Takeaways From NCAN's First-Ever Advocacy Institute

September 23, 2016

By Courtney Argenti, Graduate Policy Intern

College access and success professionals expanded their advocacy and lobbying abilities at NCAN’s first-ever Advocacy Institute on Sunday, one of four pre-conference sessions held before the network’s 2016 National Conference in Detroit, Michigan. 

Nearly 70 attendees at the five-hour interactive workshop learned the differences between advocacy and lobbying and how their organizations can engage in both, practiced meeting with elected officials, then collaborated to create their own hypothetical advocacy campaign around a vital college access issue. Groups focused on building a children’s savings account program, strengthening the Pell Grant program, simplifying the FAFSA, and re-envisioning the Federal Work-Study program. 

HCM Strategists Directors Kim Cantor and Justin Beland, and Associate Jessica Collis, provided the training and content for the day. Participants included NCAN members and conference-goers, scholarship providers in Scholarship America’s Dollars for Scholars program, and 15 student government leaders from the National Campus Leadership Coalition (NCLC). This was also the first event of the New Voices Coalition, which includes NCAN, NCLC, and Scholarship America as its partners.

The workshop had three main takeaways:

  • Nonprofits can advocate and lobby! It is crucial to understand the difference and how much of each an organization can do. 
  • Lobbying and advocacy are efficient. It is important to reach out to lawmakers in person and on social media outlets, the most direct avenues. Making each connection personal and unique is vital to the success and memorability of your message.
  • Successful advocacy campaigns are comprehensive; they integrate and often blend paid media (paid advertisement), shared media (shared content, often through social media platforms), owned media (what an organization controls or creates — i.e., the organization’s website), and earned media (publicity and coverage gained through efforts other than advertising).

So what is the difference between advocacy and lobbying? How much can your organization do of each?


Lobbying attempts to influence specific legislation through direct or grassroots communication with legislators or their staff. It is considered direct lobbying when you (yourself or your organization) ask a member of Congress to vote for or against, or amend, introduced legislation. Initiating a “call to action” — asking others to contact their member of Congress in support of action on introduced legislation or pending regulations — is considered grassroots lobbying.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, follow the general rule of 20 percent: do not spend more than 20 percent of your time or expenditure on lobbying; only one-quarter of expenditure can be used for grassroots lobbying. 

501(c)(4)s may engage in unlimited lobbying, provided that these efforts fall within the purpose of the organization. Political activity is not, however, tax exempt.

Check to see how your state defines lobbying to ensure that you are within regulation, as state definitions may vary. 


Advocacy comprises a range of activities that seek to bring about systemic social change, often by promoting awareness of larger issues; these efforts do not mention or push specific legislation. Nonprofit organizations can conduct unlimited advocacy in a number of ways:

  • Educating lawmakers and elected officials on a specific issue 
  • Telling members of Congress how a federal grant has helped your constituents
  • Talking with members of Congress about what your organization does, and inviting them to visit your organization and see firsthand how federal funding or policy affects day-to-day operations and makes a difference
  • Educating members of Congress about the effects of a policy

As noted above, both advocacy and lobbying are effective ways for bringing about change. NCAN is active at the grassroots and grasstops, and we’re happy to share more of our methods and strategies with you.

If you would like to learn more about advocacy and lobbying or to join our Rapid Response Policy Team, contact Director of Policy and Advocacy Carrie Warick.

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