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.