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Nonprofit Advocacy Spotlight: Jon Lugbill, Sports Backers

Here at the Community Foundation, we believe that funders, philanthropists, nonprofits and government agencies do their best work when they do it together.  This is why we’re proud to offer a year of convening and learning about advocacy to further support the great work already being done in RVA.

This week, we’re hosting a kick-off panel session around the basics of advocacy – what advocacy is, whether you should consider engaging in advocacy, and how you might get started.  The first subsequent deep dive will be led by Sports Backers’ Jon Lugbill around the topic “How to Grow Your Impact Through Grassroots Advocacy” where he will walk through the steps of creating and running an effective advocacy program that leads to greater social impact and policy change at the local level.

In addition to several courses throughout the year, we’re also featuring individuals in various “Nonprofit Advocacy Spotlights” on the blog.  Here’s one.


Sports Backers and Advocacy

For the past 26 years, Jon Lugbill has served as the Executive Director of Sports Backers.  Sports Backers develops programs and events designed to inspire people from all corners of our community to live actively.  They achieve this by focusing on a network of collaborative partnerships with other organizations, businesses, local governments and faith-based institutions. Their programs include:

Bike Walk RVA – Supporting bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure projects and empowering residents with the tools they need to advocate for safe and comfortable places to bike and walk throughout Richmond.

Fitness Warriors – Offering free fitness classes throughout our community every week so that individuals, no matter where they live, can benefit from an active lifestyle.

Kids Run RVA – Providing kids the chance to have fun while being physically active on a regular basis by supporting school-based run clubs.

Active RVA – A regional collaborative movement that works with businesses, schools and early childhood organizations to get every corner of our community moving.

Scholar-Athlete Awards – Celebrating the leadership and drive of scholar-athletes with a formal dinner and awards scholarships to 20 outstanding student athletes, 4 outstanding teams and a comeback athlete of the year.

Events and Training Teams – Celebrating Richmond’s active culture by hosting events that showcase the region’s greatest attributes. Sports Backers now owns and produces 13 events each year that include some of the largest and most successful of their kind in the country, including large-scale events like the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k, Dominion Energy Riverrock and the VCU Health Richmond Marathon.

We spoke with Jon about what role he and Sports Backers play in local advocacy, and how and why other local nonprofits should consider engaging in it.  Here’s what he had to say.

How do you and your organization engage in advocacy?

Through advocacy, Sports Backers works to drive change in how our community provides safe and accessible active transportation options.  As Executive Director, my role is hiring the right staff to work on advocacy and then working to have funding to support the program.

I’m personally involved in legislative advocacy where I talk directly with elected officials to solicit their support for policies and funding for walking and biking infrastructure.  Our Bike Walk RVA program staff leads the grassroots advocacy work directly.  They work to organize the 40,000 people who have agreed to help support biking and walking infrastructure in our region.

I’m involved in providing support and encouragement for our program staff and volunteers’ main activities.  I show up for meetings, receptions, gatherings and biking/walking events to show our support for advocacy.

I also work closely with our Board of Directors to keep them informed of our advocacy efforts and help them stay engaged.  This way, when we run into opposition for our advocacy work, we have the Board of Directors behind us and not causing us to buckle under political pressure.


Why should other nonprofits be interested in getting involved in advocacy?

High-performing nonprofits keep the impact of their activities at the forefront of their work. Check out this article by the Stanford Social Innovation Review that shows how real social change happens when organizations go outside of their own walls and find creative ways to enlist the help of others, one main way being advocacy work.

It’s amazing how much impact you can make if you don’t care who gets the credit.  The amount of philanthropic giving in our community is limited, but changing government policies or procedures might do more to impact people in our community than programs or services.

As nonprofits, should we just keep trying to provide solutions to outdated government policies or procedures?  Through advocacy we can go to the source and change the laws that are causing the unfortunate community outcomes.  And, as subject matter experts in the field, we can provide knowledge and insight that government staff might not have.

Nonprofits can directly drive support for their mission and turn people out to support policy change, whereas government tends to follow the lead of their constituents.


What are the rewards of doing advocacy work?

The overall impact of Sports Backers has grown dramatically by leveraging our impact through advocacy work with local governments.  When we first started doing advocacy work around biking and walking infrastructure in 2011, the local governments were only spending $1-2 million per year, including state and federal grants.  Five years later, that number has jumped to $15 million and is climbing quickly.  This was accomplished with an annual Bike Walk RVA program budget of only $350,000 per year.  The return on investment by the community is incredibly leveraged compared to Sports Backers trying to raise the funds to build bike and pedestrian infrastructure with philanthropic funds. Ultimately, the reward is changing the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people that use this infrastructure on a regular basis and live healthier and more productive lives.

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