Working to improve public policy is often the best way to address
the underlying problems facing the people many nonprofit agencies serve. It has
to “going upstream” to fix the railings on a bridge to prevent people from
falling into a river, rather than only pulling them out after they’ve fallen in.
In an ideal world we would do both.
The Page to Practice™ summary of Christopher Kush’s The One-Hour Activist: The 15 Most Powerful
Actions You Can Take to Fight for the Issues and Candidates You Care About provides
excellent advice and outlines specific actions nonprofit leaders can take to move
“upstream” and advocate for public policy changes.
While some nonprofits are reluctant to work on public
policy, the Colorado Nonprofit Association includes advocating on behalf of
constituents, the organization and the nonprofit sector as one of its
principles of excellence.
In this article I will expand on two aspects of the advice
provided by Mr. Kush:
local information and stories to communicate with and influence policymakers.
action to build long-term relationships with elected officials.
information and stories to communicate with and influence policymakers
Once you have identified the issue or issues you plan to work
on, you need to develop a strategy for influencing policymakers to adopt your
proposals. Kush offers several pieces of good advice for reaching out to and
communicating with policymakers.
As Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the U.S. House once said,
“All politics is local.” Kush builds on this idea and argues, “Geography is the
single most important thing about you and your issue.” He points out most
elected officials are very concerned with local trends, the number of people
your organization serves and how broader statewide or national policies are
playing out in the local community.
I see this all the time in the Colorado General Assembly,
where legislators want to know how a policy would affect either people in their
community or Colorado generally. On a bill to limit the use of credit
information in hiring decisions, lawmakers wanted to know the number and type
of Colorado workers who were denied jobs because of their poor credit history. National
data is helpful in describing the issue, but the more local the data the better.
Nonprofit organizations often have solid local information and can show how
policies affect their communities and constituents.
Kush also argues the best way to communicate the effects of
policy proposals is through personal stories. Again, this is very consistent
with my experience. A compelling personal story helps legislators put data and
statistics into context. Using the credit information bill as an example, testimony
from workers who struggled with inaccurate credit reports and had problems
getting jobs because of poor credit helped legislators see how the issue
affected real people. Conversely, testimony from business owners who explained
why and how they used credit information to screen job applicants helped
lawmakers better understand their side of the issue. You need to be prepared to
offer compelling stories to help make your case, because you can count on your
opponents using stories to help make theirs.
However, it is important to put the stories into the broader
context. Many times opponents will try to dismiss one person’s story as the
result of bad decisions on his/her part or chalk it up to a single incident. Presenting
data showing many people face similar problems or having experts attest to the
broad scope of the problem makes it harder to discount one individual’s story.
The power of a personal story was brought home this session when
we worked on a bill to allow students to get college credit for training they
received at work, in the military or through other experience before enrolling.
We presented background statistics and studies showing how this policy would
save students money and help more of them graduate from college. However, it
was the testimony of a long-serving veteran who told about the difficulty he
had in getting colleges to give him credit for the training he received in the
military that won over the committee members. They were so moved by his
testimony they passed the bill out of committee unanimously and several agreed
to speak for it –Democrats and Republicans–when it was heard on the floor.
Taking action to
build long-term relationships with elected officials
Mr. Kush correctly points out a key to being successful in
public advocacy is cultivating ongoing, long-term relationships with elected
officials. Most policy issues take many years to play out and are often not
resolved with a single piece of legislation or in one legislative session.
Even if you are successful in getting legislation passed,
you will need to stay engaged to see it is implemented properly. Many times,
the legislature will give a state agency broad authority to work out the
specific details of a policy proposal and how it is to be implemented. Nonprofits
need to monitor and participate in this process to ensure the policy as
implemented is consistent with the intent of the bill as passed.
Several years ago, we worked as part of a coalition to pass
legislation reforming payday loans. After the bill passed, we testified at a
public hearing and submitted written comments during the Attorney General’s
proceedings to write the rules implementing the law. This paid off as the rules
adopted were consistent with our interpretation of the legislation and more
favorable to the borrowers than those pushed by the payday lenders.
Kush offers excellent advice for developing long-term
relationships with elected officials, such as maintaining regular contact,
inviting them to visit your organization and attending lawmakers’ town hall
meetings. As Kush writes, it often takes several meetings over a number of
years before legislators have a strong awareness of your organization. “The
dividends come but none of this stuff happens instantly.”
Kush’s advice is a good starting point for your entry into
the world of public policy advocacy. In our experience, engaging in public
policy and making the effort to go “upstream” and fix the railings pays off in
the long run.
by Rich Jones
Related articles about advocacy