What should be on our legislative agenda?

It’s the time of year when nonprofit organizations should be turning to their legislative agendas, preparing the documents that will state to their public, their staff, and their elected official targets what priorities they will pursue for the coming legislative session. Legislative agendas, as a product, serve several purposes:

  • Communicate to policymakers who are interested in your organization’s legislative priorities–they might want to express support for other issues that are of concern to you as well, or, if you are in opposition on one issue, you might find another on which you can collaborate
  • Outline the parameters for your advocates’ energies, especially when you will run multiple campaigns simultaneously
  • Explain to potential allies the limits of your organization’s advocacy, which can be helpful when you are asked to divert attention to other matters
  • Serve as a tool for dialogue with donors, volunteers, and staff members who have questions about what the agency’s advocacy will look like
  • Provide important background information for press packets and legislative visit materials, putting your lobbying in context and illustrating connections among your issues

    Viewing legislative agendas as a product, though, is a mistake, because they are actually far more valuable as a process. I have worked with nonprofit organizations whose legislative agendas are developed by one person, working in isolation, and I have been around organizations who do lobbying without the aid of any formal agenda at all. I have encountered organizations whose legislative agendas are prepared months and months before the start of the session, when they can’t possibly have good intelligence about what the opportunities might be, and I have seen organizations whose agendas are not finalized until weeks after the session starts, rendering them virtually irrelevant.

    So what should this process look like, and how can organizations arrive at legislative agendas that are, as they should be, helpful tools around which to organize their advocacy? I have prepared eight different legislative agendas for three different organizations where I have worked, and I have also assisted numerous other organizations in drafting or refining their agendas. Each organization’s process, and, of course, product is different, as they should be, but here are some general guidelines for success. Let the process begin!

  • Involve your key stakeholders in the development of the agenda, but don’t attempt to solicit everyone’s opinion; you’ll always leave someone out, and it can be paralyzing to try to bring all of those views together. Your precise list of stakeholders will be determined by your organization’s structure and culture, but you will likely want to include some members of your Board of Directors (trust me, they don’t like surprises on the legislative agenda!), staff leadership, some direct service staff (they often have the best ideas about relatively manageable legislative changes that will impact the lives of those you serve), and your client population/grassroots leadership. It can be a fairly small group; I’ve found that about 6-10 people works well, or, if you have a large organization and a lot of people to include, break into subcommittees to deal with each policy area.
  • Be creative about this process; it can be a terrific way to involve more people in your work. At El Centro, Inc. I hosted a public meeting every fall (around now) to provide updates on what we expected in the coming year with Congress and the Kansas Legislature and to invite people to participate in ranking our priorities and offering other issues for consideration. We held it in a large gymnasium, and about 200 people came usually. We broke into smaller groups, and people had colored dots they could use to ‘vote’ on key priorities. I was able to incorporate this into the draft agenda and then share with the Board, elected officials, and our staff that the agenda we were contemplating had been shaped by people we serve. I also held roundtables with our direct service staff to get their opinion and to provide information about how the legislative process works. Sometimes this was challenging, especially with our childcare staff, but we learned to talk quietly during naptime at the centers!
  • The people helping to craft the agenda need to understand what the agency’s process is for making the ultimate decision, so that they don’t feel unduly cheated if the product changes. In most organizations, the Board of Directors has final approval of the legislative agenda.
  • To facilitate the process, it’s often helpful to prepare a draft based on your expert information regarding the political climate in your jurisdiction, other agencies’ priorities (because you might want to partner with them or you might want to avoid overlap), and your capacity to take on issue campaigns. Then, your team can make changes, add items that were omitted, and veto items that they think don’t belong.
  • If you have more than about 3-4 issues on your agenda, unless you have a large advocacy staff (lucky you!), you need some sense of prioritization. On some issues, your organization might be the sole or primary voice; on others, you’ll be part of a coalition; and on others, you might just be lending your name or reputation to someone else’s campaign. These priorities need to be fluid, though, because you need to respond to political openings as the session moves forward.
  • Likewise, you need a process that is nimble enough to allow you to respond to requests for positions as the session unfolds. At El Centro, Inc., our Board approved the legislative agenda, and I had full authority to take positions on legislation that were consistent with those priorities. Once the agenda was approved, though, if I wanted to work on any legislation beyond that list, I needed the approval of the President/CEO and a majority of the Executive Committee of the Board (by phone or email), with the full Board receiving an update at the next regular meeting. In practice, this allowed me to respond to requests for endorsements or testimony within about 6 hours at the most, which worked pretty well.
  • You will want to think through your process for making your legislative agenda public. Obviously you’ll want it on your website and in your lobbying materials, but some organizations hold a press conference or release them to the media in some way; others have a special meeting with legislators or their community; others include them in a donor mailing. At El Centro, Inc., we made copies available in English and Spanish through all of our locations and programs and also included them in the last policy newsletter for the year, so that the grassroots leaders and clients not involved in the development process had a chance to comment on them.
  • Keep your mission foremost in your mind while developing your agenda. It is a sad fact of life that there is no shortage of social justice issues on which we could take a stand. It’s also true that you will burn yourself out, and burn through all of your credibility, if you attempt to advocate on all of them. Instead, you need to focus on those issues that are meaningfully connected with the work you do and where you have some legitimate chance to make change. This requires an analysis of how policy advocacy layers on top of your program work and how the politics line up for your agency. Some examples: an organization that provides childcare to low-income families might care a lot about HIV/AIDS, but, unless it affects a lot of their families, they might focus their advocacy energies on childcare subsidies and early childhood education instead; an agency whose Board Chair is neighbors with the State Insurance Commissioner might add a priority around health care, given this relationship; and a public housing complex for older adults might decide to focus on a state housing trust fund if there are several other aging advocates doing good work in the state.

    If your organization has adopted a legislative agenda, I’d love to see it! What tips do you have to share from past years? If you’re just beginning this process, what questions do you have?

    El Centro, Inc.’s 2007 Legislative Agenda

  • 16 responses to “What should be on our legislative agenda?

    1. After reading this blog post it made me curious to know if my agency has specific policies regarding legislative advocacy, besides what’s presented on their website. Within the administrative manual there is a section about the agency’s advocacy philosophy, advocacy agenda, issue assessment, advocacy planning, civic engagement, partnerships and collaborations, and advocacy activities and interventions. The agency selects advocacy priorities based on the principles; does this legislation serve the agency’s mission to protect and promote the well-being of children, does it keep children safe, does it make families strong, and does it promote community involvement and awareness. Unbeknownst to me, the manual states that advocacy issues may be identified at any level of the organization and advanced to the attention of managers. I believe that this would allow for me to monitor any issues that are important to me and recommend that this be part of the advocacy agenda. The greatest barrier when presenting these issues to the agency is getting support and “buy-in” from the Executive Team, the Community Leadership and Development Council, and the Board. After approval from these entities, I believe the agency has appropriate procedures for advocacy legislation and monitoring any issues that may arise during the legislative session (procedures are similar to what you’ve described). Although, for legislative change to take place I think that the agency should do a better job of utilizing media and messaging to educate constituents on the issues that the agency is or isn’t supporting. A larger media presence may allow for a greater population to be educated about issues or policies that may directly affect them. I believe that legislative advocacy is the greatest way to promote change among a population that affects not one person, but a whole population. Our agency’s legislative advocacy helps to benefit the children and families in our community.

      • Are there issues that you think the organization should include in its legislative agenda, Mallory? If so, what would be the best ways for you to approach the decision-makers to get this buy-in? It sounds like your advocacy principles serve you well…are there ways that you can appeal to those same principles to push for the greater transparency and participation that you desire?

    2. I feel, and have felt for years, that the real change I’ve been looking for can only come from the legislature. I know, logically, this isn’t necessarily true, but I feel it would be permanent, in a way that other changes just might not be (again, I recognize this isn’t necessarily the case). I very much want to be the advocate who is persuading folks based on reason and evidence that certain programs work or don’t, or that certain policies aimed at helping the middle class and poor actually do the opposite. The promise of change in the legislative arena is huge, broad, life changing policy. The pitfalls are wasted resources on a failed bill, the feeling of burnout and hopelessness, talking to a person diametrically opposed to your goals and gridlock. All of those pale in comparison to the hope and possibilities of legislative change.
      The skills needed for legislative change are many, but primarily identifying needs, identifying partners in the cause, ability to develop personal relationships and be civil with everyone, including (perhaps especially) those diametrically opposed. Other skills needed are strategy formation, fundraising, and community organization.
      I am passionate about a whole slew of issues. Specific policy changes I would like to see would be to allow the EPA to actually regulate pollution/CO2 emissions to protect the environment. Increase support and treatment for those with substance abuse issues, not incarcerate them. Progressive tax codes to tax those individuals with high incomes to support programs that benefit those with low incomes. Increasing restrictions on fossil fuel energy and incentivizing the use of green energy. Legalization of same sex marriage across the country.
      Organizing is the most effective way of moving legislation. Though 61% of Americans now support marriage equality, the supreme court is still considering not granting marriage equality. This is absurd. With a well organized group of people letting the supreme court know what they think, this would and could be a non issue. Letters to policy makers, online advocacy, in person advocacy and at the core of it all, simple discussion of the topics can move people to act and persuade others to at least see the other side of the argument.

    3. Those changes would require legislative change, for sure…but what changes would help you get there, too, along the lines of the interim indicators we talked about in class? I think those measures will be essential, if you’re going to keep from feeling burned out, in the meantime, and instead sustain yourself for the (very) long journeys ahead. What types of activities can you see yourself doing, in order to generate pressure on those who, in turn, could change the laws you care about? What’s your lever, in other words?

    4. Since, I am beginning to prepare to embark on my advocacy journey, my questions include: For an infant organization, providing services for newly released offenders, am I close in considering work to increase housing options for those with blemishes on their criminal record? Could possible allies be homelessness serving organizations? Parole officers? When working with a non-profit daycare (sliding fee), should increased early childhood funding me my advocacy focus? Or maybe to increase attention to children’s savings accounts, since I hope to implement some level of early college savings for the children? Do you have any suggestions for targets? What about allies.

      • Your targets will flow pretty naturally from the selection of agenda items, because you’ll focus on whoever has the authority to make the changes you want. The question, then, is what those are! It depends on what your priority is. If you want to use policy to shore up your organization’s foundation, then something like early childhood funding probably makes a lot of sense, if you’ll try to draw those dollars. If you are more interested in root causes (I have a post on this re: balancing urgent fires and slow burns, or something like that), then looking at anti-poverty approaches, in this case, would be a better fit. Have you done a needs assessment looking at the concerns facing newly-released offenders? Do you feel that you have a good sense of the landscape, in terms of what other organizations are working on, what changes could have the greatest impact, and what might be some easy ‘low-hanging fruit’ you could tackle? Your allies are sometimes found through sort of trial and error. When you’ve decided what you want to work on, think about the organizations that might share those interests and/or have a connection to the policymakers you’ll target…and then see if they would be willing to join forces. Finding good allies is sometimes even more elusive, so you may find that you have some false starts as you figure out who will really be the authentic partners you need.

    5. While reading your post I was thinking of the Alzheimer’s Association and their legislative agenda. They have their agenda clearly posted on their national web page but this post got me curious as to what their process is and if it is similar to the process you spoke of at El Centro. I would imagine it would be a bit different given the size of the organization but I wonder if they have a national legislative agenda and then each chapter has separate legislative agendas for each region or state?

    6. No, El Centro doesn’t have a national arm, but they are affiliated with National Council of La Raza, so they do partner some with NCLR in coming up with their legislative priorities, particularly on those issues that are federal, since the organization has only limited capacity to engage with Congress.

    7. Victoria Stracke

      I appreciated this post because it highlighted a lot of the questions that I had previously. Currently, I work at an agency that has a public policy guide (including where they stand on the issues) but does not participate in any activities to defend/push policy changes. Pushing our staff and board to be more active when it comes to influencing policy is something I would like to take up when I start full-time in May. I think the right place to start would be to explore the reasons why our staff or board are hesitant to become more involved (whether it’s fear of donors opinions, or legal concerns, etc.). After determining the barriers, I think it would be much easier to begin breaking down those fears and then pushing people in small ways to work toward policy change.

      As a side note, I particularly liked your example of how you worked with a large group of clients at El Centro to determine policy priorities through the use of colored stickers. I imagine how, in addition to deciding policy, this activity could be used to determine what services a community finds to be the most helpful or useful, or figuring out where gaps in services may exist, etc.

    8. What will your full-time role be, Victoria? Do you know what support the leadership will give to your aims of using your position/time to advance engagement in advocacy? I wonder, too, if there might not be more sort of ‘ad hoc’ advocacy going on, by staff and clients, than the organization might even be aware of. At least, in keeping with the other comment about not making assumptions, I wonder if you might not start by asking people what their exposure to and involvement in advocacy has been, what issues they care about most (which may or may not be what’s on your agenda!), and, then the questions that you outline about what they’ll need in order to step into a more active stance. I look forward to seeing what’s next for you!

    9. Christina Cowart

      This post was really helpful in outlining strategies for creating a legislative agenda. I have worked in organizations that don’t put much emphasis on the process of creating a legislative agenda and I believe this can impact the effectiveness of the organization’s advocacy and lobbying strategies during legislative sessions. I appreciate your point about organizations being clear about their advocacy capacity up front. I have personally worked with organizations who agree to be a coalition member, and when it comes time to ask for a specific action during the session, they reported that they didn’t have the organizational capacity to do so. This left us scrambling in the middle of legislative session to organize testimony around a bill. For me, this was a lesson in asking more specific questions about what they see as their role in being a coalition member. I certainly think that the process of creating a legislative agenda can prevent some headaches in the middle of legislative session and leave organizations better equipped to tackle their goals.

    10. The opposite can happen, too, Christina, when organizations hold onto their capacity, refusing to expend it, pretending that they have less than they do. Coalitions need a lot of clarity around each member’s role, how they will complement each other, and what the collective strategy is. That takes a lot of work up front, but it’s essential.

    11. The point that stood out to me was the indication regarding fluidity. My privilege of being at the ACLU taught me the importance of being flexible and rolling with changes. For example, because the comprehensive voting rights bill we wanted never even got heard in committee, effort was put into adding pieces of it as an amendment to other bills. This was really only possible through the hard work of our policy director, but it also helped myself and the constituency feel that we could still have an impact in the 2018 session. It helped to have a broad, lofty goal of comprehensive voting rights with several target priorities beneath it, but with flexible strategies.

      Additionally, it was interesting to hear about the process regarding endorsements and requests for testimony. Without someone physically being at the statehouse when things are unfolding, I imagine this would be very challenging for many organizations, but I think it’s important. Not only for the sake of an organization’s advocacy agenda, but also in showing integrity to community partners and the target populations.

    12. Does the ACLU have someone present at the legislature frequently, to collect that intelligence and funnel the information back to other decision makers? Or how do you find out what you need to know? I’m so glad that your practicum experience was a positive one!

    13. This is an incredibly helpful post. My practicum sort of has a legislative agenda, and sort of doesn’t. I recently attended a meeting of its legislative committee that was very informative, but it lacked in much of any plan of action. I left with the impression that this local agency relies on their legislative liaison from their state office to do everything, while they simply stay informed so they can prepare for the inevitable legislative change. While there certainly is benefit in simply doing this, the activist in me wishes they would do more.

      Perhaps these guidelines would help this agency to lay out an agenda towards what they want to accomplish with current legislation. Instead of simply reacting to what goes on in the legislature, they could decide on what they are best able to focus and address that would help pursue the agency mission.

    14. Absolutely, Ruth–if all we’re doing is watching for what’s going to be done to us, the best we can hope for is ‘not that much’ or ‘not that bad’. If we’re also advancing a vision of the policy we want to see, not only does more become possible, but we also increase our chances of successful defense, because we’re actively reshaping the agenda. I start my consulting with organizations, in many cases, with helping them craft an advocacy agenda.

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