Here’s a commonly held myth in the nonprofit sector: A 501(c)3 cannot take part in advocacy work. In this episode, Tanya Tassi shares how nonprofits can safely and effectively advocate. Listen in and start creating that lasting change you already work so hard for!
Listen to the Episode Here!
Vote for Equality Video
Stop Feeling Overwhelmed Webinar
(5:16) Defining advocacy and its importance
(9:40) Tanya & Dolph role play
(13:12) Voting guidelines for 501(c)3s
(15:21) How 501(c)3s can advocate leading up to November’s election
(23:52) How 501(c)3s can advocate in non-election years
Dolph Goldenburg (00:00):
Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits® Podcast. I’m your host, Dolph Goldenburg. Before we jump into today’s topic, I have heard from a lot of nonprofit executives who are feeling overwhelmed right now. If that is where you find yourself, first of all, you’re not alone. There’s a lot going on. There’s a pandemic in the land. There’s a recession. You undoubtedly have friends, family, colleagues, or board members who are heavily impacted by everything that’s going on. And then we add on to that, a difficult election season. I don’t know about you, but every time I watch the news, I get angry or sad. There’s almost never a happy for me when I watch the news. So if you find yourself right now in this place where you are feeling overwhelmed, check out my four part blog series that will help you better manage your time, your energy and your relationships. Additionally, I’m going to be hosting a free webinar on October 14th on the exact same topic. You can find out more about it successfulnonprofits.com/maketime. I will say a bit more about this webinar at the end of our episode.
Dolph Goldenburg (01:13):
Now let’s get ready to talk to an amazing person. And that is Tanya Tassi with CenterLink and the ActionLink program. As staff and board members at nonprofits, it is incumbent on us to advocate for our organizations and their mission. We do this in so many ways. Sometimes it’s informal conversations with family members and friends. Maybe it’s reaching out to potential donors or discussions with law makers. Or maybe it’s educating our constituents about public policy proposals that will affect them. Because I am unabashedly progressive on this podcast, I feel certain that your organization is helping to tackle issues that are essential to a more just and a fairer world. We’re talking about issues like immigration, income inequality, racism, civil rights, gender equity, protecting the environment, access to reproductive health, LGBTQ rights and more. The sad truth though, is that far too many nonprofit executives and their boards believe that engaging in any advocacy at all jeopardizes their nonprofit status. And I find this so sad because failing to engage in issue advocacy means that our unique voices and the unique voices of our community are not shaping policies that will impact our constituents and our mission. And what’s more, the other side, the conservative side, is mobilizing. They are finding ways that their nonprofits can engage in advocacy.
Dolph Goldenburg (02:59):
So today I am so pleased to welcome Tanya Tassi to the show. Tanya began her nonprofit work at the age of 17 when she volunteered at the Wisconsin AIDS resource center. She went on to volunteer, work with, and even found a number of LGBTQ organizations with a particular focus on the needs of elderly LGBTQ community members.
Dolph Goldenburg (03:25):
Today, in addition to her volunteer work and working toward a graduate degree, she works with CenterLink. It is an organization that is near and dear to my heart because I credit CenterLink with saving my career about 20 years ago when I was a first time chief executive. CenterLink is a coalition that works to develop strong, sustainable LGBTQ community centers. And Tanya, within CenterLink, is the driving force behind their advocacy program, which is called ActionLink. Through this program, she helps LGBTQ nonprofits safely and effectively advocate for their mission.
Dolph Goldenburg (04:17):
As I sit back and think, I would be willing to bet that Tanya is coordinating a group of probably a hundred, or hundreds, of LGBTQ organizations as they mobilize around advocacy. And I would be willing to bet that there are a few other individuals or groups in the country that have such large advocacy efforts that are aimed at working through community based organizations. I think PFLAG might be up there. Planned Parenthood might be up there. I don’t know about a lot of others. So Tanya is a best-in-class advocate and we are so excited and so happy to have her here. So join me in welcoming Tanya to the podcast as we talk about how our organizations can be effective advocates. Tanya, that was a long intro, but it’s because I think so much of you.
Tanya Tassi (05:13):
Thank you so much. And thank you for having me on your podcast.
Dolph Goldenburg (05:16):
Thank you so much for being on the podcast. Can you share with us what advocacy means for a nonprofit?
Tanya Tassi (05:23):
I think advocacy is the number one way nonprofits can create lasting positive, systemic change in their communities and even on a national level.
Dolph Goldenburg (05:36):
So what does that mean?
Tanya Tassi (05:38):
It means that advocacy is a way for nonprofits to have their mission heard and to advance policies and programs within their mission and their organization. And to really make change whether it’s locally, at the state level, or at the national level. What does your mission want? What do your clients want? And your donors? And your volunteers? A nonprofit is really the voice for all of those people. So it’s really important for them to advocate for what they want and what the community needs.
Dolph Goldenburg (06:18):
I know that you are helping to coordinate LGBTQ centers and other LGBTQ organizations around the country. So the first thing that you said in this is that advocacy helps nonprofits elevate and advocate for their mission. Can you give us an example of a way that ActionLink has done that?
Tanya Tassi (06:36):
Sure. One of the biggest things that we work on is the Equality Act which addresses nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people nationwide. I’m sure most of your listeners are aware that right now there are no comprehensive nondiscrimination protections in 28 States. I always say you could drive from Maine to California and your rights as an LGBT person could change 15 to 20 times. Now, we just had the Supreme Court ruling regarding employment. That was a big win for us. But there’s so much work to be done. So the Equality Act is something that we advocated for last year. It did pass the house in 2019 and our LGBT community centers were a big part of that. They reached out to their senators and their state, educated their local lawmakers, and educated the general public about the importance of the Equality Act and what it would mean for our community. The Committee on the House Floor mentioned several LGBT centers during their hearing. That showed how important our work was. I remember breaking down into tears several times being so proud of our community centers. So that’s a great example of how the work that we’re doing and nonprofits are doing has really made a difference.
Dolph Goldenburg (07:56):
And so you said, educate constituents, educate law makers and educate the community. What is the education of constituents look like when you’re doing advocacy work?
Tanya Tassi (08:07):
A lot of it is one-on-one conversations with people. I myself do that. Sometimes I get responses from an email or a newsletter saying, “I don’t agree with this,” or “Why are you saying this?” I take the time to respond to every single one of those types of emails to try to educate people. Tie the issue into your mission. Explain how the policy helps achieve your mission and therefore helps your community. Encourage people to vote and take the census. All of those are pieces of advocacy and education that tie in together.
Dolph Goldenburg (08:46):
What do you say to the executive director who goes, “Oh, Tanya, I agree. This is really important. But our organization is not allowed to engage in advocacy work.” What do you say?
Tanya Tassi (08:56):
I say that is incorrect. And a lot of organizations will say, “We don’t do advocacy work. We’re a nonprofit. We don’t do that.” And I always say that by being a nonprofit and serving the community you serve, you are doing advocacy work just by default. Going back to the example of the LGBT community, if you are an LGBT community center, you are advocating for the LGBT people in your community. You’re advocating for policies that will help those people. You’re advocating for finding employment or housing for those people. Those are services that most organizations provide on a daily basis. So they really are doing advocacy work.
Dolph Goldenburg (09:40):
So, Tanya, I’m going to throw you a curve ball here. I’m so sorry. Because I know you well and you’re probably not going to be happy, but I’m going to do it anyway. Once upon a time I was a social worker. And one of the things they taught us in school is that role play is really valuable because it helps us hone and it helps other people who watch or listen to us understand. So I would love for you and I to role play a scenario where I’m an executive director who misunderstands advocacy. So let’s just pretend like I got your most recent action alert and there’s something in there about writing a letter or signing off on letters to the Department of Homeland Security around an LGBTQ issue. And there’s something in there about the census and about get out the vote.
Tanya Tassi (10:44):
Dolph Goldenburg (10:44):
So, Tanya, I just got your most recent email about the vote, the census and, a Homeland Security issue. So I have to say, I was a little surprised. We’re were not a (c)6. I could see our local or state equality organization doing that. But you know, we’re a 501(c)3. We don’t really do advocacy.
Tanya Tassi (11:10):
Well, you can do advocacy, especially that kind of advocacy. You cannot support a specific candidate or a specific person. However, you can support a specific law. So you can say things like, “Vote for the person who believes in equality.” And it’s really important that you do that kind of work, even if you feel like it’s something you haven’t done in the past. That’s what we’re here for. We can show you how to do that and provide you templates, talking points, graphics and whatever else you need to feel comfortable doing that type of work.
Dolph Goldenburg (11:48):
Whoa, hold on there, Tanya. So you mean to say that we can actually say, “Vote for the candidate that supports equality?”
Tanya Tassi (11:55):
You can absolutely say that as long as you’re not listing a candidate by name.
Dolph Goldenburg (12:00):
Wow, that that is pretty cool. But this Department of Homeland Security issue. But isn’t asking people to sign off on that or to write the Department of Homeland Security kind of engaging in some political advocacy? I mean, everybody knows, who’s behind Homeland Security.
Tanya Tassi (12:20):
Well, it is engaging in political advocacy. But again, you can do that as a 501(c)3 and you absolutely should be doing that. Again, it comes down to being careful how you say it; being careful not to promote any certain person. But you can 100% advocate for laws or suggestions or proposals that are going to benefit your nonprofit.
Dolph Goldenburg (12:45):
Wow. So you mean as long as I don’t say the Orange Menace’s name, I can get people to sign on to support legislation that he would hate.
Tanya Tassi (12:55):
Absolutely. And we do that by saying “the Administration” instead of saying “the Orange Menace.”
Dolph Goldenburg (13:03):
Oh! Can I say “the Orange Administration” or do I just have to say “the Administration?”
Tanya Tassi (13:09):
No. You just have to say “the Administration.”
Dolph Goldenburg (13:12):
Darn. Okay. Well, even though I’d rather say “the Orange Administration, I want to stay on the right side of the law. I don’t want to lose our 501(c)3 three status. I’m going to say “the Administration.” Now talk to me about this get out the vote. What can we, as a nonprofit, legally do to get out the vote?
Tanya Tassi (13:29):
There is so much that you can do to get out the vote. One of the biggest things you can do is conduct and promote voter registration drives. That’s always a huge thing. You can educate your community on how the voting process works. So you can talk about registration, early voting, where to cast your ballot, how to change your address, or do a mail in vote. You can definitely continue advocacy work during an election year. In fact, I think it’s more important than ever during election years to do advocacy, to bring your organization front and center. And you can make your community aware of ballot measures and how they affect your organization. Again, don’t promote anyone specific. But you can certainly say, “This is a ballot measure and this is how it will affect us.” You can speak about barriers to the democratic process and how that harms your organization and how that harms your community. You can engage your community and lawmakers in conversations about services you provide and about laws that you are supporting or not supporting. And then always encourage your community and your staff and your clients and your donors to register to vote and then vote for lawmakers who support the things that your organization stands for.
Dolph Goldenburg (14:46):
So when you talk about barriers to the democratic process that we can speak out against, what are you talking about?
Tanya Tassi (14:53):
I’m talking about things like voter suppression or mail in voting. You can certainly say something like, “This is why mail in voting has been successful in the past.” Or, “This is why you need to register to vote, because of things like voter suppression and because this community is often suppressed.” So let’s target that community, put the word out, help them to get registered and do as much as we possibly can.
Dolph Goldenburg (15:21):
We’re recording this in early August. If I’m a betting person, this episode is probably going to come out around the end September, beginning of October. So maybe only about a month before the election. So if there is a nonprofit executive listening whose organization has not done anything around get out the vote or issue advocacy leading up to the election, what can they do in that last month to really make a difference?
Tanya Tassi (15:47):
I think the biggest thing they can do is tie their mission to the election to help voters understand the connection between voting and the services that they’re offering. They can also continue to educate on ballot measures. That is always going to be a great thing, whether or not its passed the voter registration time. It is just important to educate people about what is happening in your area and in your state and to recommend they vote for people who support equality.
Dolph Goldenburg (16:18):
And if you as an organization convince someone to go vote for or against a ballot measure who otherwise was not going to go vote, then that person is also probably going to cast other votes in the election. So advocating for or against ballot measures is probably a good way to drive the vote.
Tanya Tassi (16:41):
It’s definitely a good way to drive the vote. Nonprofits can always talk about the ballot measures and they can even invite lawmakers to come and speak. Because of the pandemic, a lot of that’s happening online. But as long as you are inviting people from both sides, you can do that. You can invite them and ask them to talk about the ballot measure and how it is going to affect the state or the community. And as long as you are being fair and inviting both sides, you’re absolutely able to do that.
Dolph Goldenburg (17:13):
I have to ask you this question. And by the way, this has happened to me when I was at the community center in Philly. Let’s say you invite both sides, but one side decides not to show up.
Tanya Tassi (17:25):
You did your due diligence by inviting both sides.
Dolph Goldenburg (17:30):
Good. So I did the right thing when I was in Philly.
Tanya Tassi (17:33):
You absolutely did.
Dolph Goldenburg (17:35):
I always said we would invite both sides. If one side doesn’t want to show up, that is okay. Obviously no organizations are having galas or big in-person events this fall. But I always made a point of inviting politicians from both sides, including every single candidate in a race, to buy tables. You could totally tell who your organization’s friends were based on who bought tables and who didn’t.
Tanya Tassi (18:04):
That is actually a really excellent tip.
Dolph Goldenburg (18:08):
Part of what I loved about it was obviously that it raised some money for us as an organization. But it also really helped show which politicians cared about us and thought we were important enough as a community to show their support physically and with their pocketbooks. So we’ve talked about promoting ballot measures and ballot initiatives. I do have to ask you: how much interpretation can nonprofits do on ballot measures and initiatives? The reason I ask this is, at least in the states that I have lived in, ballot measures are always worded in such a way that you think, “Well, of course, why wouldn’t I vote for that?” And then you read the fine print and realize, “Oh, that doesn’t really save puppies. That drowns puppies in the river. But it’s called the Save the Puppies ballot measure.”
Tanya Tassi (18:57):
I think that the most important thing is, again, tying it to your mission. So explain how a ballot measure is going to affect your mission without saying whether it is good or bad. And from that message most people will be able to figure out if it is a good or bad ballot measure for the community. For example, if you say, “This is going to affect our mission by potentially taking away funding that we rely on every year,” then I think most people are going to realize it’s a bad measure for their community. You definitely should not be giving candidates or ballot measures letter grades or ratings or anything like that. And you can’t increase the amount or volume of criticism among officials, especially if they’re running for reelection. Election year is not the time to start increasing criticism. But again, just tie the measure to your mission and explain how it will affect you and people will know how to vote.
Dolph Goldenburg (19:53):
This is an unusual year because of COVID. I know a lot of nonprofits, in addition to having get out the vote campaigns, also have get to the polls campaign. Are there any unique and interesting things you’re seeing community centers plan since a lot of voting is going to be by mail?
Tanya Tassi (20:15):
National Voter Registration Day for nonprofits is always the last Tuesday in September. Right now we have almost 60 LGBT community centers signed up to participate that day. And that is when we really blitz social media about how you get registered in your state, how you can get your identity to match your voter ballot if your trans and things like that. Normally they would have in-person events and bring in food and sometimes music and have a lot of posters and stickers. This year I noticed a lot of Facebook Live or Instagram campaigns, where they are going live to talk about the complications of getting registered to vote and how to register.
Tanya Tassi (21:11):
A lot of people are even showing the ballot and explaining how you fill it out. Because some people don’t know, especially first time voters. Some are inviting the candidates to join these live sessions and talk to the constituents about what they stand for and about the issues. And just putting it out there in social media. Social media has been a lifesaver as far as the elections go and getting the word out because it has been a lot more difficult this year.
Dolph Goldenburg (21:50):
Yeah. I love that some organizations and some nonprofits are showing people how to complete and mail in their absentee ballot. I don’t think of myself as an ignorant person. I have a graduate degree. I got really good grades in school. I’ve been relatively successful in my life. And I will share with you, the first time I did a mail in ballot, I thought I was so slick. I completed everything and then I signed the envelope. And then I realized that I signed the area that says that I’ve assisted this voter in completing their ballot. And I’m like, “Oh, I destroyed my ballot.” So that is actually a really good idea because even those of us that probably could read the directions, maybe we don’t.
Tanya Tassi (22:37):
Yeah. They’re pretty complicated in some states. And even the in-person voting can be confusing. For example, here in LA County, they’ve got new computers. And so one of the things the LA Center did was they got in the actual voting units and they did a mock vote. It was a vote on what color to use for this year’s senior prom or something. But it was just teaching people how you use the computers. Because they are new this year, and they are a little bit scary if you are not used to them. I thought that was really creative.
Dolph Goldenburg (23:13):
That’s a great idea. I love that. New technology could be really tough, especially for people who’ve voted one way for 20 or more years. Now let me ask you, is it okay for a nonprofit to have an election night watch party?
Tanya Tassi (23:31):
It is absolutely okay. Again, you cannot support either candidate. But you can certainly celebrate when your candidate wins. Absolutely you can hold a watch party.
Dolph Goldenburg (23:52):
I know one of the things that you said is, especially leading up to the election, it is probably not a great idea to engage in significantly more issue advocacy that maybe paints one particular issue or candidate in a bad light. So after the election, what are two or three things a nonprofit should be doing going forward to engage in issue advocacy?
Tanya Tassi (24:32):
I think the first thing is find a coalition or a group that is aligned with your mission and participate in their calls or their Zoom sessions, whether it’s weekly or monthly. We belong to several national coalitions. And I cannot tell you how helpful it is. First of all, you can bounce ideas off of other people. Second of all, you have a lot of experts on the topic at hand to really help you navigate through some of the political weeds. A policy is oftentimes pages and pages and its phrasing can be challenging. So find a good coalition. Number two is, again, always remember what your mission is and what aligns with your mission. And make sure that you are being an advocate for your community and the people you serve.
Tanya Tassi (25:23):
And the third thing is to continue the advocacy throughout the year. Even if you get someone in office that is, say LGBT friendly, there is so much work to be done. And there is always going to be work to be done. I think any nonprofit would say the same thing: it’s a never ending cycle of work. So just continue that advocacy. Continue to keep your people engaged, whether it’s through a little blurb in your newsletter every month or social media posts once a week. Just continue the thread so that your clients and your community know that you are still speaking out for them, even when it’s a non-election year or just a regular month.
Dolph Goldenburg (26:01):
I love that. There’s just one piece I wanted to bounce off of you. I know you talked about finding that coalition that you can be a part of. In the last five or six years while serving as an interim executive director, I’ve started asking coalitions who funds them. And there have been a handful of times that I’ve decided not to join based on that information. We might align on this one issue, but I don’t want to have to be with them on every issue.
Tanya Tassi (26:46):
Right. And that is the case for us, as well. There are times when we support a coalition, but because of our status as a f502(c)3, we can’t come out and say that. But what I do is take some of the talking points and information they’ve given us and tailor it so that it is fitting our mission and our organization. And most of the time coalitions are fine with that. I think they understand we are not always going to align on everything. So yeah, you do have to be discerning about what you are going to take away from that coalition.
Dolph Goldenburg (27:19):
Right. Now, Tanya, you are currently engaged in the rough and tumble world of advocacy, which is really the rough and tumble world of politics. But for the off-the-map question, I understand that before you got into this line of work, you were in the rough and very tumble world of roller derby.
Tanya Tassi (27:40):
That is correct. I was Glitzen Vixen number 623 for many years. I’ve always liked roller skating on quads, not so much in line. And so back when I was still living in Wisconsin, I started on a roller derby team and continued that when I moved to California. And then I got a little older and didn’t care to take all the falls and spills anymore, because it is a very dangerous sport. So I refereed for several years. Now I’m retired, but I do still enjoy watching it. And I did go sing the national Anthem for the LA Derby Dolls on occasion. And in once in a while I would go and skate with them during their recreational workouts. Obviously they’re not playing right now because of COVID-19. But you know, the older you get, the less you want to be falling on your knees and hitting your head and smashing into people.
Dolph Goldenburg (28:38):
I rarely ask follow-up questions on the off-the-map question, but I’m going to have to ask you a follow-up question. And it is actually a serious question, even though it may not sound like it: What did roller derby teach you about life?
Tanya Tassi (28:52):
It taught me that sometimes you have to work really, really hard for something that you want. I was not the fastest skater. And in order to play, you had to do a certain amount of laps around the track in a certain amount of time. And I failed many times and thought I just can’t do this anymore. But I really, really wanted it. So I kept going and I’m glad I did. That has carried me through many things, including school. There were so many times I wanted to drop out, but I said, no, I really, really want this. And you have to go through that pain to get what you want. So I try to carry that lesson with me.
Dolph Goldenburg (29:30):
I had a feeling you got a good life lesson out of roller derby and you really did. That’s awesome. Tanya, thank you so much for joining us. I am grateful you’ve joined us and, Listeners. if you would like to learn more about the amazing work of CenterLink check out their website at lgbtcenters.org. I have said this before: CenterLink saved my career. I adore CenterLink. I think it’s one of the most effective organizations serving LGBTQ nonprofits anywhere in the country. You can also learn more about the specific work of ActionLink, which is their advocacy network, at the website lgbtactionlink.org. At this website, you can get the latest information on LGBTQ+ policy and learn how you can take action to help make change. These websites, by the way, also have a ton of useful resources, not just advocacy, but on topics such as the 2020 census and upcoming elections. And finally, if you are interested in really voting for equality and finding how you can get out the vote, then check out their Vote for Equality videos at lgbtactionlink.org/vote. Tanya, thank you for joining us today.
Tanya Tassi (30:57):
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
New Speaker (31:00):
Dear Listeners, if you did not write down any of those URLs because you were tearing apart your closet looking for your quad skates so you can try out for the middle-aged roller derby team in your town. Hey, you keep on ripping apart your closet. Because at any point that you want to, you can go to successfulnonprofits.com and check out the show notes and you will see all of the links for CenterLink, ActionLink and the videos for Voting for Equality.
Dolph Goldenburg (31:29):
Now, while you’re there, please just take a minute and click the Listener Survey. It will take you about four or five minutes to complete, and you will give Lexie and I some feedback so that we can have guests that you really want to hear from and address topics that you really want to learn more about. So please make sure you go and take that survey. Now, earlier this year, we celebrated four years of hosting the Successful Nonprofits® Podcast. When I launched this podcast in July of 2016, I remember being so excited when I had a few hundred downloads. Well, now the podcast is at the point that we get between 8,000 and 9,000 downloads a month. But here’s what I’m really clear about: it’s not just because of the podcast or the guests we have on. It’s listeners, like you, who subscribe and rate and review and tell your friends and share it on social media. I am really clear that there is no way we would have reached this great download milestone without you, Dear Listeners. So thank you. Thank you so much.
Dolph Goldenburg (32:46):
I want to express gratitude to one specific Listener who has reviewed us on iTunes, EMP6384. His review says, “Dolph covers a range of topics that help you better understand the industry and apply some solid practices and principles to your organization. Whether philanthropist, volunteer, nonprofit employee, executive board member or even constituent, the insights, interviewers and conversations shared in the podcast will be beneficial.” EMP6384, I wish I could thank you by name, but I’ll thank you by that. I am so grateful for that review. Thank you. And finally, Listeners, as I said in the beginning, it is a stressful and overwhelming time. There are things that you can do to take care of yourself. And in my coaching work, I often help nonprofit executives stop feeling overwhelmed. Leadership does not mean that you have to be overwhelmed. I’ve recently created a four part blog series called Stop Feeling Overwhelmed. And we’ll be hosting a webinar on October 14th on the same topic. You can get more information on the webinar at successfulnonprofits.com. Now, Listeners, that is our show for the week. I hope you have gained some insight to help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.
Dolph Goldenburg (34:19):
I am not an accountant or attorney and neither I nor the Goldenburg Group provide tax legal or accounting advice. This material has been provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for tax, legal or accounting advice. Always consult a qualified, licensed professional about such matters.