Posts Tagged ‘public policy’

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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      Advocacy: Begin with an approach that fits your nonprofit

      This article is the second in a series on legislative relations.

      Engaging in advocacy is one of the most effective ways for your nonprofit to achieve its mission. By augmenting the services and programs you provide with an active voice for change, you can meet the need while working to affect the systems creating the need. Although it can seem daunting, advocacy programs complement and enhance the work you already accomplish. There is a range of ways for your nonprofit to create change in your community or state.

      When deciding which advocacy strategy is the best fit for your organization, consider these three approaches as a starting place:

      Voter engagement: Constituents of nonprofit organizations are often underrepresented at the ballot box even though they are directly impacted by changes in safety net programs, education cuts and health care eligibility measures, to name a few. Voter registration is a powerful way to ensure ballot issues and candidates for office reflect the values and vision of your organization. Not only can you increase the power of your voice, but it can be a great way to build relationships with politicians and ballot issue leaders through asking them to speak to your constituents about their platform or issue. Although 501(c)3 organizations cannot endorse or publicly support a candidate for office, you can (and should!) educate your constituents on how candidates’ positions affect your mission. A great resource for involving your nonprofit in voter engagement is Nonprofit VOTE.

      Grassroots advocacy: Once your constituents are informed on the issue affecting your mission, encourage them to tell others. Ask them to speak to local businesses, neighbors and others who share in the vision for your community and encourage them to support issues that benefit your organization. Taken one step further, you may want to offer your constituents an email or phone script to call their representatives to express their support or perspective on the issue. Through empowering your members, donors, clients and other constituents to make their voices heard by public officials, you are not only building the strength of your organization but also providing a valuable service to those who feel passionately about your mission. Speaking up as one individual can be intimidating, but speaking as one voice of many is an inspiring experience. Many states have a nonprofit participation project that can serve as your grassroots advocacy resource.

      Direct lobbying: The highest level of engagement in nonprofit advocacy (besides running for office– consider it!) involves working with the state or federal government to inform and influence policies. There are some limitations placed on the amount of resources 501(c)3 organizations can dedicate to direct lobbying. The Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest is a great resource. Direct lobbying may involve tracking bills and providing testimony in hearings. A staff member, board member or lobbyist may provide information or perspective on a bill through meetings with representatives or their staff. This is hugely valuable to those who represent us at the capitol, since legislators cannot possibly be fully informed on all the issues they weigh in on. Leaders of nonprofits are oftentimes uniquely informed on how a bill will affect their community. Sharing that insight through a fact sheet, one-on-one meetings or committee testimony can change the course of a conversation or give a bill the boost it needs to be successful.

      These three categories are not mutually exclusive. Through the promotion of a voter engagement campaign, you may hear stories from your constituents on how an issue affects them and decide to offer testimony to share those stories with legislators. While tracking the progress of a bill, it may benefit your organization to employ grassroots techniques to show those voting on the bill how those in their district feel. Regardless of how you engage and how often, there are a few basics your organization should have in place before starting to take action:

      1. Determine key goals, values and priorities to guide your work. What is the end result you are trying to achieve through engaging in advocacy? Clarifying priorities at the outset will help your board and staff determine which areas to invest the most resources. For instance, a children’s health-related nonprofit may have several areas of policy that directly affect their mission: poverty, education, healthcare policy. To what extent does the organization actively participate in all three? Your nonprofit’s leadership may decide that although bills related
      to health in school are important, you prioritize bills that affect primary care.

      2. Cultivate partners and build like-minded coalitions. Chances are there are other nonprofits in your community that have similar goals but different priorities. Building partnerships around overlapping issues can benefit all involved. Rather than actively promoting a bill or ballot issue in your constituency, you may offer your support to a partnering organization for which the bill is a top priority. When a priority issue directly affecting your mission surfaces, you can then ask your partners for the same level of support, demonstrating a stronger coalition of support than each organization can offer on its own. Although members of an advocacy coalition may disagree on an issue at times, the benefits of working together most often outweigh the obstacles. And when an issue directly affects many of the members of the coalition, the support and organization of the whole is a boon to the cause.

      3. Get ready to communicate. Don’t assume just because you’ve testified at the capitol or registered 2,000 voters that people are aware of your activities. Share your goals, successes and struggles with donors, institutional funders and the media. If possible, include updates and calls to action in newsletters and at staff and board meetings. Let those who support you know why what you’re doing is important. It encourages our communities to value nonprofit engagement in advocacy and most importantly, empowers others to take action.

      See also:

      Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World

      The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change

      Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits

      Level Best: How Small and Grassroots Nonprofits Can Tackle Evaluation and Talk Results



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      In session: Advocacy for the nonprofit leader

      This article is the first of a series on advocacy.

      As many state legislatures are about to convene or already have for 2012, it’s a good reminder for those of us who work in the social sector to roll up our advocacy sleeves and engage in the process. My friends at The Bell Policy Center tell me working at this level upstream can save an inordinate amount of time and resources downstream at the direct service level.

      For example, The Center worked with a broad coalition of 40 nonprofits to enact a payday lending law in 2010 and preserve it in 2011. These nonprofits provided critical support by enlisting the testimony of their clients who use payday loans. Thanks to the successful collective efforts of this coalition and The Center, they estimate that payday borrowers will save more than $52 million annually in loan charges, which will have a lasting effect on the low-income people served by this coalition and will reduce the demand for services.

      Nonprofit organizations are responsible for substantial economic and social impact. Of the 2 million+ organizations in the world, 1.5 million are in the U.S. alone. It’s imperative we observe best practices when participating in advocacy and demonstrate exemplary leadership in this arena.

      The following is an excerpt from the Principles & Practices for Nonprofit Excellence in Colorado, published by the Colorado Nonprofit Association, which focuses on advocacy, public policy and civic engagement — a useful reference for your own statewide advocacy endeavors.


      Advocacy is the active support of an idea or a cause. A nonprofit should advocate on behalf of its constituency, organization and the nonprofit sector as a whole in order to advance the mission of the organization. Involvement in advocacy, public policy and civic engagement will vary in sophistication dependent upon an organization’s mission and strategic direction. Nonprofits should encourage broad community participation in these efforts and, in the process, provide appropriate assistance when needed. These practices pertain only to nonpartisan public policy issues.

      When a nonprofit advocates for or against specific pending legislation or ballot issues, federal and state lobbying rules apply. Lobbying activities are permitted but a nonprofit must not violate the prohibition on endorsing a candidate or elected official and must stay within regulatory limits on activities that meet the definition of lobbying. By knowing and observing these rules, nonprofits may legally include lobbying activities directed at specific legislation or ballot issues in their advocacy efforts.

      Practices for advocacy and engagement

      1.       Proactive approach – A nonprofit should proactively develop specific strategies to address key issues facing the organization, its constituency, and the charitable sector and should include its stakeholders in those efforts.

      2.       Stakeholders as advocates – A nonprofit should encourage board members, staff, volunteers, and constituents to act as advocates and ambassadors for the organization and the entire charitable nonprofit sector.

      3.       Inform stakeholders – A nonprofit should ensure that individuals who act as advocates and ambassadors for their organizations are knowledgeable about the programs and activities of the organization and prepared to speak on its behalf when appropriate.

      4.       Communications – A nonprofit should ensure that information provided about or emanating from their organizations is timely and accurate and that the social and political context of the information is clear. Information provided by the organization to the general public, the media, and policy makers becomes a matter of public record and these activities may be subject to lobbying limitations and political campaign prohibitions.

      5.       Public policy and advocacy plans – If engaged in public policy and/or advocacy activities, a nonprofit should adopt a written policy that clarifies the scope of the work, as well as the time and resources to be allocated to those activities, including clear guidelines that explain and adhere to the limits on lobbying activity and prohibit political campaign activity.

      6.       Relationship building – A nonprofit should build relationships with elected officials, community leaders, and other nonprofits in order to strengthen its ability to affect community change and impact public policy. However, these relationships should be carefully scrutinized to ensure there is no express or implied endorsement of a candidate for public office or attempt to influence legislation outside the permissible limit.

      7.       Education – A nonprofit should provide board, staff, stakeholders, and the public with nonpartisan resources and training on issues important to it or its constituencies.

      8.       Public forums – A nonprofit organization whose constituencies are affected by government actions should conduct public forums for nonpartisan discussions or provide venues for constituents to express concern about the effects of various policy choices.

      9.       Nonpartisan activities – A nonprofit engaged in promoting public participation in federal, state and local policy must ensure that the activities of the organization are educational in nature or within permissible lobbying limitations (IRC 501(c)(3) and 501(h); 990).

      10.   Promote civic engagement – A nonprofit should encourage citizen participation in local, state and federal policy-making efforts amongst its stakeholders.

      In one of the Page to Practice™ book summaries I’ve recommended below, Do More Than Give: Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World, the authors argue that today’s growing complex issues require a new donor asset they call adaptive leadership. What’s more, the author’s research revealed these new adaptive donors embrace their recipients as equals, so they can advance real systemwide change. Catalytic donors have the opportunity to exemplify adaptive leadership because they have something to give beyond financial support. Political clout, community contacts and business savvy are among them. It’s up to you to diversify how your donors participate with your organization.

      As you reflect on these 10 practices above, notice how many involve the engagement of the catalytic donor. Whom among your immediate nonprofit community could be tapped for their influence or connections related to advocacy? It’s time to take a page out of Do More Than Give and create partnerships with donors who can help you influence and accelerate your goals. Public policy might be a great place to start.

      See also:

      One-Hour Activist

      Social Change Any Time Everywhere

      Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World

      Special thanks to the Colorado Nonprofit Association for its permission to excerpt Principles & Practices for Nonprofit Excellence in Colorado.

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      Going upstream: Engaging nonprofits in public policy issues

      Suppose there is a river with a strong current that washes people downstream if they fall into it.  Upstream is an old bridge with broken railings.  You could spend a lot of time and effort pulling everyone who falls into the river to shore.  Or you could fix the railings so that fewer people fall into the river in the first place.

      Pulling people out of the river, which is absolutely critical, is similar to what many nonprofits that provide direct services do.  Fixing the railings so that fewer people fall into the river in the first place is analogous to enacting more effective public policies.

      Merle Chambers, a noted Denver philanthropist, uses this simple example to illustrate the importance of going upstream to change public policy as a way of addressing community problems.

      Public policies often have a significant effect on the lives of many of nonprofit clients and the resulting demand for services nonprofits provide. With their unique insights and knowledge about how current policies are working, nonprofit organizations can help craft more effective policy solutions to improve the lives of their clients and, in the process, enrich the policy debate.

      Yet many nonprofits shy away from getting involved in the public policy process. Oftentimes this is due to the controversial nature of public policy debates and the complicated and messy process of setting public policy. However, if approached with care and solid planning, nonprofit organizations can successfully navigate the public policy process while avoiding most of the downside risks.

      Over the past four years, the Bell Policy Center has had the opportunity to work with a broad coalition of groups to change the public policy around payday loans.  This coalition included more than 40 nonprofit organizations, including the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Colorado Catholic Conference, Habitat for Humanity and The Gathering Place.  These groups serve many low-income Coloradans – the primary customers for payday lenders.  Actions taken by the nonprofit groups to support the legislation including their clients testifying were critical in enacting these policy changes.

      As a result of the payday lending law enacted in 2010 and preserved in 2011, we estimate that payday borrowers will save $52 million per year in loan charges.  These savings will have a broad and lasting effect on the low-income people served by the coalition’s members and will reduce the demand for many of the services they offer.

      While the payday lending legislation is an example of a positive outcome with a big payoff, nonprofit organizations need to be aware of the risks involved in engaging in public policy debates.  First, public policy issues can be controversial and result in push back or negative reactions from donors and supporters.  It is possible that people may come to see the nonprofit in a different light – instead of being viewed as a friendly soup kitchen, the organization could be perceived as just another “special-interest group” down at the capitol fighting over funding.  Taking stands on public policy issues could win supporters, but it also could turn others off.

      Second, effectively engaging in policy making requires time and resources.  Identifying, understanding and deciding which issues to engage in requires staff, board and volunteer time.  Taking action such as writing letters, calling lawmakers, monitoring the status of issues takes additional time.  Nonprofits might have to develop or enlist new expertise, such as someone to testify at the legislature or lobby policymakers.  If issues are not selected with care or if policies adopted are ineffective, the time spent could be viewed as wasted.

      However, if chosen wisely and carried out effectively, efforts to change public policy can have an impact far beyond what nonprofits might accomplish through direct services.  Said another way, by taking steps to fix the bridge, you often can help far more people than can be fished out of the river.
      In addition, by engaging in highly visible public policy issues related to their mission, nonprofits can gain new supporters and help the broader community work to solve problems.

      In terms of the public policy process, nonprofit groups bring real-world experience in how policies affect their clients.  Legislators, for example, always want to know how programs are “really” working and what can be done to improve them. Many times, nonprofits can involve their clients in the policy making process – allowing people in need to join the discussion.  These actions enrich the debate and provide policymakers with a wider range of viewpoints and information they can use in shaping policies.

      The following actions can help nonprofit organizations more effectively engage in public policy issues:

      1. Examine thoroughly the costs and benefits of engaging in public policy issues and proceed forward only with broad-based support from the organization’s donors, board members and staff. It is important that donors and others are comfortable with the organization’s involvement with public policy issues.

      2. Know what you can do as a nonprofit in terms of public policy advocacy and scrupulously adhere to these rules.  The Colorado Nonprofit Association provides excellent materials and training on public policy advocacy that clearly lay out the legal guidelines.

      3. Determine which types of public policy issues to engage in.  For example, an organization might limit its involvement to those issues that directly affect its clients and its ability to fulfill the organization’s mission.

      4. Use board members and senior staff to assess public policy issues including identifying your positions on them and the actions you will take in response and report this information regularly to your board.

      5. Require super majority approval by the board before deciding to engage in a public policy issue. This ensures that the organization weighs in on matters only where is there is broad agreement among your major supporters.

      6. Participate in coalitions or join other groups that work with similar clients or face similar policy challenges. This can help reduce the time and costs of assessing issues, plus it can expand your reach and influence.

      7. Identify a current supporter or donor that has expertise in the public policy process, such as a lawyer or lobbyist, who would be willing to provide their service as an in-kind donation.

      8. Engage clients in the public policy process by eliciting their views on how current policies affect them and how they would like to see the policies changed.  Hosting tours of your facilities, having clients talk with lawmakers and even having clients testify before legislative committees are powerful ways of getting your message across to policymakers.

      By working to improve public policies, nonprofit organizations can significantly help the people they serve and improve the overall quality of life in Colorado. If we can fix the bridge, there will be fewer people to fish out of the river.

      See also:

      The One-Hour Activist

      Forces for Good

      Do More Than Give

      Image credit: Kimberly Kingsley



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      Taking risks for the public good

      Earlier this summer, Pablo Eisenberg shared his thoughts in his article, “The State of the Nonprofit Sector.” There are many gems to contemplate and wrestle with, but my favorite portion of the article comes toward the end:

      The heads of many, if not most, of our nonprofit organizations, large or small, traditional or non-traditional, seem afraid to speak out publicly on important public issues, go on the record with their positions, confront controversial problems or critique their weak or unethical colleagues and failing organizations. Their timidity would be laughable were it not so damaging to a sector that begs for vision, introspection, intellectual rigor and integrity. We appear to have socialized a large group of nonprofit executives more interested in promoting their own careers and turf, in being collegial to a fault and in avoiding all risks than in pursuing what is best for the field and the public.

      I love this paragraph. As I’ve tried it on for size, I’ve thought about how I might reframe this sentiment. Not that Pablo Eisenberg’s work needs a reframe, but as an exercise: if I’m talking to someone like me who aims to be a visionary but harbors fears of being complacent, how might I approach this? I understand how nonprofit leaders can get distracted by the many onerous tasks of keeping an organization alive and kicking. In addition to managing relationships with a Board, staff, and the community, the pressures of constant fundraising, strategic alignment, and fiscal management can be overwhelming. When a nonprofit leader has managed to successfully balance all those demands, it is a huge accomplishment and should be celebrated. But sometimes nonprofit organizations can achieve all those things without giving enough consideration to one thing missing from the list: is the organization pursuing what is best for the public good?

      It’s difficult to pull away and look critically at the organizations we lead. We sink so much of ourselves into building and growing a cause-based business. I don’t think most of the nonprofit executives Eisenberg refers to are being selfish or self-aggrandizing, but I do think there is a temptation to feel a sense of achievement by landing a powerful position at a reputable nonprofit. Not only are people in these positions sometimes afforded the opportunity to enjoy some well-deserved perks, but they can do so feeling that they are still making a difference in the world. The sector can be alluring that way. And we can become confused about the difference between working for a nonprofit and doing what is best for the field and the public. They are not the same thing, although the trappings of the sector sometimes lead us to believe they are.

      Becoming the Executive Director of a nonprofit is not the goal. Working at a foundation is not the goal. Effecting the kind of change we want to see in the world is the goal, and that doesn’t happen without conflict, tension and risk.

      We know nonprofit engagement in advocacy is dismally low: Eisenberg states only about 1% are involved in legislative advocacy. The top reasons nonprofits don’t engage include a misunderstanding of the rules around 501c3 lobbying, and the definitions of advocacy and constituent education can be complicated and intimidating.

      But another big reason nonprofits are hesitant to be advocates is a fear of upsetting the people who help them on all those onerous tasks: Board members, volunteers, foundation funders, individual donors and other kinds of resources. Fundraising is a competitive, demanding, never-ending marathon, and once you’ve figured out how to make it work, you don’t want to risk anything that would harm that success. But declining to speak up out of fear for your organization’s bottom line or your career security or a reprimand from a powerful person is harmful. It’s undercutting the very reason we set out to do this work. Nonprofits represent the needs and interests of some of the most vulnerable populations in our community. These are the populations that often get attention on the campaign stump, only to be forgotten after the ballots are cast. They are sometimes misunderstood and marginalized and have accepted that their positions in our society are viewed as less important than the interests represented by so many lobbyists on Capitol Hill. We are hurting our cause if we don’t speak up for them, not only to policy makers, but to the people in our own sector. We have to speak up about what is working and what isn’t working and not wait until we have the opportunity to fill out an anonymous survey. If we put the needs of our organization above the needs of the public we claim to serve, we are hurting our cause.

      In this economic climate, most nonprofits are dealing with too few resources to meet an increased demand. It’s understandable that nonprofit leaders may feel risk-averse in order to seek stability for their organization. But as Joseph Campbell suggests, “Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.” Now, not despite these challenges but because of them, it is important to speak up for the needs of our sector and our communities.

      See also:

      The One-Hour Activist

      Charity Case

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