Volunteer Lobbyists: Utilizing Nonprofits' Advocacy Assets

by Michael S. Duncan, December 2003
published with permission

Lobbying. That's when middle-aged men in $2000 suits take lawmakers to five-course meals in the private rooms of restaurants with as many stars. Only large corporations and specifically designated advocacy groups do that. We're just a nonprofit. We can't afford to lobby. We haven't got the money, the staff, or the influence. It's just not our place. Right?

That's the attitude taken by many nonprofits throughout the country. In Pathways to Nonprofit Excellence, Paul Light remarks on how such thought is even pervasive among "high performing" nonprofits:

Despite their commitment to building relationships, few of these high performers appear to engage in political advocacy on behalf or their own organizations or their communities as a whole. They may meet with political leaders and interact with the news media, but most of these high performers would never lobby the state legislature, file a lawsuit, or protest budget cutbacks. Like most nonprofits in general, they tend to focus only on the outside world that affects them directly, meaning the grantmakers, donors, and government agencies that control their revenues. Unless advocacy is in their charter, the outside world is taken as a given, in part because so many nonprofits mistakenly believe that they are prohibited from anything else. [Light, pp. 88-89.]

Nonprofits, however, do have the right - and arguably the duty - to lobby. Independent Sector states that "everything that goes into a lobbying campaign… will help fulfill your goal, whether it be finding a cure for cancer, beautifying the local park, or helping some other cause that helps people." [Independent Sector, p. 2.]

This article covers one important resource which nonprofits can tap in lobbying, volunteer lobbyists. It will address why volunteer lobbyists are advantageous for organizations, the basics of establishing a volunteer lobby team, what strategies can be used to put the team into action, and how to maintain the team so that it is always ready to spring into action. The article refers mainly to lobbying at the state legislative level, but the principles apply at all levels and all branches of government. Additional resources for information appear at the end of this article.

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Non-monetary Assets: Why to Use Volunteer Lobbyists

Obviously, the use of volunteer lobbyists has one major advantage over the use of paid lobbyists: volunteer lobbyists work cheap. But this is important not just because of the organization's budget, but also because of tax laws that control how much an organization can spend on lobbying. While a charity may spend an insubstantial portion of its expenditures on lobbying, lobbying by volunteers does not constitute a lobbying expenditure except to the extent of the costs to the organization (such as the communication to the volunteers and associated staff time). [Aron, et al. For more on tax law and nonprofit lobbying, Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest offers a well organized resource for such information.]

The price is not the only asset brought by volunteer lobbyists though. There are several important assets which are non-financial in nature. First, they have supporters whose dedication to the cause is motivated by something other than money, and whose personal stake in the organization is emotional, not financial. [Smucker, p. 28.] After all, a nonprofit cannot exist without a public to support it. A direct service nonprofit will also have a constituency of clients with a personal stake is that of the support they receive.

Second, nonprofits have expertise that paid lobbyists lack. [Shapiro, p. 56.] Whatever brings supporters to a specific nonprofit can be partially attributed to expertise. A supporter of a victims' assistance nonprofit may have the expertise of personal experience having been a victim in the past. A supporter of a disease research nonprofit may have professional expertise as a physician who treats the disease or may have personal experience expertise being a patient or patient's family member. A supporter of a conservation-oriented nonprofit may be an average person, simply having the relative expertise of a hobbyist.

Most of the expertise of nonprofit supporters may not be the basis for academic research, but it is more expertise than a paid lobbyist, otherwise detached from the issue, can bring to the table. Further, unless the issue is close to the heart of a legislator, it's more expertise than legislators have.

Third, nonprofits have the hometown advantage. While state-level industry lobbyists live and work in the state capital, supporters of a state-level nonprofit live and work all around the state. Such a nonprofit may even have supporters in every state legislator's home district. [Wentz & Seymour, p. 65.]

Last, and very important, nonprofits have the strength of numbers. By leveraging their base of supporters, a nonprofit can light up the phone lines or fill up the mailbox of a policymaker. [Ibid.]

In order to use these assets to advocate for its cause in the policymaking process, a nonprofit must get its supporters to act as volunteer lobbyists. Like management of volunteers in other areas, the process requires advance work and long-term maintenance, but offers a standby team of lobbyists who can step into action instantly.

Beyond the price being right, and the unique assets that volunteer lobbyists offer over paid lobbyists (as discussed above), use of volunteers in such a critical role within the organization offers an opportunity to move supporters up in their level of commitment to the organization. In Terms of Engagement, Richard Axelrod identifies commitment as a continuum along which a supporter may fall. (Though Axelrod discusses this continuum in the context of organizational change, it can be nicely overlaid as commitment to the organization or cause itself.) An average supporter probably is probably passively engaged, "providing resources without personal involvement." S/he may even be a volunteer in another of the organization's programs, showing a desire for "personal participation." Chances are good that some supporters at these two levels are willing to step up to a higher level of commitment, that of "taking high personal risk" by putting personal resources (time, energy) into the public policymaking process and risking failure. [Axelrod, pp. 119-120.]

For these supporters to move up on the continuum, they must believe that the organization is on the right course for the issue - given their support of the organization, that is likely - and they must believe that they can make a difference. [Axelrod, p. 120.] This can be as simple as telling the supporters what needs to be done and providing a structured advocacy program in which they can participate. If they don't know of the opportunity to help out, they certainly won't know that they could make a difference by helping out. A U.S. Department of Labor survey showed that 43% of volunteers for organizations chose to do so because they were asked, while only 40% approached the organizations themselves. [U.S. Dept. of Labor, Table 6.]

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Building a Volunteer Lobby Team

Once an organization has decided to use volunteer lobbyists, there's a good deal of work to be done. The first task is to find a staff member (or even a very dedicated and capable volunteer) to be in charge of the lobby team. This is not a project that can simply be dropped in the lap of someone whose plate is already full. The organization will likely have to restructure some of its staff duties or even recruit a new part time staff member or volunteer specifically for the job.

Next, it is important for the team manager to decide how many volunteers s/he needs for the team. There are several factors that go into this decision. [Smucker, p. 28.] Does the organization need to lobby the entire legislature or just certain key committees? If the organization's issues are mainly decided in the committee process, with the remaining legislators deferring to committee members, the organization can be as effective with a smaller lobby team as it could be with one that covers the entire legislature. Will the lobby team need to come to the Capitol to present testimony and visit with legislators or will letters, phone calls, and visits in the home district suffice? Because much of what comes up in a legislative session happens on very short notice, many members of the lobby team will be unable to drop everything and rush to the Capitol when they are needed. If they are going to be needed at the Capitol, the team will need to include several members for each legislator to be lobbied so that there are backups.

Once the team manager knows how many volunteers s/he needs and the legislators for whom they're needed, s/he must recruit the members of the team. While this can be done as simply as a mailing to members of the organization from the legislators' districts, such a method should not be the first choice. It will leave a great deal of doubt as to the effectiveness of volunteer lobbyists recruited for the team. At the very minimum, a recruitment mailing should be followed up with phone interviews (or personal interviews if geographically feasible). In both the mailing and the interview, the team manager should seek information about any prior personal relationship the prospective volunteer may have with the legislator which could be helpful (or even detrimental), past experience writing to or lobbying legislators, and the level of time commitment that the individual will be able to make. Personal knowledge of the prospective volunteer is the most useful gauge of a prospective volunteer's effectiveness [Smucker, p. 29.], and it need not be team manager's firsthand knowledge; other staff, committee members, and board members represent can serve as resources for the team manager when s/he seeks personal knowledge about a prospective volunteer.

An important part of soliciting volunteers is being specific about what is expected of them. A prospective volunteer cannot honestly commit to an undefined task. The team manager, therefore, should prepare a complete job description for team members and make sure that all have read it prior to applying to volunteer. It may be helpful to incorporate the job description as part of a commitment form that the prospective volunteer returns.

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Putting the Team to Work

Getting to Know Their Legislators

Now that the team of volunteers is in place, they must become familiar with their assignment. The team manager should prepare a packet for each team member containing biographical and other information about his/her legislator. To the extent it is available, the information should include how to contact the legislator both at the Capitol and in the district, on what committees s/he serves, what the boundaries of the district are, how long the legislator has served, basic biographical information, and how s/he has voted on the organization's issues in the past. [Smucker p. 28.] Depending on the level of comfort among the lobby team members with the task at hand, the team manager may also wish to host training sessions for the volunteers on the legislative process, communicating with legislators, and raising awareness within their communities. [Avner p. 114.]

It is not simply enough, however, for the volunteer lobbyist to know about the assigned legislator, s/he must establish a personal relationship with the legislator as soon as possible. [Smucker, p. 29.] The team manager should instruct the team members how best to contact the legislator and set up a meeting to talk generally about the organization's issues. For this, the team members will need very concise summary of the issues, a bulleted list of things to remember in communicating with legislators, and a timeframe in which the meeting should take place.

Communications with the Team

With the lobby team in place and now oriented to the task, the manager will need the ability to contact the volunteers at the drop of a hat. There are several methods from which to choose, each offering advantages and disadvantages. Postal delivery, "snail mail," is reliable, but requires staff time to prepare the mailing and transit time for delivery. Fax messages are fast and efficient, but not all volunteers will have personal access to a fax machine. Email is even faster and more efficient, but, again, not everyone uses email; even among those who use email, frequency of usage varies. Phone calls require a good deal of staff time unless phone trees are used; phone calls also lack the ability to transmit briefing documents. Realistically, the method of communication used will depend on the pool of volunteers.

Anytime action is required by at least part of the volunteer lobby team, the manager should issue a standard volunteer lobbyist alert via the chosen communication method to the entire team. The use of an alert as opposed to an article in the newsletter recognizes the urgency of the situation and indicates that there is a task to be performed. [Smucker, pp. 29-30.] The lobbyists will get used to seeing the alerts and knowing that's their signal to take action. The newsletter, on the other hand, should be reserved for retrospective updates as to what has occurred in the legislative arena and general discussion of where the organization is going.

Alerts should be sent to all volunteer lobbyists not just the ones who are asked to take action in the alert. Even if some volunteers do not need to take action, the alert being sent out provides a useful update to them as to the status of the legislation in question, better enabling them to speak intelligently about the legislation when they are called upon to do so in the future. Further, it provides ongoing recognition to them that they are members of a team that is important to the organization.

Lobby Methods

There are several basic lobby methods which can be implemented by a lobby team. All have their advantages and disadvantages in terms of impact and work required of the team manager.

Letter writing is the most basic form of lobbying, representing a one-way (or at least a delayed two-way) avenue for communication. That being said, letter writing should not be discounted as trite. The fact that a volunteer has taken the time to write the legislator is noted. Similar letters in favor of and opposition to various proposals is often simply counted, but John Sparks points out in his booklet Lobbying, Advocacy, and Nonprofit Boards that "a qualitative difference is also taken into account." [Sparks, p. 14.] The team manager, therefore, should instruct volunteers to personalize the letters, and put the letters on their own letterhead or personal stationery. Including a template letter for volunteer lobbyists to follow will help ensure that the letters get written, but the manager can ask volunteers to consider rewriting the letter in their own words and can indicate a place in the letter where an anecdote would be beneficial.

Letters may be mailed or faxed to legislators. A fax has the advantage of time-certain delivery, [Avner, p. 14.] such as if an issue needs immediate attention, or if the sender wants to deliver the message on a certain day. An example of such might be a letter from each volunteer to his/her legislator on the opening day of the legislative session, wishing the best of luck and thanking him/her for serving the state. (On the federal level, due to the anthrax attacks of 2001, letters should be faxed. Postal mail is now delayed significantly for security screening and irradiation.)

Letter recipients need not be restricted to legislators. Volunteer lobbyists are conveniently dispersed in such a way that letters to the editor of local newspapers can generate support from legislators' home districts. [Avner, p. 114.]

Phone calls are one step up the ladder in terms of direct contact. It allows the volunteer to gauge the reaction of the legislator or legislative staff, and can provide critical intelligence. An unreceptive legislator may inform the volunteer of his/her reasons for opposing the organization's stand on an issue. Similarly, a sympathetic legislator or staffer may offer advice as to what part of the organization's message is most effective or on how best to turn an unreceptive legislator around.

Beyond simple communications between the volunteer lobbyists and the legislators, the volunteers can act as a rally point for organization supporters in the legislator's district. Multiple letters and phone calls from around the district pouring in at once would indicate to a legislator a hot button issue. [Smucker, p. 30.]

Meetings with the legislator or staff allow for the clearest read of the legislator's position. Meetings can take place in the district or, if possible, at the legislator's Capitol office. By meeting with the legislator in person, the volunteer indicates that the issue is of such importance that s/he is willing to break away from work or family time. By meeting at the Capitol, the volunteer indicates even greater personal sacrifice for the issue.

Another idea to activate your volunteer team is a capitol visitation day. Capitol visitation days allow for the confluence of several different methods. During such an event, the team manager can speak to the volunteers, possibly inviting a key legislator to speak to them as well; volunteers can meet with their individual legislators face-to-face; if appropriate, a rally can be held at or near the Capitol; and the organization can seek a resolution or proclamation honoring their work or raising awareness of their cause, such as "Diabetes Awareness Week," providing a memorable photo op with volunteer lobbyists. [Avner, p. 114.]

An exploding trend in advocacy is online advocacy. Through the internet, volunteer lobbyists can be quickly contacted and, in turn, can quickly contact their assigned legislators. And through websites designed to match people to their legislators, the pool of potential lobbyists quickly expands to all supporters of an organization.

Online advocacy is experiencing some growing pains right now though. Members of Congress in 2000 received over 80 million email messages. The speed and ease with which supporters can receive and respond to an alert is overwhelming the system. The strain means many constituents receive no timely reply or no reply at all. [Schatz.]

Before employing email as a strategy, the volunteer manager will want to consider whether the same task can be accomplished by traditional letter and whether the increased response rate of online advocacy will outweigh the possible discounts given to the importance email communications by legislators' offices. Online advocacy is more effective when the volunteer lobbyist has a personal relationship with the recipient and when the email address used is a specific one for a staff member rather than a general office address. [Sparks, p. 13.]

Given the importance of follow-through by the volunteers, it may be helpful for the volunteer manager to put the necessary tool in their hands. That is, the manager can select the method by which s/he contacts the volunteer lobbyist based on what the lobbyist will be asked to do. For example, if the lobbyist will be asked to phone his/her legislator, the manager should phone the lobbyist; the lobbyist is left with a fresh assignment and a phone number under his/her right hand, and the phone receiver in the left. On the other hand, for letters and emails, an email will allow the lobbyist to cut and paste immediately, customizing the text as needed.

Lastly, feedback from the lobbyist may not be the most intuitive "lobby method," but it is a critical piece of the puzzle. The lobbyist should report back to the organization after any contact, even if just to say that the letter was sent. After a phone call or personal meeting, the lobbyist will have more feedback. The information, if well kept, can help shape strategy in the future and will make for smooth transitions in the event of staff turnover. [Smucker, pp. 32-33.]

General Dos and Don'ts

In any of the lobbying methods, there are some key points to remember. A sample of dos and don'ts can be found in John Sparks' booklet Lobbying, Advocacy, and Nonprofit Boards. While he published the lists for board members who are writing letters to and meeting with legislators, they apply just as well to communications by volunteer lobbyists. Certain key points are expanded upon here:

  • "Be concise…" [Sparks, pp. 10-13.]

    Being concise is often referred to by television pundits as "staying on message." It just means avoiding digressions. In lobbying against a bill that would outlaw sleeping in city parks, a volunteer lobbyist for a homeless rights organization should not stray onto another issue, even if it is of importance to the organization. Further, the legislator does not need to read a dissertation on the issue to get the point. One or two brief examples can reinforce the position, and the existence of further background can be noted, i.e. "These are but two examples of the dangers of improperly plugged natural gas wells. If you desire further examples or more information, please feel free to call or write me to discuss the issue."

  • "…and polite." [Ibid.]

    Being polite means just that. Emotional involvement in issues is high for volunteer lobbyists. (Remember, that's one of their assets). But civil discourse must be just that, and if a legislator's position is not swayed by honest, forthright volunteers, a letter or phone call that is hostile or indignant will certainly not win the day.

  • "If you know the legislator personally, by all means mention the relationship." [Ibid.]

    In correspondence, this will act as cue for the staff member who reads it to pass it along or to at least mention it to the legislator. In person or on the phone, it can help the legislator flip more quickly through his/her mental Rolodex. This can be done tactfully by referring to the last time the volunteer lobbyist saw the legislator or by asking the legislator to pass along best wishes to the legislator's family.

  • "Never refer to your own campaign contributions in a letter about legislation." [Ibid.]

    More generally, it's probably safest not to mix talk of policy, however general, and campaign contributions in the same letter, meeting or phone call. This could be taken as a threat or bribe, souring the relationship between the legislator and the volunteer lobbyist. Further, it will reflect poorly on the organization, which itself is prohibited from making any such contributions.

  • "Don't impose a deadline for a response." [Ibid.]

    If there is a need for either speed or clarity on an issue, one might mention the date of a committee hearing or a floor vote.

  • "Be clear about what you hope the legislator will do." [Ibid.]

    Just as the team manager must be clear in what s/he is asking of the volunteer lobbyists, they must in turn not omit what they're asking of the legislators. Every meeting, letter or phone call should begin and end with this. That may sound redundant, but it can be done cleanly. A letter may begin "I write to ask your support for Bill Number 234, the Widgets for Schoolchildren Act," and end with the line "Please vote yes on Bill Number 234." Similarly, a meeting that begins with "We'd like to ask for your support on Bill Number 234," can end with "We sure hope you'll be with us on our bill." With two to three paragraphs of reasons or ten minutes of conversation between, the redundancy is emphatic rather than awkward.

  • "Be sure to take some materials to the legislator to illustrate or amplify your points." [Ibid.]

    These materials should be clear and concise. You do not want to deliver a forest of paper to the legislator's office; if s/he can't decide at a glance which one page is most important, none of it will be read. Further, while custom cut printed material can be eye-catching, it might also be hard to file. Policy statements or other materials intended as a reference for the legislator should be on standard letter or legal size paper.

  • "Be on time. An unwritten law of lobbying is that legislators can be late but lobbyists must be punctual." [Ibid.]

  • "Send a thank-you letter." [Ibid.]

    Obviously, sending a thank-you letter only applies to personal contact such as a meeting or a phone call. The thank-you letter provides a venue in which the volunteer lobbyist may restate the case, remind the legislator of commitments made, and provide any additional information the legislator requested. By copying the thank-you letter to the volunteer lobbyist manager, important feedback can be documented by the organization.

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Maintaining the Lobby Team

After a lobby team has been assembled, it may be tempting to believe that the job is done. Now the team manager can sit back and relax, calling on the team members s/he needs whenever something pops up. But that's not the case. Like any team that wants to stay in shape, a volunteer lobby team must be exercised regularly. As Bob Smucker points out in The Nonprofit Lobbying Guide, networks of advocates don't wear out because they're overused, but rather because they're underused. "As a result," he states, "they get the unstated message that they are not needed." [Smucker, p. 31.]

The need for exercise does not mean that the manager needs to invent actions for the volunteers to take. That would degrade the value of the volunteers' necessary actions. Instead, the manager should seek opportunities to update the volunteers on the progress of the issues. If, for example, a bill is being heard in committee and volunteer lobbyists for the committee members are asked to take action, the other volunteer lobbyists should be sent that communication as well, with a note telling them that while no action is needed on their part, the organization wants to keep them apprised of the situation. Other opportunities to send updates to team members can be found with a little creativity, such as an update on the big issues in the legislature if there's been no change of status on the organization's issues.

Team members can also be kept active through advocacy or media training, or with meetings with legislators sympathetic to the organization's cause. [Avner, p. 114.]

Lastly, an organization must not forget to recognize its volunteer lobbyists. Organizations that use volunteers for other programs will likely already have a program of volunteer recognition with which the volunteer lobbyists can be recognized. Other forms of recognition can be as simple as a personal note (not a mass-mailed letter); a phone call (which doubles as a good source of feedback); mention in a newsletter, especially alongside an article detailing the legislative efforts of the organization; or even from the lobbyist's assigned legislator or a legislator who championed the organizations issues. [Smucker, p. 32.]

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Sources for More Information on Nonprofit Lobbying

Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest www.clpi.org - The CLPI website is a quick and concise source for information on tax law as it applies to nonprofit lobbying, strategies for lobbying, and other resources for information. The site is well-organized, making it easy to find the information you seek.

Independent Sector www.independentsector.org - Independent Sector's "Public Policy" section is a good resource for recent changes or proposals with regard to nonprofit lobbying law. Because the focus is on changes and proposals, it is not a great resource for explaining current law, a task it defers to CLPI.

OMB Watch www.ombwatch.org - OMB Watch publishes original reports regarding the pervasiveness of nonprofit lobbying as well as legal restrictions on nonprofit advocacy. Due to the chronological order of their website, it may be difficult to find a report on a specific subject unless one was published recently. Most reports are available for purchase.

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Resources for Online Advocacy

  • Give Voice: www.givevoice.org - A nonpartisan service for match advocates with elected officials.
  • Capitol Advantage: www.capitoladvantage.com - An online advocacy service company.
  • Convio: www.convio.com - An online advocacy software company.

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  • Ashford, D. T. & Frank, R. H. (1989) Lobbying and the Law. Washington: Hogan & Hartson.
  • Avner, M. (2002) The Lobbying and Advocacy Handbook for Nonprofit Organizations. St. Paul: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.
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  • Smucker, B. (1991) The Nonprofit Lobbying Guide-. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Sparks, J. D. (1997) Lobbying Advocacy and Nonprofit Boards. Washington: National Center for Nonprofit Boards.
  • U.S. Department of Labor Statistics (2002) Volunteering in the Untited States, Press Release, December 18, 2002. Washington: Author.
  • Wentz, D. L. & Seymour, D. R. (2003) "The People Speak, and Speak, and Speak…" Association Management, 55(11); pp. 62-67.
  • Williams, M. (2003) "Taking Advocacy Online" Association Management

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