this isn’t likely to get better after Tuesday’s election.

But even in a time of constricted resources, nonprofits can’t afford to ignore advocating for improvements in state and federal policy if they are to make lasting change.

In times of great political opposition, policy decisions still have to be made. You and your clients are the experts policymakers need to hear from.

Consider two immigration-focused nonprofits, both well respected with long standing ties to the community. “Nonprofit A” devotes their programmatic efforts to serving individuals on a case-by-case basis, helping them as they wade through an ocean of paperwork and red tape. The second organization, “Nonprofit B”, provides similar support and advocates for policy changes that will lighten the burden for immigrants trying to gain citizenship or asylum.

Which organization is able to achieve greater impact?

Nonprofit A’s resources are spent almost exclusively on programs. These programs allow it to have an on-the-ground view of the challenges facing immigrants, to see what works and what doesn’t and how they might modify their services to better fit their clients’ needs. They are actively engaged in coalitions and networks and they occasionally host voter registration drives. The majority of their funding comes almost exclusively from government sources along with a few foundations. As state funding dries up, their funding has been cut by 15 percent. They are well respected in their immediate community.

In addition to serving clients in Texas and Chicago, two of Nonprofit B’s staff are full time policy advocates working to influence immigration reform at the federal level in order to secure better solutions for their direct service clients. They share the stories of their clients when meeting with members of Congress and have been asked to give testimony at hearings. Nonprofit B is also a member and leader of various coalitions due to the credibility their on-the-ground perspective provides. Recently, as Congress has debated immigration reform, their Executive Director has been quoted in the news and has spoken at several large conferences in the past several months.

A philanthropic crowd sourcing campaign invited the organization to participate in a fundraising campaign, which provided a $10,000 match when they successfully met their goal. As the political debate has heated up, they have also been able to attract more online activists to their policy work through their social media presence and have converted a third into regular donors. In addition, they have been awarded more government funding as need in Texas and Chicago has expanded.

Are you ready for the answer?

Even in a time of political change, Nonprofit B is able to realize greater impact than Nonprofit A, because its advocacy work produces exponential benefits beyond its direct service clients. By engaging in systemic reform that seeks to address underlying inequities in the law, Nonprofit B’s advocacy will benefit far more individuals than it could possibly serve through direct service alone.

Additionally, Nonprofit B has the benefit of a reinforcing feedback loop between their direct service work and their policy advocacy efforts, leading to heightened impact. Its on the ground work acts as a “lab” informing its policy recommendations, while the policy work allows them to help both existing clients and others beyond their direct client base.

And finally, by taking a public position on the issue, Nonprofit B increased its visibility and reputation as a leader in its field, attracted media attention and speaking engagements, and ultimately more funders and volunteers for its work.

That’s the advocacy advantage.


Are you ready to learn more about how advocacy can fulfill and better fund your mission? Contact Laurel  O'Sullivan for a free consultation to unveil your concerns and address questions about how to become an advocacy forward organization (

You don’t need to have a full policy staff to make a difference in public policy! To get help developing a realistic policy agenda and building legislator support, contact Dugan Bassett Consulting.

The Advocacy Collaborative and Dugan Bassett Consulting are also working together to provide workshops on expanding your advocacy capacity for board, staff, or volunteers. Contact Laurel O’Sullivan to learn more.

Special thanks to collaborator, Laurel O'Sullivan, for allowing us to reprint her original blog "What's the Advocacy Advantage? Or A Tale of Two Nonprofits" from the Advocacy Collaborative blog.