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Early Childhood Advocates and Funders Learn to Say Yes to Lobbying

In a spirited and passionate conversation about the vital importance of state policy advocacy in the early childhood space, Lori McClung of Advocacy & Communication Solutions and Jason Sabo of Frontera Strategy provided clear and actionable advocacy and lobbying guidance that will help advocates achieve policy change and—more important—help dispel the reluctance and discomfort that many c3s (and many of their funders) have around policy advocacy. Attendees also heard from state advocates in both Idaho and the District of Columbia about their strategies and success. 

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Lori McClung began with some general definitions of advocacy and lobbying, but led with the central point that 501(c)3 nonprofits can do both (with some limitations).

Because so many nonprofits and their funders are apprehensive about lobbying, both McClung and Sabo spent much of the presentation dispelling myths and sharing valuable information. “All 501(c)(3) public charities are legally permitted to lobby,” McClung said. “There are federal restrictions on how much and what kind of funds you can spend on lobbying, and states typically have their own restrictions for state level work.” McClung explained the differences between direct lobbying and grassroots lobbying and – perhaps most important – simple ways to keep your lobbying activities within IRS guidelines.

The limitations are easy to learn and observe, she said. “Lobbying isn’t a privilege — It’s your right and responsibility.”

“The IRS rules concerning lobbying for nonprofits are clear and simple,” Sabo added. “ As Lori noted, nonprofits can take simple steps to clarify exactly how much they can spend. The overwhelming majority of nonprofits can feel secure knowing that they are unlikely to come anywhere near hitting their lobby limits.” 

In a continuation of terms definition, Sabo spent some time qualifying some powerful advocacy activities that don’t count as lobbying, and therefor do not have to included in lobbying reporting. These include:

    • Invited Testimony at Legislative Hearings
    • Advocacy in Self-Defense
    • Advocacy with State Agencies
    • Advocacy from Board / Volunteers
    • Social Media (not specific to bills)
    • Community Organizing
    • Old School Earned Media
    • Public Opinion Polling

“You’ve got to do both,” Sabo said. “Successful advocacy requires lobbying and a full set of non-lobby tools.

“Foundations and advocates need a new and different conversation about lobbying and advocacy. Foundations need to learn the rules and have a clear and methodical plan for supporting advocacy. Advocates need to work with foundations to meet them where they are on the road to supporting advocacy. Together foundations and advocates can create the sustainable change both seek. 

McClung provided a long list of tips and resources for effective advocacy, with some key takeaways:

    1. Taking the time to build trust and relationships will be key to your success, with potential coalition partners, policymakers, executive agency decision-makers and media. 
    1. Timing is a balancing act. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast (Taking the time to be strategic, thoughtful, and planful). But sometimes you have to just jump right in with both feet so that you don’t miss the boat on policy opportunities that are moving forward. That’s why working year round (not every 2 or 4 years) to build capacity, coalitions, collateral material, etc. is critical so that you can pounce when the time is right.
    1. It shouldn’t just be paid advocates who are engaged in your advocacy efforts. Include those whose lives are impacted by the issues on which you are working, and include voices often not heard from in the policymaking process. They will make the process and the outcome much stronger and more effective.

McClung shared some useful websites as well as some how-to resources from ACS.


Bolder Advocacy Resource Library

National Council of Nonprofits: Everyday Advocacy

United Philanthropy Forum’s “Policy Works” Project

Independent Sector’s Policy & Advocacy Page


Stand For Your Mission


Internal Revenue Service, Measuring Lobbying Activity: Expenditure Test


ACS Resource Library

How To: Lobbying 101

How To: Creating a Public Policy Plan

How To: Five Steps to Effective Policymaker Engagement

How-To: Make Your Case in Just One Hour a Week

Alliance Executive Director Helene Stebbins then introduced two state allies who have some experience using these tools for success, Beth Oppenheimer, Executive Director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children and Kimberly Perry, Executive Director of DC Action for Children.

Creating Movement in Idaho

Idaho’s Oppenheimer talked about the fear of advocacy in early childhood policy – and the lack of funders for it – when she first arrived a decade ago. There was a lot of resistance to state funding for child care and early education in the legislature and governor’s mansion, but the organization was hearing a lot of anecdotal support in local communities. So Oppenheimer secured some national foundation funding for advocacy and a statewide poll.

“It really changed the whole trajectory of what is happening in Idaho, in terms of early childhood education,” she said.

Armed with the results — close to 80% of Idaho voters support additional investments in early childhood education in preschool specifically for ages three and four — and a new staff project director, they began to share the results consistently across the state. As a result, Oppenheimer said, “the conversation around early childhood has shifted tremendously here in Idaho.”

A new governor has since applied for the state’s first-ever Preschool Development Grant. When they won it, Idaho’s U.S. Senator asked to come on board and record a congratulations video. And now legislators have put their support behind local Early Learning Collaboratives throughout the state and – just last week — Oppenheimer was on a call with the Governor in which he spoke strongly for investing in early childhood education. Legislators are calling and asking for information, and business groups have become influential allies. And all this success has opened the door for additional funders to step in.

“I’ll honestly say that with some perseverance, and keeping your eye on the long-term goal, and celebrating those small wins along the way, you can do it,” she said. “If Idaho can do it, so can anyone.”

Bringing Along Funder Partners in DC

Perry opened with appreciation for the day’s topic of discussion. “We often have to find ourselves educating our own funding partners,” she said, “and reminding them about what it takes to influence systems change.”

She shared one of her favorite resources on the subject:

Bainum Family Foundation: Creating Change Through Policy Advocacy: 10 Ways Foundations Can Engage

Perry told attendees about “Under 3 DC,” a broad-based grassroots coalition mostly made up of early educators, parents, health professionals, and even business leaders. The coalition is working to get full funding for its landmark act that passed two years ago – they have 10 years to raise $400 million to fund this birth to three law that includes early education, family strengthening, health supports, as well as pay equity for early educators. When it’s in place, no family will pay more than 10% of their household income on childcare and early educators will be paid on par with public school educators.

“Go big or go home, right?” she said.

Perry explained the “real talk” with funders that is necessary in work like this, and the acknowledgement that success will require deep commitment now and over time. “I want every advocate to be asking for flexible, responsive, and sustained funding,” she said. “Because really, that’s what you’re going to need to achieve your policy goals and your campaigns over time.”

Flexible: Perry said you can go a long way with advocacy, but you can’t be fully effective without lobbying, and funders need to be on board with that.  

Responsive: You never know when a new study – or a global pandemic – is around the corner, and the ability to pivot from a plan is important. The way to maximize a coalition in these situations is having the funding at your fingertips to be able to pivot in a timely manner.

Sustained: This work is a marathon, Perry insisted. We have to find foundation and funding partners who are willing to be in it with us for the long term. We also need to think about investing in and sustaining in our nonprofit and community leaders.


Stanford Social Innovation Review, Assessing Advocacy


Influence on All Cylinders: The Complete Guide to Sharing Your Story, Shaping Opinions, Winning Allies, & Furthering Your Mission 

Advocacy Field Guide for Lean Funders: How Small and Place-Based Foundations and Donors Can Make Big Change With Little Money

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