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care2team 6 min read

Lobbying Congress as a 501(c)3 Nonprofit


 By Mara Veraar, Online Communications Manager, DemocracyinAction.org

You have a message, and you want to be heard-that's a given. But what can your organization do to effectively get your message out there? As a 501(c)3, you can lobby Congress!

Some ways that you can lobby congress as a 501(c)3 include:

Voter registration--the more, the better. Voter Education on the hot issues. Supporting and opposing Ballot Questions--here's where your advocacy campaigns come in. Publishing legislative scorecards. Hold candidate forums and let 'em duke out the issues live.

What you can't do...

  • Endorse Candidates for public office.
  • Make campaign contributions of any kind.
  • Communicate or publish anything that favors or opposes a specific candidate. That goes for your action alerts AND what you say around the company water cooler.

What is an advocacy campaign, and why should I use one to lobby congress?

An advocacy campaign is a Web page dedicated to affecting social change by allowing constituents to communicate with decision-makers. The web site allows supporters to put in their zip code and sends a customized email to their targeted representative. Advocacy campaigns are a great way to engage people in the democratic process. Action alerts to Congress, used judiciously, will help build a relationship with your supporters while they create social change. Advocacy campaign tools that target Congress are effective, but you‚ll have to put a little more energy into the process. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Make it Unique: Urge your supporters to customize the letter themselves, creating a more personalized message that's harder to ignore. You don't like getting form letters either, do you? Check if your vendor provides random rotating blocs chosen for the default content to make this easy.

Content is Everything: Suggest good letter-writing strategies to your supporters. Make sure that their first paragraph is clear and if possible includes the legislation or vote they are for or against. Encourage your supporters to localize their content, i.e., How does this bill effect their neighborhood?

Create Multiple Subject Lines: Randomly choosing from a list of subjects means that the politician you're targeting will receive emails or faxes with differing subject lines. This makes them more personalized--and that's what we want!

Target: Constituent messages carry the most weight with elected officials. Resist the urge to target entire committees or the whole congressional leadership: in general, have your supporters write only their own representatives. This helps keep up good relations with representative--their staffers will thank you!

Evaluate: Keep tabs on how many people are writing, which members are getting the most hits, and who's personalizing their messages. These are your power activists, so you'll want to thank them later.

Delivery: It's easy to send constituent emails to Congress, but you can also print out PDF's of the emails and hand deliver them yourself -- a great way to make them stand out, and sometimes a photo op to boot. Think of something creative, like delivering a big card with petition signers' names on it.

Follow Up: Once you've got people taking action on a campaign, be sure to send them targeted follow-ups as the campaign unfolds. They'll want to know what happened, and it's the perfect time to get them more involved with your organization's other projects.

Contacting Congress is a great way to engage your supporters, create buzz for your issues and participate in changing legislation--but it is only one part of a complete advocacy effort. Think of action alerts as a way to gather important information about your supporters. Which campaigns do people respond to? Which build your list by attracting actions from new supporters? These supporters are your community -- and if they care enough to write to Congress, they're practically asking to be mobilized in other ways, too!


Mara Veraar joined DemocracyinAction.org as Online Communications Manager to aid in outreach and community building within the DIA community. Her professional experience includes several years within the nonprofit sector using online activism for causes such as public health, electoral campaigns and the environment. She received an M.A. from American University's Anthropology department, where she studied emerging trends in online communication and advocacy.