Tag Archives: government

Institutionalizing “government relations”

Sometimes, if we’re paying attention, we can get really good ideas in the most unlikely places.

It’s why I keep a huge stack of those tiny sticky notes by my bed, and why I read voraciously (one of the great side benefits of breastfeeding!).

I recently read David Cay Johnston’s Free Lunch, which is pretty terrifically disturbing all around, detailing the myriad of lucrative and often secretive arrangements that companies (and industries) large and small have negotiated for themselves, and the tremendous (and often hidden) costs of such regulatory frameworks (and lack thereof) to American taxpayers.

It’s a good thing I’m always exhausted, or it might be hard to fall back asleep.

But this isn’t a post about those deals (one can’t even really call it corruption, since it’s mostly completely legal, if not legitimate), or about the importance of transparency or about the reality of corporate “welfare” and what a true accounting of our investments would look like.

No, this is, instead, about the good idea, phenomenal really, that was slipped onto page 203, courtesy of former Cabinet member John Snow, at the time head of the transportation company CSX. He talked about how, key to the company’s successes in the realm of self-advocacy (including all kinds of regulatory allowances, special incentives, and opportunities to shape policy for the industry) was a commitment to “institutionalize government relations” within the entire company. The idea was to ensure that every employee, from the CEO to hourly maintenance workers to engineers to the human resources personnel, understood and valued relationships with elected and appointed officials and the government agencies with influence over the company and its work, and that they had skills and tools to deploy in order to contribute to that aspect of the business.

Granted, Johnston makes a connection between these cozy relationships between CSX and its regulators and an ultimately fatal accident attributed to poor maintenance, but bear with me.

What if we did that?

What if advocacy was seen in our nonprofit social service organizations as a core function, an integral part of the job description of every single employee (and, perhaps even more importantly, every Board member), and an essential skill worth considerable investment across the organization?

What if we didn’t have a “policy department”, but instead every individual charged with programmatic responsibilities (and, ideally, those participating in the programs, too) had strong knowledge of the policies that shape their services and how to make the case for them? What if, every time there was an event in our organizations, we were including elected and appointed officials, so that they would understand and value our efforts as well? What if our Board members could speak eloquently about our work when they encounter policymakers in other settings? What if each of our direct-service employees spoke a few times a year with their own elected officials, building relationships and confidence that would contribute to advocacy on behalf of the agency, too? What if everyone saw interfacing with those who make the decisions that shape the future course of our organizations and our communities as part of their daily job responsibilities, and wove that advocacy into their every activity? What if it was really seamless, so that advocacy wasn’t something at the bottom of the to-do list that seldom gets done, but instead an orientation to our work that resulted not in more sheer doing but smarter, more visible, and more powerful efforts?

What if?

Seriously? Supreme Court? Seriously?

I read Red Families v. Blue Families the other day, and a reference to the U.S. Supreme Court case from 2006, Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of New England, made me stop (and reread the quote several times). This post is not about the substance of the law in question, or even the totality of the ruling itself (which I haven’t read in its entirety). I’ve read enough to know that this quote isn’t pulled out of context, though, and I’m alarmed.

It’s the first Monday in October, when the U.S. Supreme Court comes back into session, and, well, I think that maybe a little bit of outrage is just what we need today.

The ruling includes the finding that the Court should “try not to nullify more of a legislature’s work than is necessary, for we know that ‘[a] ruling of unconstitutionality frustrates the intent of the elected representatives of the people.”

And, while that may sound reasonable (elected officials representing the will of the people), here’s the problem:

Rulings of unconstitutionality, frustrating or not, are WHAT THE SUPREME COURT IS SUPPOSED TO DO.

As in, the U.S. Constitution and the separation of powers and the intention of the Framers, and all that?

And that’s why this language bothers me so much, and why I think it should bother us all: sure, there are times when I don’t like Supreme Court decisions, and I don’t like the fact that the courts are not as accountable to “the people” as the legislative or executive branches, but there’s a tremendous comfort in knowing that the Constitution serves as the foundation of our system of laws, like it or not.

We can’t afford to sacrifice that, not for expediency, not for popular sovereignty, not even to avoid great frustration.

Maybe we need a new litmus test for members of the judiciary: Will you really do your job? Even if it makes people upset sometimes? Because that’s what our government depends on.

Philanthropy and Government: Perfect Strangers or Bosom Buddies?

So, yes, the title of this post does reveal the last decade in which I regularly watched television. Thank goodness for my students, who let me in on secrets of the modern world, like those Real Housewives shows that I first thought they were joking about!

This week, while my students are keeping up with American Idol (is that even still on?) so that I don’t have to, I’m blogging about a somewhat random collection of reports and analyses about the worlds of philanthropy, advocacy, and social entrepreneurialism, I guess so that you don’t necessarily have to read them!

Today’s report is from Grantcraft, and it relates to something that’s of significant interest to me–the “best” relationship between private philanthropy and government, in the pursuit of solutions to our most vexing social problems. Getting this right is tremendously important, because of what both philanthropy and government bring to the social problem-solving enterprise: the former innovation and a capacity for risk-taking, in particular; and the latter the fiscal resources and legislative authority to institutionalize the most promising strategies discovered in the philanthropic world.

Or, at least, that’s how it could/should/WILL work!

This particular survey solicited the insights from more than 1500 grantmakers, about not just how they’re currently working with government (or why they’re not) but about how they envision this relationship, and what they see as the best strategies for engagement without co-optation  and mutual challenge without devastation of the relationship.

Some of they key findings, that I believe have implications for how we view philanthropy and government as complementary forces for good:

  • Foundations are working with governments on many levels; in at least some cases, this means building skills and relationships at more local levels first, the same way advocates can.
  • Foundations see advocacy as a critical piece of their relationship with government (in terms of providing information, informing policy debates, and trying to shape policy approaches). This is a critical insight both because it suggests that at least some foundations are committed to playing an advocacy role AND because it correctly characterizes advocacy as part of a partnership with government, rather than an inherently oppositional activity.
  • There is a distinction between collaboration and coordination: the latter seeks to build understanding on both sides about the other’s work, and to find ways to work together, while the former may increase the risk of co-optation. The respondent grantmakers emphasized their role in criticizing government, as a sort of “loyal opposition”, that, if more vigorously pursued, could, I believe, create more space for nonprofit organizations (dependent on both foundations and government for financial survival) to engage in such critique, too.
  • Perhaps the part that made me the most encouraged in the survey was the strong opinion, expressed by several respondents, that philanthropy has to be on guard against being used as “cover” for government’s abdication of its core responsibilities, as part of the social contract between a citizen and his/her state. A direct quote: “we need to be sure that we’re not being used to fund programs and activities that the government should do.”So nothing like kicking the week off with optimism, right? About the enthusiasm and acumen with which at least some grantmakers evidently approach their interface with the government, and about the potential that such a joining of forces has to provide some real momentum in our struggles for social justice.

    And you can still check out the report for yourself, unless the title has you longing for some 1980s TV