Posts Tagged ‘one-hour activist’

Keys to successful advocacy: compelling local stories and long-term commitment

Working to improve public policy is often the best way to address the underlying problems facing the people many nonprofit agencies serve. It has been compared 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:

    Using local information and stories to communicate with and influence policymakers.
    Taking action to build long-term relationships with elected officials.

      Using local 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.

      See also:

      One-Hour Activist

      Social Change Anytime Everywhere

       

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      Use your cultivation know-how for advocacy

      Building a relationship with your elected officials is no different than cultivating a donor. You can’t expect to call them last minute on an important issue affecting your nonprofit and get results…unless you live in his or her district, but I digress.

      Our current Page to Practice™ feature of the One-Hour Activist by Christopher Kush is a smart tutorial on making incremental progress on advocacy without detracting from your core responsibilities as an executive director, staff member or board member. Each of the “10 most powerful actions you can take to fight for the issues and candidates you care about” takes no more than an hour but cumulatively add up to a conscientious approach to advocacy for your cause. Kush also provides five “super-sized” actions that take more than an hour but are worth the effort.

      Get to know your legislator: One of the most proactive measures you can take in advocacy no matter how involved you decide to be is to develop a relationship with your legislator. You may be wondering what value you can bring to your elected official by meeting with them. The answer is a lot.

      Bring two clients: When I asked Kush about what nonprofit leaders can do when preparing for a meeting, he said, “There are always compelling stories related to important issues–it is usually a matter of taking the time to find them and refine them. I always ask nonprofit executives to ‘bring’ two clients with them whenever they come to Washington, DC, or the state Capitol. Nonprofit professionals should be ready to articulate the experiences of their front-line clients (members or constituencies). By the way, people who work for nonprofits often don’t realize they do have personal stories. Jobs are very interesting to elected officials right now, so just working for a local nonprofit can in and of itself be a compelling ‘story.’”

      I dug deeper with Kush on this topic with the following question: In Part Five, you discuss the mistakes nonprofits make when meeting with lawmakers. What’s the most common among them? Here’s what Kush had to say:

      Don’t overwhelm with aggregate stats on your issue–anecdotal information does more: You are in a pretty good position if you are actually meeting with lawmakers, even if you stumble. The first mistake is to NOT regularly (at least once a year) talk to your federal, state and local lawmakers to let them know whom you are serving and what the local trends are related to your issues. Any service a nonprofit provides is one less service lawmakers might be asked to provide in their local offices. Nonprofits that are nervous about tax status can be mindful about not making any specific legislative requests when communicating with their elected officials. (Don’t discuss any current legislation.) The biggest mistake if you ARE meeting with your legislator is to rely on massive aggregate statistics to make your impact. Almost all elected officials are far more engaged by small numbers–the number of people who are being served locally, the number of local jobs you provide, the names of local board members, etc.–than they are by the bland large numbers we often rely on to impress.

      Watch for more Page to Practice interview highlights in our next blog.

      See also:

      One-Hour Activist Page to Practice feature

      Christopher Kush and Soapbox Consulting

      Image credit: RobertEgger.org

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