December 7, 2022

Strategic Advocacy for Environmental Organizations: Part One

How Gardens, Parks & Zoos Can Grow Their Social & Environmental Roles

Environmental Advocacy

By: Kaslin Daniels, Associate Consultant

With the midterm elections recently behind us, many leaders of organizations are contemplating their role in the public conversation. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, gardens, parks and zoos are fully able to engage in advocacy, in fact our missions demand it. In this article I will explain what advocacy is, clarify the extent to which 501(c)3s are empowered to engage in advocacy, provide examples of successful tactics used by environmental nonprofits, and share some essential tools for the advocate’s toolbox.

The What and Why of Nonprofit Advocacy

So what exactly is advocacy, and to what extent are gardens, parks, and zoos legally permitted to engage in it?

Advocacy is the process of garnering support for an idea, proposal, or way of doing something. When we refer to organizational advocacy, we usually refer to types of communication that influence the public conversation and policies in favor of our missions. For nonprofits, it’s an important tool to draw attention to the problems we care about and to have lasting positive impacts for the communities we serve.

Gardens, zoos, and other visitor service green spaces naturally have missions that require advocacy, especially in the areas of environmental sustainability, conservation, and equity. We therefore have a responsibility to educate, inform, and influence the conversation regarding our resources and challenges.

To the surprise of many, most gardens, parks, and zoos already engage in some form of advocacy, from research and public education to relationship building with elected officials. Despite popular myths about 501(c)3 organizations being unauthorized to advocate, nonprofit organizations can and should engage in strategic advocacy in order to advance their missions.

To learn about the difference between advocacy and lobbying, as well as your organization’s capacity for both, I recommend the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) webinar series or the plethora of resources provided by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM).

Inspiring Examples

For inspiration and motivation, I would like to highlight several examples of nonprofit organizations that successfully deploy numerous advocacy strategies to further their missions. Some of the many ways that gardens, parks, and zoos can engage in strategic advocacy include:

  1. Finding & Using Data to Campaign for Open Space
  2. Working in Coalitions to Influence Government
  3. Leadership Training in Climate Change and Environmental Justice
  4. Citizen Science That Reflects the Real Story of Your Community
  5. Public Education about the Legislative Process
  6. Position Papers, Member Action, Legislative Training, & Scholarships
Finding & Using Data to Campaign for Open Space

New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P), a 501(c)3 organization, protects and promotes open space across New York City. The organization carries out research that in turn supports recommendations for sustainable park management and policy. Their advocacy campaigns are successful in encouraging both short-term initiatives and long-term policies that protect and improve the city’s parks, ensure equitable distribution of resources to all neighborhoods, and educate and equip local groups to speak up for their needs. Lastly, NY4P develops strategic partnerships with community groups and conservancies, academic institutions, and government officials and agencies.

Working in Coalitions to Influence Governments on Plant Conservation

The Center for Plant Conservation (CPC) and the Plant Conservation Alliance (PCA) are networks that safeguard endangered and native plants, respectively. The CPC Advocacy Committee writes position papers and tracks federal legislation on topics pertaining to plant conservation. PCA is a public-private collaboration with 17 federal agency members and more than 400 non-federal Cooperators. Working in partnership, the alliance has been directly involved in writing and promoting legislation that fosters plant conservation at all levels of government. An enormous success of this partnership has been the introduction of the Botany Bill, which encourages federal land management agencies to hire botanists, conduct research on native plants, and incorporate native plants in projects on federal lands.

Leadership Training in Climate Change and Environmental Justice

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens offers a climate advocacy program for youth who are passionate about climate change and environmental justice. Participants design and carry out environmental projects in Pittsburgh, develop leadership and project-planning skills, and study environmental and climate justice. The curriculum also provides opportunities to learn from experts in the environmental, climate, and sustainability sectors.

Citizen Science That Reflects the Real Story of Your Community

The Denver EcoFlora Project is a partnership between Denver Botanic Gardens, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The project engages citizen scientists in biodiversity research in the Denver–Boulder area and has two main objectives. First, to actively involve the Denver–Boulder community in data collection and analysis of native plant species; and second, to compile new observations in order to better inform policy choices regarding land management and conservation strategies.

Public Education about the Legislative Process

New York’s High Line featured the exhibit The Practice of Democracy: We Hold These Truths in 2022. Visitors were invited to explore how democracy manifests in our daily lives, communities, and environments. The immersive experience drew on the present and past to explore how laws, processes, and investments have shaped our understanding and experience of democracy in cities. Ultimately, the exhibition culminated in a call to action and encouraged visitors to become “doers” of democracy.

Position Papers, Member Action, Legislative Training, & Scholarships

The Garden Club of America’s National Affairs & Legislation (NAL) Committee drafts position papers and updates the GCA membership on policy initiatives that are relevant to the organization’s mission. Additionally, the NAL conducts an annual meeting in Washington, D.C., which includes training in legislative advocacy and education on relevant legislation and actions, and connects members with legislators and leaders of conservation nonprofits. Finally, GCA funds individual and institutional grants in botanical science, conservation and restoration, garden history and design, and urban forestry.

The above set of, advocacy approaches are not exhaustive; creative leaders will find many other routes to champion their mission, including: raising public awareness and encouraging behavioral change through educational materials; relationship building with legislators by inviting them to your institution and educating them on the issues that relate to your mission; sharing your expertise on an issue by writing an Op-Ed or publishing research; encouraging visitors to vote; and hosting educational conferences and nonpartisan candidate forums.

Stay tuned next week for Part Two, where I’ll share some essential tools for the advocate’s toolbox and outline steps to get started. 

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