Category Archives: Questions you’re embarrassed to ask

What are talking points?

If you look at very many advocacy documents for nonprofit organizations, you’ll see all kinds of things labeled, ‘talking points.’ Some of them are really fact sheets, some are really abbreviated policy briefs, some are myth/fact summaries, some are endorsements. All of these things can play a valuable role in an advocacy campaign, but that does not make all of them talking points.

In essence, talking points are those messages that you want advocates to really USE when they’re lobbying on behalf of your issue/legislation. They are tailored to the specific audience (so you might have some for media and some slightly different ones for legislative targets, and maybe even different ones for potential allies). They are designed to persuade, not simply (or even primarily) to inform; that’s what you use policy briefs and fact sheets for (although those, too, should be persuasive–otherwise, why bother?). They can be longer than a policy brief, but they must be shorter than a background paper or full legislative analysis. Importantly, they are not designed to be just handed over to your targets, but, instead, used to guide lobbying communications–that’s why they’re called talking points. In some cases, you don’t even want them to be public, because they include guidance to your advocates that reveal weaknesses in some of your arguments (such as advising people not to respond to xyz question, because it’s a no-win for your side) or direct people to which compromises you’d be willing to accept.

I’m not the world’s greatest talking points writer. I have a fondness for words (shocking, hunh?) that is not my friend in trying to prepare very concise talking points. So, I’ve tried to pull together, in the links below, some examples that I think are pretty good, to give you an idea of what talking points look like. To find these, I also looked at dozens of ‘talking points’ that were way too long, way too detailed, had graphics/charts (which, obviously, can’t be conveyed very well orally), and were, in other ways, potentially excellent tools but not really talking points. In one case, I found the script for a DHHS official’s speech, labeled, ‘talking points’ (hopefully we don’t need to be prompted by our talking points to say, ‘good morning!’).

I would be happy to look at your talking points, since they really are an important tool in equipping your lobbying team for successful interactions, and to offer feedback. And if you now realize that your talking points really aren’t, don’t despair. There’s a good chance that, with just a little tweaking, they can easily become another type of document that you need for lobbying, also!

Georgia AFL-CIO Talking Points on Opposing Trade Policy in Colombia

Audobon Society Talking Points on Global Warming

Drummajor Institute’s Talking Points on Immigration


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

  • Conditions, Problems, and Issues–Oh My!

    There’s often a point during the semester when my students look at me like I’m crazy (OK, so there may be more than one such point, but this is a specific one)–when they tell me the social problem that they want to address in a particular assignment, and I ask them if that’s really a social problem.

    Blank stare and open mouth

    Of course it’s a problem, they reply. It makes my clients’ lives difficult/unfair/fill-in-the-blank. What are you talking about?

    Thus begins a very necessary conversation about the difference between social conditions, social problems, and the kinds of issues around which we can really organize. Understanding this difference is part of what makes a policy analyst able to frame concerns so that they become part of the policy agenda. It’s also what helps an organizer to pitch issues in such a way that they resonate with potential activists and become victories for the organization.

    So, then, what makes a social condition a ‘problem’? The first step is what my students and I experience in class–the realization that not all social conditions, even those that are, to us, obviously problematic, become defined as social problems. I often use a definition from Donald Chambers’ textbook here: social problems are “concerns about the quality of life for large groups of people that are either held as a broad consensus among a population or voiced by social and economic elites” (Chambers, 2000). This definition provides some important insights into how advocates translate a social condition into a problem that warrants/demands action. We must either demonstrate that large numbers of people are affected; convince elites to champion the problem; and/or influence public opinion such that a consensus develops that action is needed (or appearance of such consensus). Our organizing, direct action, research, media work, and lobbying are all strategies that can be used to achieve this shift in perception.

    Some examples that I use to illustrate these points in class:

  • For years, racial discrimination not seen as a ‘problem’ in U.S. society (because elites and, indeed, much of the public, was unconvinced that it was problematic)
  • Income inequality still is not considered a problem in the United States–we may be concerned about poverty on the low end, but the existence of tremendous wealth has traditionally not been considered a problem, but just a condition (although the current recession may be altering this somewhat)
  • Tax burdens have been framed as a social problem even when, objectively, the U.S. has a far lower tax ratio than most developed nations (elites perceive this as a problem and have advanced a social problem frame that convinces many in the public as well)

    So, then, once you’ve established that you are, indeed, working with a social problem, how do you move from that to an issue that will work in an organizing or policy advocacy context?

    Issues have, implicit within their framing, a specific solution to a specific social problem. A quote that I use from one of our readings: “Issues establish the boundaries of the power struggle. They are the battleground for increased power, and concern for the issues creates the need for power” (Mondros and Wilson, 1994). I have modified some of the Bobo text’s content on evaluating issues to help students figure out how to ‘cut’ their social problem into one or more issues that can work for an advocacy/organizing campaign.

    1. Will addressing the issue result in real improvement in people’s lives?
    Without a sense of self-interest, only the most altruistic will get involved, their involvement will be less tangible, and their voices will not be as powerful.
    2. Does working on the issue give people a sense of their own power?
    If the issue is not one that transforms people’s lives, then you will have nothing if you lose. If the process is empowering, then there are victories even when the issue itself is not successful. This can be difficult for professional social workers, who like to solve people’s problems, and who often have relationships and resources (access to experts, grants, etc…) that could shortcut the long and difficult change process.

    3. Is the issue winnable? This, of course, requires an analysis not only of the issue, but also of the political/economic/social climate and of your organization’s own power. This does NOT mean that it has to be an easy victory, but if it is evident to all involved, from the beginning, that you are fighting an impossible fight, there will be little motivation for anyone to ally him/herself with you.

    4. Is the issue widely and deeply felt?
    Sometimes, in trying to find something that has broad appeal, we fail to identify an issue that people really care enough about. You’re not going to convince everyone that they need to be part of your campaign, and that shouldn’t be your goal. On the other hand, if your issue only resonates with a very small group of people, those people will need to be very mobilized and/or very powerful for your campaign to succeed.

    5. Is the issue easy to understand (or to frame so that it is easy to understand)?
    If you can’t say, in fewer than 15 seconds, exactly what the problem is and what you want changed, you need to sit down and rework your issue. This isn’t about soundbites; it’s about accessibility.

    6. Do you have a clear target (or more than one, but clearly defined and focused)?
    It should be clear exactly who needs to do what in order for the problem to get better (otherwise, there’s no one to hold accountable for failing to act and you won’t be able to organize good actions). If you respond, “society” or “corporate America” or “the government” when asked who’s responsible for the perpetuation of your issue, then you need a new issue or a new understanding of your issue.

    7. Do you have a clear time frame that works for your organizational and community needs?
    I tell my students all the time–there are, unfortunately, enough pressing issues for us to be a bit ‘choosy’ when it comes to deciding on campaigns. If a particular issue will come to a head at a time that is consistent with your organizational imperatives, it’s OK to choose that over another issue, as long as it is equally resonant with your grassroots leadership and affected constituency.

    8. Bobo asks organizers to pursue an issue that is non-divisive, but I think that there is a place for issues that are divisive in the ways desired by the organizers or organization. You don’t want an issue that will split your core constituency, but sometimes it is in your strategic interest to choose an issue that will divide people in such a way that your core population coalesces and begins to see themselves as more of a community. Relationships are everything in organizing—so consider how this issue builds relationships among constituencies whose self-interest you see as tied, and whose partnership you see as essential to your goals.

    9. Does the issue meet other key needs for this stage of your organization/strategy? Do you need to recruit members from a specific constituency? Raise money? Build a base in a different geography? Issues are the grease that keeps organizations bringing in new members, generating new attention, and building forward and upward, so choose your issues with an eye towards where your organization wants to go.

    10. Does it build leadership and set you up for the next campaign?
    There is no shortage of issues, so you need to always be thinking ahead, even while focusing on this campaign—assuming you win this one, what will you tackle next? Or, if that’s unclear, how will this campaign strengthen your leaders and organization so that you are better equipped to win whatever fight you choose next?

    If you feel that your initial take on the issue fails on some of the above criteria, do not despair. The same problem, cut differently, can make multiple good issues, or can fail to translate into an issue that will resonate and provide the foundation for a good campaign, so you don’t necessarily have to abandon your emphasis on this particular social problem, but you might want to revisit how you have parsed it.

    The process of cutting the issue must, obviously, be done collaboratively with those affected and those who will be responsible for moving your campaign (no one wants to fight someone else’s fight!). Once you have defined your issue, you must stick with that definition unless/until you make a strategic decision to change course (any inconsistencies in target, demand, or scope will open opportunities for evasion and denial by your opponents). You may run a campaign with multiple issues simultaneously, direct different issues at different targets, and involve different constituencies in different slices. An organization that I think does this well is Jobs with Justice. Their core social problem relates to poor working conditions in the United States. They address this problem with dozens of issues (see ‘campaigns’), related to right to organize, immigrant workers’ rights, minimum wage, living wage ordinances, health care benefits, corporate-driven globalization, corporate accountability, and economic development. From these issues come their strategies, which are highly context-driven, but the end result is (while not perfectly) fairly cohesive and quite remarkably effective.

    Some examples that we use in class (I’d love to see other examples, as I’m always trying to enhance what I can present to make this come alive):

  • ‘Poverty’ is a social problem, while ‘poverty-level wages for full-time workers at Wal-Mart’ is an issue, as is ‘inadequate child support guarantees for single-parent families’, or ‘decimation of General Assistance grants for single adults with mental illness’
  • ‘Hunger’ is a social problem, while ‘inadequate levels of Food Stamp benefits for two-parent families with children’ or ‘imminent closure of the only local food pantry’ is an issue
  • ‘Racism’ is a social problem, while ‘City Hall’s failure to hire minorities for professional positions in levels that correspond with their percentage of the population’ is an issue

    What social problems are driving your organizing and advocacy work today? What issues have you cut from them? Is your campaign struggling with this right now? Do you have other examples of social conditions that are not seen as problematic in our society? How can instructors present this content to be most applicable to student organizing and advocacy work?

  • What’s on the agenda?

    Social workers are often guilty of believing that what we think is critically important is, therefore, necessarily foremost in the minds of the general public. When we see lack of the kind of action we view as essential, then, we may assume that this ‘apathy’ is the result of heartlessness, faulty media coverage, or some other flaw in the political process. In reality, what is often the case is that our issues are not even on the radar of most Americans and that, in fact, when people are informed about the true nature of the social problems that occupy social workers’ attention, they are often quite appropriately alarmed and relatively easy to move to action.

    The initial challenge for social work advocates, then, is to diagnose this nebulous ‘agenda’, figure out how we can insert our priorities in a meaningful way, and then operate within this ‘softened context’ where we are much more likely to find a receptive audience for our policy proposals. Far from implying passivity in the face of indifference, this suggests that social work advocates need to work actively, before even explicitly launching a campaign, to create a policy agenda that reflects their concerns. Such organizing, done effectively, can generate the climate of inevitability that is golden for policy practitioners. Bruce Jansson’s textbook Becoming an Effective Policy Advocate includes some good content on this task of agenda building; what follows is a modified lecture that I present to my fall class, which builds on his work with some practical applications taken from my advocacy experience.

    I start this conversation by asking my students what, in their opinion is on ‘the agenda’ today? Obviously, in May 2009, the economy looms large. Think about this in even recent history–last summer, gas prices were high, and that’s what everyone was talking about. The war in Iraq, so dominant for several years, began to recede late last summer as economic woes mounted. There are social problems that persist that no one really talks about too much, like HIV/AIDS, and things that are not really even considered social problems at all (but rather just accepted conditions), like income inequality. And there are things on the agenda that aren’t necessarily problems but which have been construed to be so–the ‘tax burden’ is a classic example. Considering this list, it becomes obvious that the agenda is shaped both by objective conditions and by the social and political contexts–policy agendas look different in different places, at different times, and from different perspectives.

    Jansson describes the agenda-building process as a funnel, where many issues are dumped in, but only a few will emerge to really take on life politically. This is not to suggest, as the examples above might lead one to conclude, that there is only room for one social problem at a time. Indeed, while there are usually one or two dominant issues on the agenda, social work advocates can use to their advantage the openings on the margins of an agenda, where issues might not be as highly scrutinized but where there is still enough momentum to propel change.

    First, social work advocates must diagnose the context
    • Understand the fads/trends in this area (what else is being done?)
    • What are the viewpoints of influential leaders?
    • Where does public opinion stand? Where is the diversity in this opinion? How does it seem to be trending?
    • What is the media slant, or likelihood of favorable coverage? What does the coverage look like from recent months? To what extent are the media driving public opinion on this issue, and vice versa?
    • To what degree is this issue politicized? Social work advocates should not shy away from politicized issues, but you will need stronger momentum in order to push through an issue that is likely to attract intense opposition.
    • What is the magnitude of change sought? Again, when you want major changes, you need to be more prominent on the agenda, and you need a firm sense of how your issue might splinter into smaller ones if total change is not possible.

    Next, you soften the context–your task here is to convince policymakers that the problem is serious enough to warrant attention without making them think that it’s hopeless. Social work advocates do well to consider the strengths perspective here. Rosemary Chapin has discussed at some length the strengths perspective as applied to policy practice; here, our interest is in how we can harness the potential for change within those impacted by the social problem as a way of mobilizing progress. To soften the context and increase the likelihood of victory, advocates harness their allies, take advantage of critical events, and pay attention to frames. We might pursue endorsements, use strategic media coverage, craft concrete proposals (which can make change look more certain), and/or highlight powerful stories.

    This process of inserting our issues on the agenda is, in general, more challenging at the federal level because the competition for ideas is so much more intense, but this is also a larger space with more room for issues, so social work advocates need to be prepared to pivot rather rapidly and seize opportunities as they develop.

    What’s not on the agenda that should be? Where do you see the agenda headed in the next 2-3 years? How can you frame your social problem of interest so that it fits?