Upstream Advocacy Hacks for SSPs

Upstream Advocacy

Under IRS regulations, nonprofit organizations are barred from advocating for a specific candidate or political party. However, nonprofits are not barred from participating in non-partisan political activities, such as hosting voter drives or candidate debates, or from lobbying for, or against, specific policies that might impact their work and/or the people or causes they serve.

There is no absolute rule about how much time or money can be allocated by an organization for advocacy. The statute governing this merely says that a 501(c)3 cannot spend “substantial” time on lobbying activities aimed at particular causes that intersect with the organization’s charitable or educational mission. The general rule used by many accounting and IRS professionals is based on a court case that held that more than 20% of a nonprofit’s time and money is “substantial with regard to lobbying for causes that intersect with its mission, therefore anything up to 20% is acceptable.

This advocacy is sometimes called “upstream advocacy”. It calls on elected representatives and other government entities to address things getting in the way of an organization’s core activities. There are many guides to effective advocacy if you want to learn more such as this one from the Urban Institute.

Here are some basic hacks from harm reduction leaders:

  • Get to know your political landscape – look at the history, voting records, and other decision making from a variety of levels:
    • city and county legislature
    • county health dept and/or health jurisdiction
    • police jurisdictions
    • state legislature
    • federal legislature
  • Attend public meetings – attend public legislative sessions and meetings to see how they work.
  • Understand the process – get to know the voting and legislative process, including the committee process and who serves on committees of interest to your organization.
  • Engage your internal community – engage and mobilize your internal community members when there are key opportunities for advocacy such as votes or lobbying days.
  • Get community members or board members to do it – engage trusted volunteers or board members to work exclusively in advocacy.
  • Develop a community relations officer – engage trusted volunteers or board members to be community relations officers.
  • Build your brand – use social and other media to build your credibility and your brand.
  • Find common ground – look for common ground with anyone, even those you might otherwise disagree vehemently with.
  • Have stories – remember that emotional resonance is key to changing opinions and build an arsenal of relevant personal stories from participants and other stakeholders to illustrate your points.
  • Get to know your officials – get to know key officials, their interests, voting records, committee memberships, etc. This will help you build rapport and identify potential allies.
  • Get to know staff – get to know the staff of key decision-makers, they can give you access to the officials you need to reach.
  • Participate in community meetings that impact your participants – these can include committees or public meetings, such as HIV planning councils, that might help your participants.
  • Build coalitions – identify potential allies and partners and build coalitions for credibility, shared resources, and strength in numbers.
  • Center your participants when possible – provide opportunities for your best advocates, your participants, to speak on their own behalf.
  • Be polite to everyone – it is important to be kind and polite to everyone you encounter in order to build credibility.
  • Be honest and authentic – never lie, obfuscate, or overstate your case.
  • Be brief – legislators and other decision-makers are very busy, so be as succinct as possible.
  • Be timely – always treat legislators’ time as precious and make sure that you are timely in your communications and your interactions.
  • Know your facts – always be clear about your facts. Legislators are often counting on community advocates to inform them about facts and your credibility depends on being accurate.
  • Dismiss no one – remain cordial and dismiss no one you encounter in the legislative process. Someone who can be a challenging enemy today could be an ally tomorrow.
  • Follow up – always follow up when you say that you will and after each encounter with anyone in the legislative process. This reminds them of you, your organization, and your cause.

All Hacks in This Section

More Resources

Don’t reinvent the wheel
During our development Harm Reduction Hacks have collected together a large number of resources from around the web you can find these in our resource folder in Google Docs. We are also always looking for more so help us by suggesting any resources we may have missed.
Suggest a Resource

External Resources

Collected from around the web
There are a number of external resources that contributed to the development of Harm Reduction Hacks. Here are a selection relating to this section:


The hacks on this site are shared with you under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence. This allows you (with attribution) to adapt content for your own use, although we do ask you to then also allow others to have equal access to anything you develop. More details of this licence can be found on the Creative Commons website.


We do not claim that this is an exhaustive set of strategies, shortcuts, or tips for running an SSP. What we do suggest is that Harm Reduction Hacks offers down-to-earth, practical information for being a better leader, starting and running an SSP, and providing syringe access services. We feel we can say this with confidence because the Hacks are based on interviews with, and the experiences of, literally generations of people who have been doing harm reduction work.

Please note that nothing in this guide should be construed as legal advice. Please consult an attorney local to your area to ensure your program is in compliance with all local, state and federal regulations that apply to your situation. 

Harm Reduction Hacks site design and implimentation by Nigel Brunsdon

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