Tag Archives: lobbying

Practice Reflections: Supporting Advocacy in Field

Yesterday, my practice reflection post focused on my advocacy evaluation work, and later this week I will have something about supporting organizations in building advocacy capacity.

Today, though, I want to share some thoughts on what is a smaller part of my consulting practice, but something very meaningful to me:

Supporting advocates ‘midstream’, as they wage campaigns and seek to influence policy, right now.

I never wanted to be a contract lobbyist, despite receiving several offers after I left my full-time position as a nonprofit policy advocate.

I love lobbying only for what it can accomplish in pursuit of human well-being and social justice. What I miss, from my long days and late nights in the state capitol and my days going from door to door in U.S. Senate office buildings, is the thrill of partnering with powerful policymakers to do good for those who need champions, not the ‘game’.

And, as much as I do miss that aspect of my direct lobbying days, I had to face the reality that being a nonprofit lobbyist just isn’t super compatible with how I want to parent. I missed too many student award banquets huddled in the hallway on the phone with other lobbyists. Legislators don’t really get ‘Thursdays we have playgroup in the morning’. And media on a deadline don’t appreciate babies cooing in the background.

And that’s why, I think, even though I feel a particular calling to helping organizations build advocacy capacity, instituting systems that will sustain their efforts over the long term, facilitating tough conversations about the principles that should guide the identification of their advocacy priorities, and training nonprofit staff to take on leadership roles in the macro practice arena, I really can’t give up any opportunity to feel, vicariously, part of an advocacy campaign.

So I do some work supporting organizations’ development of materials and construction of strategies and communication with policymakers, even though I acknowledge that I’m always mediating this work through a lens of ‘how can I build longer-term capacity here?’. It can be one of the most frustrating parts of my work, since there are so many variables that constrain our joint effectiveness here, even if we’re ‘working’ our strategies exactly right.

And I want that experience, over and over again, because I believe that it keeps me grounded, right alongside my clients, in the frustrating parts of advocacy for them, too. I never want to lose track of how hard this is.

Mainly, I want to know from everyone who is advocating within a nonprofit organization: What do you need most, to win the campaigns that you’ve outlined for the coming 12-18 months? I’m asking not what would most build your long-term efficacy, or what would set you up with the strongest foundation for future advocacy, but what you need, in the field, right now, to make a decisive difference?

Here’s what I hear, in response to that question, from the organizations with which I’m working. How does this small sample align (or not) with your experiences? What should those of us who care about how nonprofit advocacy will unfold in the near term need to be doing to increase the likelihood of its success?

As part of the team: What I do to support advocates in the field

  • Advocates don’t need more information; they need help sorting through it: Nonprofit staff and leaders often point to ‘lack of information’ as an obstacle to their effective advocacy engagement, but my years of working with advocates has convinced me that, well, they don’t really mean it. We are really inundated with information, today, about advocacy and otherwise. What busy nonprofit staffers–direct service providers, program managers, executive directors–need is a good way to sort through information, to filter it through their organizational imperatives and political analysis, and to prioritize what deserves action. This is the role that I play for some organizations with which I work, as a sort of breathing Tumblr, aggregating some information, highlighting other pieces, and helping them to situate input within their broader context. It’s not about overly simplifying; they can handle complexity. Instead, it’s about bracketing information, and the gathering of it, so that they aren’t paralyzed in the act of synthesis.
  • Communication isn’t second-nature: SO much of advocacy is communication, and, while nonprofit leaders often have strong general communication skills, these don’t necessarily lend themselves perfectly to this specific type of communication. I do a fair amount of public speaking for organizations, and media work, too, not because they can’t tell their own stories or speak to their own issues, but because the ‘ramp up’ time for them to polish their communication skills (and build the capacity to feel comfortable there) may be considerably longer than mine to bone up on their specific issues. Again, this is not to say that there isn’t a need, long term, to build precisely those capacities, just that, in order to get a good article in the paper tomorrow or convince this civic group to sign their resolution, a communications shortcut may be in order. The same goes for policy briefs, talking points, and advocacy newsletters: sometimes, advocates need to be able to hit an easy button.
  • Action planning is an art: A lot of my time supporting organizations’ advocacy is spent helping them think through strategies to get to their advocacy goals. Working with activists and organizers, the action planning is usually the most fun part–we have to fight the temptation to jump straight to thinking about round-the-clock prayer vigils targeting the Speaker of the House or priests getting arrested or making American flags out of immigrant children’s handprints (or, what, is that just me?). But the direct service providers who mostly make up the advocates I’m supporting in the field are steeped in a tradition of program development and more direct intervention, and even pivoting to the macro scale doesn’t immediately make them feel comfortable taking on public action. That doesn’t mean they can’t and don’t get excited about it, certainly, but it takes some prompting, sometimes, to get their creativity flowing that direction. It’s very rewarding work, this translation of the advocacy world to the social work organization. Especially when we get to break out the posterboard.
  • Advocates need sounding boards: Doing advocacy work can be isolating, which seems paradoxical, since it’s all about relationships. But alliances aren’t the same thing as friendships, and social work advocates can feel like islands, sometimes, since they are alone among social workers in taking on advocacy (or feel that way) and alone among advocates in standing for justice (or feel that way). They can even feel adrift within their own organizations. So sometimes I feel as much like a lifecoach as anything, helping advocates reflect on their work, make plans for the future, and process their use of self in the advocacy world. It’s capacity building, in a sense, but it’s also debriefing and sustaining and crisis managing, which are sometimes the supports that advocates most need in this precise moment, too.
  • Coalitions hate a vacuum: Coalitions can be very powerful tools for advancing nonprofit organizations’ advocacy objectives, but steering them in the right direction can be difficult. Sometimes, that’s where I come in. Often, a coalition just needs an infusion of energy and sheer human sweat to get going, and the individuals–and organizations–responsible for that push usually get to determine the ends towards which the coalition is deployed. I sometimes provide legislative updates to coalitions or staff their legislative committees. Sometimes I just represent the organization on the coalition leadership. Sometimes I recruit new members to populate the coalition. This can be time-consuming work that may be hard for the organization to justify initially, but we can usually demonstrate significant return on investment. Sometimes, we can tip the scales.

There are other elements, of course, including grassroots outreach, which is a favorite part of my work with immigration rights groups, but these are the core pieces, at least in my experience. What’s missing that you identify as a gap? What do you have well in hand within your own operations? How do you see your areas of needed investment, and what are your preferences for how you’ll fill these holes?

Awesome stories of awesomeness

Because, you know, it’s almost the end of the year–THIS year, of all things–and I feel like we could all use some awesomeness.

You’re welcome.

  • One of the organizations with which I have the distinct pleasure to work on advocacy is Harvesters, our regional food bank. They’re awesome in lots of ways–birthday parties to fight hunger, yes please!–but their public participation index is high on my list. They have developed concrete metrics by which they measure the extent to which their activities get people engaged in the cause of fighting hunger, in the firm belief that “you manage what you measure”. They do, and they do. And it’s awesome. They track volunteers responding to action alerts, people writing letters to the editor, pledge cards taken after public presentations, numbers of volunteer groups coming through, people sharing stories on their website. The bonus, of course, is that the process of collecting and sharing these data also encourages staff buy-in to the advocacy work, since they know that there will be monitoring and accountability. And celebration, because you have to applaud when you reach milestones like these!
  • Recently, the League of Women Voters in our community set up a meeting at Operation Breakthrough, a fantastic organization (another advocacy TA grantee with which I get to work!) that provides early childhood education to children and support to low-income families (mostly single parents, many of whom are homeless and/or on TANF and/or involved with the child welfare system). The League wanted to talk with moms about the issues that matter most to them, what they wish they knew about the political process, and what they want public officials to understand about their lives. And, then, the League offered to pay the membership dues for any Operation Breakthrough mom who wanted to join, and they offered to help with transportation to meetings, hold events onsite at OB, and provide childcare to facilitate the participation of any Operation Breakthrough parent in a League event. Yeah, talk about understanding that the personal is political and that the women’s movement needs to embrace solidarity across class divides. And walking your walk. Awesomeness, and nothing more than I’d expect from an organization with a long history of being on the right side.
  • An organization combating homelessness locally, and providing support to those experiencing it, took clients with them to lobby state legislators for increased funding for affordable housing initiatives. On the bus on the way to Jefferson City, reStart, Inc. staff gave clients copies of legislative bios, pulled from the state webpage, as sort of background information (and a way to kill the 2.5-hour drive). During one of the first visits, the Executive Director watched as a client smoothly shook hands with a state legislator with whom the organization has never had a great relationship, made some small talk, asked about his two children, and transitioned seamlessly into discussing the toll that being without permanent housing takes on child well-being. The legislator was animated, personable, and responsive. Because the client was authentic, warm, and very skilled. The Executive Director told this story recently with a bit of a chuckle. Because, she said, it just makes sense. If our clients are used to navigating systems to get their needs met every day, why do we think they’d be anything but excellent at making connections and getting what they want as lobbyists? Why, indeed. Awesome.

What is awesome in your world, today, or throughout this year?

What awesomeness can you share, as we face 2014?

501(c)4s: Serving a valuable public purpose

I have to get back to the hard work of coming up with my own content next week (!), but here’s one more borrowing from a really fascinating conversation on the New York Times opinion page, about whether the controversy over the IRS’ additional scrutiny for Tea Party and other conservative groups suggests that 501(c)4 organizations do not actually serve a legitimate public good and, therefore, do not deserve tax-exempt status.

You can read the debate for yourself, but I certainly agree with the commentator who argues for preserving the tax status of 501(c)4s, stating noting that, while organizations like The Sierra Club and AARP “are too politically engaged to be charities, yet they work toward what each believes will be a better world.”

But I think the larger question is this:

Why are organizations like AARP too politically engaged to be charities?

Why do we have such strict limits on nonprofit political engagement that we are so quick to rule that an organization that undeniably serves a public purpose–even if I do not happen to completely agree with that vision–are not ‘charities’?

In debating whether organizations should be allowed to organize themselves as 501(c)4s, and whether that is a valid and valuable designation in our tax system, are we really asking the wrong question? Should we really be considering whether we unduly muzzle our 501(c)3 organizations, pushing, then, organizations clearly operating in the public good into the (c)4 realm, distorting that category and, maybe, making it more vulnerable to distortion, then?

I absolutely believe that public interest lobbying and political engagement are not only legitimate activities but, indeed, completely essential to the functioning of our democratic system, at least as currently structured. I believe that organizations should receive some harbor within the tax code for taking on that valuable work.

But I also think that fighting to end hunger is just as noble as handing out food, that working for better health care laws is just as important as taking care of those who are sick, and that speaking out about gender inequality is just as needed as sheltering those fleeing domestic violence.

If we agree, then maybe we need new provisions in the tax code to allow individuals who financially support that important work to receive the same tax advantages of those whose dollars fund more immediate relief.

Valuable public purposes all
, no?

Influence is our goal, and other reminders for the home stretch

In Kansas, our state legislature comes back from the recess next week, and May promises to be a long month for social work advocates, as we battle over major budget and tax cuts, with significant implications for vulnerable populations in our state.

And so it seemed like a good time to gear ourselves up, with a little refresher on lobbying.

And what works.

I hope that my fellow policy advocates will weigh in, too, with their best advice, for how to break through to policymakers, how to sustain ourselves, and how to stay grounded in the realities of our clients and the perspectives of the world outside the dome.

  • We give elected officials reason for being. We cannot ever forget that, without our phone calls, and our pleading, and our presentations, policymakers would not have a legitimate role in government. They are our representatives. So don’t ever let them make you feel bad, when you’re chasing them down in the hallways or calling them on a Saturday morning or sending them another email.
  • Stories may not convince, but they do increase investment, and getting policymakers and allies invested in our policy issues is our greatest challenge. If we can get others to take on our fights as their own, we have essentially one.
  • If you can only inform or influence, don’t forget that influence is our goal. We know a lot about our work, and we have so many things that we want to say, but information overload can reduce our effectiveness, and we can’t afford that. A personal connection with a policymaker can bring you much more influence than all the information in the world, and swaying policymakers is the reason we’re in this work.
  • Don’t forget to pack your social work skills and values for the trip to your capital. The humor and collegiality and value base that sustain us in the most difficult social work will sustain and serve you in policy advocacy, too, but it can be too easy to slip into another persona, in the halls of the capitol, instead of wrapping ourselves in our social work-ness.

What gets you through to June or July or whenever your ‘break’ in the policy advocacy world comes? What advice would you share with those who are just beginning in this journey?

We have very special interests.

I know.

“Special interest” is a bad word. Like lobbyist.

But the truth is, we have very special interests.

Interests that, most of the time, if we (nonprofit organizations, social work advocates, forces of good) are not defending and advancing, no one else will.

And, of course, power abhors a vacuum.

Where there is silence–on a given issue, or event, or piece of legislation, someone will likely be quite ready to step into the breach.

Just maybe not on our terms, from our perspective, or in our interests.

This dynamic was illustrated clearly in the incidences of genocide, which cried out for U.S. involvement, described in A Problem from Hell. For example, when Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against Kurdish people, and there were chemical companies and other interests speaking loudly against action, that was only part of the problem. The other half of the equation was that, apart from these lobbies that were especially interested, there were no competing voices making phone calls on behalf of the Kurds. There was, effectively, no ‘human rights lobby’ and, even today, there are relatively few voices oriented in that direction.

Similarly, in the struggle to ratify the UN genocide convention, senators complained that they only heard about the treaty from John Birch Society types, not from ‘reasonable’ people who urged U.S. participation in the convention’s tenets. The pro-ratification folks didn’t call, or email, or show up at forums. The interests, then, of basic human dignity and protection–while just about as ‘special’ as they get–didn’t have a lobby.

Our failure to claim our identity as a special interest, and to coalesce around the concerns that unite us, is particularly alarming given historical evidence that, in the arena of congressional policymaking, these one-sided interest group politics are an especially serious liability. Many members of Congress fear acting against the special interests to which they respond even occasionally, even when a rational actor could presume that a history of supporting a given organization’s cause could allow some independence on another issue.

To a large extent, this is because of the distorting influence of money in politics.

But it’s also because those powerful interests are moving in to fill the vacuum. As they will.

We are special. We engage in politics, and in policy advocacy, not primarily to enhance our own market standing, but to improve the conditions of those we have the honor to serve. And they–and we–deserve to be represented, as interests, within a policymaking structure that works that way, even as we seek to change the terms of engagement.

We can’t hold ourselves out as above the fray, when we, and our issues, are very much on the battlefield.

A Voice for Nonprofits: What Makes an Effective Nonprofit Lobbyist?

There are still some sticky note tabs in my copy of A Voice for Nonprofits, which means that I’ll probably revisit it again in a few months, but this is the last post for now.

Despite the reluctance that many 501(c)3 executives express about getting involved in lobbying, and despite the rules that constrain that very participation, I think, ultimately, that many, many more organizations would advocate–vigorously–if they thought that they knew how to do so successfully.

I mean, the vast majority of nonprofit leaders, and the people whose work centers on providing programs, and certainly those most directly affected by the social problems to which the organization responds, are completely committed to eradicating those problems. They are looking for ways to ‘move the needle’ on the social conditions that plague us, collectively, and they are willing, in many cases, to sacrifice their time and energies to try to improve the lives of those they serve.

They would advocate, I truly believe, if they had a surer chance of success.

And, of course, there’s no guarantee.

There never is, in this world-changing business of ours.

But the search for signals, for paths that are more likely to lead to good outcomes, still occupies a lot of the time of people like me, academics (and, in my case, quasi-academics) and practitioners trying to help would-be advocates be great advocates.

While much of A Voice for Nonprofits centers on why so few 501(c)3s play leading roles in policy change, and how regulatory changes could reverse that, there is also some evidence about organizational practices, and even individual advocate characteristics, that tend to correlate with more successful advocacy engagement. I have pulled out some of those pieces below, but I want to hear from you: What makes an effective nonprofit lobbyist? Beyond legislative policy change, what characteristics distinguish effective advocacy organizations, and individual advocates, from those less successful? Who are your advocacy role models, and what about them is worthy of emulation?

  • Nonprofit advocates utilize a wide range of both confrontational (because we can’t be afraid to disagree) and more collaborative approaches. They do little hobnobbing, though, in the way typically associated with lobbyists; their currency is good information, passion, and a reputation for commitment to their mission, not free tickets to sporting events or golf junkets.
  • The most effective advocates, in many cases, have an organizational ‘home’ that affords them some immediate legitimacy. As the authors describe, especially on the local government level, “Developers and city hall do not negotiate with the “community” or the “people.” They negotiate with nonprofits.” Certainly free agents can change the world, but, for the long haul, having an organization’s support seems to make a difference.
  • Effective nonprofits enhance the status and improve the performance of government officials at all levels, and, in turn, are afforded access and influence. They trade in information and credibility, both commodities sorely needed by policymakers. They are more than willing to share the credit for good policy ideas, and they understand that making elected officials look good is good advocacy practice.
  • They strategically partner with other entities, especially other nonprofits, to convert their collective resources into advocacy potential. They find organizations that complement their weaknesses, and they use their leadership to harness what they have towards advocacy aims. It’s about making the best of what you have, and the most effective advocates are great at it.
  • They make it someone’s job. One of the foundational questions to assess an organization’s advocacy capacity is whether someone is expected to advocate and, therefore, held accountable for it. Ideally, advocacy is integrated throughout an organization, but the buck has to stop somewhere. And the person whose job it is has to really have the time and space, within the work day, to do that job, whether that’s the executive director or a program director or a stand-alone government relations professional.
  • They invest in information capacity, even hiring people with the initials after their names that afford respect for what they know. They gain competitive advantage with the quality, relevance, timeliness, and accessibility of their information, and they prioritize its production and dissemination as their most valuable resource.

What would you add to this list? What makes for an effective nonprofit, in the advocacy arena? And how do we grow more of them?

A Voice for Nonprofits: “The Rules are Never Neutral”

Nonprofits have a lot of social capital to cash in on.

Even though we are an ‘interest group’, the public, and even many policymakers, don’t see us in the same way that they view another trade or industry group.

People love nonprofits, as A Voice for Nonprofits emphasizes, because they ’embody the caring, charitable side of us’ (p. 1). We tend to think fondly of institutions that make us feel like better people. Nonprofits respond when government programs and market structures fail, and do heroic work, often at a cut rate, every day, in communities all around the globe.

And nonprofits need to make that work for us, by using our good will to galvanize people to action on public policy the same way that we bring them together to respond to disasters, feed people who are hungry, clean up highways, and tutor struggling students.

But the rules that govern nonprofit advocacy–lobbying, in particular–constrain us, in ways that deserve further analysis, both around their intent and their outcome. As the authors put it, “Governments may love nonprofits, but, when it comes to political activity, it is a case of tough love” (p. 4).

Governments and nonprofits interact all the time, of course; A Voice for Nonprofits gives one example of a single nonprofit organization operating with funds from 32 government programs. Nonprofit CEOs can seldom survive without fairly regular communication with government officials, but we conceive of this as neutral ‘informing’, or as contact with just another funding source, instead of seeing it as the foundation for relationships that can spark policy changes, even though it is.

The one point from the book that did strike me as a new insight, even though this is my world, was this: the entire U.S. political system is predicated on the idea–indeed, the expectation–that interest groups will exert themselves in the process. Policymakers could not work without advocates to inform them, and there are multiple access points (official hearings, town halls, staffers who take correspondence, interface with the media) for these groups to shape the process.

There’s essentially an all-access pass to governmental decision-making, at least on many of the budget and programmatic decisions that matter most to our work.

And, yet, 501(c)3 organizations are excepted from this, carved out, in a way that, really, is indefensible.

When you think about the rationale being that their tax-preferred status means they have to limit political influence, even though many industries receive FAR MORE in tax and even direct government support than nonprofit organizations, without having to compromise any of their political activity, it’s pretty clear:

These rules, governing nonprofit advocacy, are not neutral.

I spend a fair amount of my consulting time helping organizations navigate the rules around lobbying, distinguishing between lobbying and general information and advocacy, and even helping agencies craft communications to fall on one side of that line. And that’s important work, because losing a 501(c)3 status would, for most organizations, be devastating.

But A Voice for Nonprofits makes the compelling case that the perception matters, in this instance, maybe even more than the substance of the rules, and that those who wrote them probably knew that. This means that, in practice, saying “this is how much lobbying a 501(c)3 can do” is heard as “this is how much you can’t do”. And that that might be intentional.

I mean, it took fourteen years for the Internal Revenue Service to issue the rules implementing the 501(h) election option. Fourteen years that added to the confusion about the provision and, I believe, increased the reluctance of many nonprofit organizations to go that route. The authors point out that it’s still a pretty stealth policy, not mentioned on the required 990 reporting form for nonprofits, and only adopted by around 3% of all 501(c)3 organizations, despite its considerable advantages in allowing a nonprofit to lobbying with confidence. What we have ended up with is the rather dubious fact that our tax code helps to determine, in a fairly direct way, who has access to address the government for grievances, who has a seat at the proverbial ‘table’. And these exclusions are not, of course, random; in general, nonprofit non-sectarian 501(c)3s tend to have some broad priorities in common, including a preference for collective responsibility and an expanded government infrastructure, so these are the values that receive comparatively less attention in policy debates.

When you put it that way, it sounds pretty odd, no?

The rationale for the exclusion falls apart even more in light of research like that conducted for A Voice for Nonprofits, which finds that, especially in sectors like civil rights and environmental protection, the advocacy records of 501(c)3s make clear that direct financial gain, through contracts from the government, for example, figure in very little to their advocacy motivations (see p. 88, for more details). This isn’t about nonprofits using ‘taxpayer dollars’ to advocate for policy changes, even though, of course, that’s exactly what many industries–defense, public works, energy–do.

It’s about being silenced in efforts to promote the common good. Just because someone else holds the purse strings and gets to say so.

The rules are never neutral.