Lisa Hazirjian, Ph.D., Win Together Consulting
You are one of the best positioned members of your community to speak with authority and moral weight to the needs and desires of the people your nonprofit serves. Whether you run a rural health clinic, an urban homeless shelter, a regional arts organization, a statewide environmental group, or a local hunger relief agency, your first-hand knowledge of your field makes you a valuable source of information for policy makers trying to understand the wide range of issues that cross their desks in any given legislative session. What is more, many of the people associated with your organization – your clients, your volunteers, your donors, your board members, your newsletter subscribers and social media followers – are also voters who want to see their elected officials voting with them on the issues that concern them.
Yet many nonprofit leaders have never reached out to elected officials to advocate for their mission, even though nonprofits can do so without any risk to their nonprofit status. Legislative advocacy – lobbying – is absolutely legal for 501(c)(3) nonprofits. And nonprofit organizations – and their staff members and volunteers – don’t need to register with the state if they are sending occasional notes or having occasional conversations with members of Congress, the state legislature, their county board, or their city council. Simply put, your nonprofit status does not prevent you from using your voice to advocate for (or against) specific legislation or broader policy principles.
Often, though, the fears nonprofit leaders express about jeopardizing their nonprofit status hide a deeper apprehension. For many, the idea of writing to an elected official can feel intimidating. That’s only natural, especially if you’ve never done it before. It can help, though, to know the elements of an effective letter to elected officials.
Many nonprofit professionals are prone to letting perfect get in the way of good enough, so let me say this at the outset: Any respectful, factual note you send to an elected official is better than none at all. If you just have a few minutes to get something out, give yourself permission to do just that. Sending a quick email to say thank you to a lawmaker for showing leadership on an issue that matters to you or to ask them to take a stance on a policy proposal that’s central to your nonprofit’s mission doesn’t just tell them how you feel; it builds a relationship and makes tangible how their decisions will affect a significant number of their constituents.
That said, you can achieve even more with a detailed letter of no more than (one side of) one page crafted to speak to your audience’s desires. It may be your habit to leap right into a writing project and see what develops. But if you’re willing to try something different – or simply need a place to start – I recommend using these questions to help you think strategically about how to write an effective note to your elected officials; you can access these questions any time from the Center’s advocacy tools.
- What outcome do you want? Are there short-term steps that will help you reach that ultimate goal? Stating your mission may help to introduce your organization to your audience, but it helps your audience if you offer a specific step they can take right now.
- Who holds the authority to make these things happen? In some cases, it’s one individual; in many, it’ll take many people reaching agreement. Asking yourself this question may help you identify a wider range of people who might be in a position to help; it’ll also help you to avoid expending energy on trying to persuade people who really don’t have the authority to do what you want.
- Of all these people, who does it make the most sense for YOU to ask for support? If you’re engaging in legislative advocacy, most frequently you’ll want to address your request to the people who represent you. Just type in your address at the NC General Assembly’s “Find Your Legislators” tool to get the names and contact information for your member of Congress, your NC Senator, and your NC House member. You might also realize that someone else at your organization is better suited to reach out to one of the people on your list!
- What do you know about what they care about? What do THEY want? No matter who you’re approaching, an investment of five minutes on their websites and social media can reveal a lot about their values and priorities. Generally speaking, all policy makers care about how issues affect their own constituents and appreciate opportunities to demonstrate their values and commitment to the communities they serve. Additionally, both lawmakers and their aides typically welcome opportunities to learn more about issues from local experts and appreciate well-sourced data to help inform their decisions.
- How can YOU help them get what they want? Can you give them an opportunity to demonstrate their values through their actions? Can you help them make evidence-based decisions? Will taking the action you request please voters in their district?
- What specific request do you want to make of them? Make sure to come right out and make a direct ask.
- What details will matter the most to them? Share a compelling anecdote that will stick with them, present any relevant data in digestible ways, quantify (as best you can) how many of their constituents are connected to your organization, and remind them of any connections you’ve made in the past.
Let me walk through two fictitious examples that employ ideas generated by imagining myself as the writer in each scenario and using this worksheet:
Example 1: Barbara Jones is a Kernersville resident who runs a faith-based food insecurity organization serving Forsyth County. They’ve been overwhelmed by demand since the start of the pandemic, to the point that they’ve had to turn people away. She hopes to reach out to every member of the General Assembly who represents the county, but decided to start with Senator Krawiec, with whom she felt a natural affinity around their Christian beliefs. Reaching back to a recent grant proposal that asked her to break down the regional demographics of the population they serve, she was able to demonstrate both the extent of need in the county and the specific numbers of constituents they’ve served in the towns within the Senator’s district. Of the many anecdotes she could share, she chose one featuring a nuclear family with a working mother and father and painted a memorable picture – the sort one could imagine the Senator repeating to her own family at the dinner table. Read the letter here.
Example 2: Latasha Brown is the board chair for a nonprofit that serves survivors of intimate partner violence in Pitt County. The organization has an online event planned for Valentine’s Day weekend, which they’re using to launch a social media campaign. The executive director remembered Latasha mentioning that she’d met Representative Brian Farkas at a Super Bowl party last year, and asked her to be the one to reach out to invite him to attend. Latasha also follows him on Twitter; seeing him as a local influencer, she decided to go one step further by suggesting he participate in their social media campaign. Her letter (read here), mentions their pre-registration figures to convey that it’ll be well-attended. Beyond that, it stays away from numbers, instead describing a compelling program and an opportunity for this new, young legislator to demonstrate his support on social media – a potential win-win for the organization and him!
These two scenarios differ in many ways, but the imaginary letter writers followed some best practices worth noting:
- Both contained a specific ask that was stated clearly toward the beginning of the letter and mentioned again at the end.
- Both included their residential addresses, which established them as constituents without saying it in so many words.
- Both mentioned shared constituencies – clients and volunteers who live within the respective legislative districts.
- Both used boldface sparingly to draw attention to the one thing they most want the reader to see.
- Both offered opportunities for elected officials to demonstrate their values.
- Both appealed to the stated or imagined desires of the legislators they were addressing.
- Both conveyed respect and a desire to work together to make their communities better.
Once you send off your note via email or fax (to ensure it arrives in a timely manner), what happens next? If you’ve asked for a response, you should hear back from either the legislator or their legislative aide (if you don’t, resend with a polite follow-up and ask up front for a reply). If you’re satisfied with their response, thank them – they’ll appreciate it, and it’ll help to build your relationship. If you’re disappointed, perhaps because they didn’t really respond yes or no to a direct question, one useful next step can be to ask for an appointment to discuss the issue or to invite them to an event (even an online one) where they can have an opportunity to hear directly from the people you serve. No matter what, continue to build that relationship; the more you get to know your elected officials and they get to know your cause, the better you can advocate for your cause in the future!
Lisa Hazirjian, PhD, founded Win Together Consulting to help nonprofits, campaigns, and social justice organizations to develop strategy, build capacity, engage supporters, and leverage strengths to achieve their goals. She holds a bachelors degree in public policy studies, graduate certificate in women’s studies, and Ph.D. in U.S. history from Duke University, and is working toward a Nonprofit Leadership Certificate from the Harvard Kennedy School.
For more resources on advocating for your mission, check out our advocacy tools.