Advocacy 101: Where to start

Building Better Relationships. A photo of a Handshake, a key part of that. CDS inc. This week, I’ll be attending Habitat for Humanity’s Habitat on the Hill event in Washington, DC. I started attending years ago, when I worked for a local affiliate in Tennessee, and it remains one of my favorite events of the year.

We’ll be celebrating the successes of Habitat affiliates around the country who have enhanced the work in their local communities by partnering with, or advocating in front of, government officials or agencies. We’ll also spend some time on Capitol Hill visiting with our representatives in Congress, to discuss the value of Habitat for Humanity in our local communities.

A few brave souls will even have an opportunity to attend a session on the use of reliable evidence and data to make your case with a government entity. I’ll be talking about a partnership we built in Tennessee with the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research to produce an economic impact study on the work of Habitat in Tennessee.

The economic impact study has proved to be extremely helpful in making the case for why an investment in Habitat for Humanity can have ripple effects in the community far deeper than what seems obvious on the surface.

So what’s the secret to building better partnerships with government? How about putting together an evidenced-based research project with your local University?

The answer is the same as putting together a successful major gift campaign. It’s about the relationships.

Think about that person in your community who has developed the reputation for being very generous with multiple organizations. They probably get bombarded with multiple requests every month from good causes in your community. Just think how many mailing lists they must be on. The reality is the requests probably far outweigh the person’s ability to contribute.

Your state or local government is in much the same predicament. Organizations from far and wide are hoping to receive some of the same funding you are hoping to receive. The competition is fierce, so you need to separate yourself, and the single best way to do that is to build a relationship with them.

So where do you start?

Just like a successfully orchestrated capital campaign, the easiest ways to build the relationships you need is to rely on the ones you already have. Identify and recruit board members who can open doors for you to influential people in your community, including your elected officials and government leaders. This could take some time, but the investment of time will pay off in the long run.

Inviting your local government leaders to events for your organization is another easy way to “bring them under the tent.” Let them see the incredible work you are doing and become acquainted with your leadership at the staff and board member. Follow-up with them and continue to build those lines of communication.

Once you bring these government officials into your circle of contacts, nurture those relationships. Look for ways to partner with each other. Your local elected officials need to be active in the community to do their jobs well. They need to be visible. You can provide them an incredible platform to achieve that goal. Let them speak at your event. Recognize them.

Remember that this is a relationship and you need to nurture it on your end. Communicate with them regularly. Let them know what is happening with your organization. Ask what is going on with them, or their organizations. Ask them this question “is there anything that we can do to become better partners?”

The bottom line is this: you don’t want to be the organization who only shows up to ask for money, and isn’t seen from again until it’s time to ask again.

Does this sound familiar? It should. Hopefully it’s the way you are building relationship with your donors as well.

The most important thing you can do for the future of your organization is to be consistently persistent about building strategic relationships for your organization. You need these relationships for the viability of your organization. Whether it is your relationship with donors, or your local and state governments, the strength of your relationships will determine the strength of your organization.

If you feel like you are behind in building these relationships, don’t fret. Remember the marathon runner doesn’t start running 26.2 miles the first time they go for a run. You have to start somewhere to achieve the result you desire. If you would like some help getting started, call or email me and let’s talk about how to make key relationships for your organization.

Gary Drinnen is a Senior Campaign Director at Custom Development Solutions (CDS). Gary serves non-profit organizations nationwide by helping them create transformational change through capital campaign fundraising, major gift initiatives and strategic planning. Gary and his wife live in Knoxville, TN. You may contact him at: or 800-761-3833. Learn more at:


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