Tag Archives: lobbying

A Voice for Nonprofits: How are advocating 501(c)3s different?

A Voice for Nonprofits is one of those books that I should have read a long time ago, that everyone assumed that I had read, and that I finally got around to reading on a trip out to western Kansas, in route to do advocacy capacity work with a safety-net dental clinic in frontier Rawlins County (thanks to my Dad, for driving me every time I have to work far from home).

It came out in 2005 and, because this is what I do all day, for me it wasn’t a revelation, as much as some powerful evidence to aid in my greatest professional mission:

To help nonprofits, especially social service agencies, claim their calling to change policies and transform social conditions, using the collective capacity we hold in our sector.

Towards this end, one of the most instructive parts of the book, for me, is the survey data about the differences between nonprofit organizations that take the 501(h) election (which, technically, just signals to the IRS that they want to be judged by a clearer standard about how much lobbying is ‘too much’, but, in practice, tends to differentiate between those organizations that do, or intend to, advocate on a more sustained and active basis than organizations that do not take the h election) and those that do not.

The authors suggest that studying the political behavior of nonprofits is complicated precisely because the organizations are founded for some purpose other than advocacy or political activity. They have a mission, and that mission is not policy change.

But I think that’s a false divide. I mean, if your mission is ‘ending homelessness’ or ‘creating educational and economic opportunities for families’, then that mission leaves wide open the possibility that policy change–and the political advocacy that must precede it–is one of the strategies the organization pursues to realize the goal. It’s only our instinctual aversion to advocacy, fostered by the rules that constrain nonprofit participation, that leads us to view advocacy as something apart, something separate from the ‘mission work’ we conduct through our programming.

There is no such divide inherent in the being mission-driven. Except the false one we construct.

Many of the nonprofit CEOs the authors interviewed for their study chafed at the description of the nonprofit sector as an ‘interest group’. Maybe we have bought into public perceptions that view lobbying as a ‘dirty word’ and that fear interest groups as unduly powerful in American politics. They were loathe to identify what they do as lobbying, even when it clearly was (and even though, in some cases, they were clearly quite good at it).

They didn’t want to claim their political power and influence, which means, of course, that they abdicated much of it.

They said things like, “We publish a newsletter…[and] We tell them to contact their legislators but we don’t tell them to urge them to vote a certain way.” Even though, really, that makes no sense, and it could burn through would-be advocates who, confused and disillusioned by the vague nature of such a request, conclude that there’s no real connection between their needs and the policies in question.

There is growing evidence, including much within this book, about the ways in which 501(h) adopting organizations, a proxy for those that advocate substantially, differ from those that do not. Electors are not only much more likely to claim that they take positions on legislation, but they also know a lot more about what 501(c)3 organizations can and cannot do, in advocacy, sometimes twice as accurate in their assessments.

We have to be careful with causation, though.

Having read many academic studies that attempt to figure out what influences whether an organization will advocate, or not, and reviewing the survey results here, I’m not sure that these factors make 501(c)3s more likely to lobby.

I think, instead, that there’s a good case to be made that it’s the other way around, that these organizations are more knowledgeable about advocacy and more engaged in its various forms because they have decided to do it, and, having thus committed, they dedicate themselves to doing it well.

That suggests that, in the final analysis, what separates advocating nonprofits from the rest isn’t some magic formula about number of FTEs or organizational history or sector within the field.

It’s leadership, a decision that advocacy is, indeed, mission-central, and a willingness to navigate the restrictions to give voice to their causes.

It’s an unwillingness to run from categorization as an ‘interest group’, and, instead, an effort to compete effectively in that arena, in recognition of all that is at stake.

And that may make all the difference.

When nonprofits are boxed into corners

This is, for now, my last post about the Center for Evaluation Innovation’s framework for public policy.

It is inspired, again, by a conversation with nonprofit advocates–mostly also executives in their organizations–with whom I was talking about some of the challenges that their organizations face in adapting to changing political climates by incorporating new strategies and engaging in new advocacy arenas.

One Executive Director spoke bluntly about the boundaries she confronts, in trying to make these shifts, because of funding sources that constrain her ability to, for example, move from policymaker education to building political will (because that looks like lobbying), or translate policy analysis and research into champion development (by explicitly reaching out to make information resonate with decision makers).

And I know this isn’t the first that I (and others) have written about nonprofit lobbying rules (those leveled by the IRS and those more artificially imposed by foundations/donors and Boards of Directors), but I guess it’s the first time that I’ve thought about them in such clear terms:

Sometimes, these restrictions just compromise our effectiveness and form barriers that make it really, really hard for us to be effective.

It’s like we confront a fence when we get to a certain point in the framework and have to stop before we can get to the impact that we seek.

In my head, I see one of those cartoons where the character hits the invisible glass wall.

Only it’s not funny.

It’s frustrating and kind of disheartening.

I think that there are ways around most of these ties that bind us:

  • Organizations should take the 501(h) election, so that they are held to a clear, dollar-amount cap, instead of the amorphous ‘insubstantial parts test’.
  • Organizations should always, assertively, compellingly educate foundations and other donors, not just about the legality of nonprofit advocacy, but also about its expected outcomes, and why it deserves investment.
  • Organizations should build strong networks and use a ‘field frame’ to determine where they have allies with complementary capacity and, perhaps, not all of the same limitations on lobbying.
  • Organizations should maximize their capacity in the unrestricted areas, knowing that some of that strength will spill over into other parts of the framework.

Still, for me, the epiphany in this conversation was that we can’t always maneuver around these obstacles.

There are organizations whose funding primarily comes from the federal government, and they have very little ability to engage in activity with decision makers, beyond the most ‘neutral’ education. There are organizations with very small budgets, for whom even the 501(h) test gives few resources to dedicate to lobbying. There are organizations in contexts with few funders who are supportive of advocacy of any kind.

And all of that means that it’s harder for us to work a plan, to lay out a logic model that would move us from input A to outcome B in anything like an expected trajectory.

It can mean that we do pretty irrational things, like invest in a lot of community education and expect it to neatly lead to policy change.

It can mean that we feel stuck in a corner.

And, as a child of the 80s, I know that’s not good.

A new framework for advocacy

September is mostly going to be “what has Melinda been doing” month.

And my motivations are fairly self-serving, I’ll acknowledge.

I have been working so much for my consulting clients that I really haven’t been doing nearly as much reading and exchanging, in the blogosphere or otherwise, to cultivate thoughts to share here.

And, too, I need a reason to sit still for a few moments and just reflect on, and sort of process, what this work is adding up to.

I hope, of course, that this is also at least somewhat helpful to you, the readers who continue to humble and amaze me, with your comments and your mere presence.

If not, well…it’s another reason for me to be ever grateful to you, for humoring me. And to the Internet, for giving me this platform.

My world was fairly rocked, and not in a good way at all, in the Kansas Republican primaries on August 7th of this year. Conservatives picked up way more seats than they needed, in order to gain control of the Senate, which has, until now, been a pretty moderate body, serving as a sort of ‘check’ in the past two years, as the House and Governor’s Mansion are increasingly far-right.

It was a big deal, and even made national news.

I don’t think that it’s as much a mandate for the policies of Kobach and company as much as a referendum on the inadequacy of the Republican primary–and, at least for now, the entire party–as a medium for moderation. In several of the races, where solid moderate Republicans–mostly very good friends of mine–lost well-financed, hard-fought contests, there is ample evidence that moderate voters just didn’t show up.

I’m still very much in the stages of grief, here. Some of my advocate friends joke that I may stay ‘stuck’ in anger for a long, long time.

We will almost inevitably lose issues that matter a great deal to me, including our instate tuition policy for immigrant students, decent school financing for public education, an Earned Income Tax Credit, support for essential social services.

Elections have consequences.

Even when that sucks.

But I know that I can’t stay stuck in grief. None of us can afford that.

Neither can we content ourselves entirely with ‘speaking truth to power’, not if that means beating our heads against the collective wall that will be the Kansas Legislature for the next few years.

We can do better.

I have had the pleasure of working alongside the Center for Evaluation Innovation recently, on a Kansas Advocacy Evaluation Collaborative, where we’re helping some of our strongest advocates–primarily in health–to develop new and greater capacity to evaluate their advocacy efforts.

One of the takeaways for me, from these discussions, has been this framework that they introduce to help advocacy organizations conceptualize where their activities are directed and the kinds of impacts that they can expect from them. It’s designed, in part, to help foundations and grantees understand where they need to be engaged in order to get the effects they want. For me, though, it’s also about reminding ourselves where else we can be–beyond just legislative lobbying–in order to influence other key actors and, ultimately, provoke change.

All credits to Center for Evaluation Innovation

We used this framework with the Sunflower Foundation Advocacy Fellows last week, as part of a discussion about how the Kansas political climate has shifted, and what this means for the Fellows’ work.

I needed this, at this particular juncture.

It’s like a challenge, to consider all of the places, and all of the ways, I need to be working. Where should we be organizing and mobilizing? What kind of research and analysis do we need? Are there places we can develop champions, in ways that might, slowly, build political will? What do voters need to understand, and how can we really reach them?

Certainly, many advocacy organizations have long considered all of these domains fertile territory. I don’t mean to imply that we’ve ever been ‘one-trick ponies’. But, now that our efforts in legislative lobbying are more likely to be thwarted–NOT that we should ignore the statehouse, in any respect–how can we piece together a theory of change that relies more heavily on some of these other quadrants?

How can we adapt and thrive, no matter how hostile the environment?

So that, in the end, we find new ways to win?

We don’t need more lobbyists, but we do need you

I was giving a presentation awhile ago to an incredible group of Latino college students who have committed themselves to working as educators in under-resourced schools, mostly with Limited English Proficient students. Their presence in those classrooms, as not only highly-trained teachers but also true role models, will absolutely make a difference.

I’m honored every time I get to work with them.

Mostly, we talk about policy.

I walk them through the basics of immigration policy and how it affects their students, and what they might expect to see in their classrooms in terms of the effects on families and, by extension, on how children can learn.

I help them understand our school finance formula and what it means for at-risk students, and also how the debate over school finance is shaping how patrons view English-language-learners and immigrant students within their schools.

And, together, we think about how they can be advocates, and educators, and how finding ways to embrace both of those roles provides their students the best chance of success.

And when I talk with groups like these, my core message is always the same:

To [end poverty], [counter racism], [win fair immigration policies], [pass a truly pro-family budget], we don’t necessarily need more lobbyists. You know that I think that lobbyists play an essential role in the policymaking process, but I don’t pretend that it’s for everybody, and I don’t think it’s the key to the victories we so desperately need.

Instead, what we need is everyone, from the primary role that does feed their souls (parent, teacher, direct-practice social worker, chef, librarian), finding ways to integrate effective advocacy into that work, so that their interactions with public officials spring from an authentic and renewing place in their lives.

That would be game-changing.

If members of Congress and state legislators had to respond to millions of people who aren’t lobbyists, and certainly don’t think of themselves that way, but who are justifiably outraged by a policy injustice that affects their work or their communities, and who took the 10 minutes to contact their lawmaker to demand redress…they’d notice.

It’s the reason why students and teachers and parents who come to testify on a particular issue in the state legislature get the committee members to put down their newspapers and sometimes even applaud, the way that we lobbyists seldom do.

So my goal in talking with people like these students is not to steer them from their chosen path and make advocacy their one true calling.

It’s to make advocacy a part of their way of life, in small, seamless ways, with the assured knowledge that doing so will play a part in reshaping the policy landscape that impacts the work, and the people, that they really care about.

Relax. We don’t need more lobbyists.

But we do need you.

My mother was right

I can remember, at least twice in my life, getting a thank-you note from my mother, thanking me for my thank-you note.


My husband thinks it’s bizarre that I still send thank-you notes to my parents and to his, when they give a present to the kids.

We buy them in bulk, to have on hand just in case.

And I still follow the rules my mother instilled in me more than a quarter-century ago now: each thank-you note should be handwritten, no matter what; there should always be a specific reference to the gift or deed that warranted the thanks; and the thank-you note should be prompt, written no more than 48 hours after the occasion.

It hadn’t occurred to me, until I was reading Fundraising for Social Change, the extent to which these lessons in gratitude have permeated my advocacy work.

But they have; I say thank-you to elected officials all the time.

I thank losing candidates for having run good races, especially if they have raised issues that would have otherwise been overlooked. I thank my own members of Congress and state legislators for their votes on a variety of issues I support. I thank elected officials and non-elected leaders for their statements in the press, their willingness to attend certain events, and their attention to pressing problems.
And, you know, now that I think about it, they have an even higher rate than my own Mom of thanking me for the thanks. I received a very heartfelt thank you for my thank you from my member of the U.S. House after his vote in favor of health care reform, and from my state senator after she supported the Kansas revenue increase. In the latter case, she said that I was the only constituent to have thanked her for that vote. Just last week, I got a thank-you note back from a state senator (not my own) thanking me for my thank-you note for his vote against the instate tuition repeal (and, no, he’s not even related to my mother!).

I can think of several instances where my thank you resulted, later, in a stronger relationship with an elected official, an entry point on a subsequent issue, or even a slightly healed breach where there had been conflict. Especially for those who are not my own representatives, sometimes these “thank you” relationships are the start of much deeper communication and an ability to work together on issues important to me.

People, whoever they are, really do like to be thanked, especially when they’re so used to be asked, or even harassed, instead. So, in honor of my mother and her lifetime commitment to thankfulness, here are some tips for thanking policymakers in an advocacy context, with an eye towards how today’s “thank you” just might help with tomorrow’s “would you please?”

  • Promptness still does matter, especially because our requests are so often time-sensitive. We don’t want to be seen as only respecting the urgency of the policy process on the front end. Especially on tough votes, the criticisms will roll in immediately, and our thanks need to as well.
  • Hand-written notes do receive more attention, I think. I’ve often written a note out by hand for Congress but then faxed it there so that it would arrive quickly, given the delays of mail screening at the Capitol.
  • Include supplemental materials, if at all possible–one of my favorite tactics is to include supportive editorials from a local paper when thanking a state legislator, for example. You can reference this in your thank you, “I’m not alone in appreciating your stance on this issue. I’ve included for your reference a letter from the Garden City Telegram applauding your vote.”
  • Ask others to join you in thanking the elected official. This has the dual purpose of increasing the number of thank yous someone hears as well as strengthening your network (because it’s an easy ask and gets people in the habit of contacting elected officials, when they know that there won’t be conflict).
  • Be creative in your thanks. I received more than 10 personal “thank yous” for the thank yous that we generated as part of our DREAM Act campaign–student groups at universities around Kansas came up with their own thank you ideas, ranging from signed t-shirts from their school to photos where they spelled out “thank you” in a sort of human letter thing. We also generated special diplomas, signed by students, thanking people for their commitment to higher education. These ideas were nearly free, but very thoughtful, and I’ve seen at least a few state legislators with those diplomas still up in their offices, more than six years later.

    Nonprofit fundraisers tell us that thanking people for their contributions can mean the difference between continued and increasing support or publicly denigrating your organization to other would-be donors. I’ve never known of an elected official to change a vote because he/she wasn’t thanked, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be the advocate asking someone to take a courageous stance without having thanked them for their past support.

    And I think my mom would be proud.

  • Why do lobbyists get such a bad rep?

    Guess that quote origin again, folks:

    “It is of serious interest to the country that the people at large should have no lobby and be voiceless in these matters, while great bodies of astute men seek to create an artificial opinion, and to overcome the interests of the public for their private profit. It is thoroughly worth the while of the people of this country to take knowledge of this matter. Only public opinion can check and destroy it.”

    Serious stuff, hunh? Undoubtedly related to the Jack Abramoff scandal and the recent outrage over the influence of “special interests”?

    Or maybe President Obama, speaking about his Administration’s policy to bar lobbyists from working in his White House (which, then, of course, immediately included some exceptions, in the realization that, for example, crafting immigration policy without the insight of Cecilia Muñoz, former lobbyist for National Council of La Raza, would be a bit unnecessarily difficult)?

    Or, try, Woodrow Wilson, May 1913, speaking almost 100 years ago about an issue that, certainly, has not abated from the public agenda in the intervening century.

    But, as I’ve written at some points in the past, this is something I’m conflicted about.

    I mean, to me, the real problem isn’t the influence of lobbyists, who, in many cases, are knowledgeable professionals who play an integral role guiding elected officials through the myriad of complex policy issues on which they must decide (would anyone like to see what policy 90+ new Missouri legislators would come up with this year without someone around who has been there for more than a month?).

    The real problem is the oppressive, and distorting, power of money, and the fact that some lobbyists have disproportionate authority not so much because of their own influence but because of the moneyed movers and shakers they represent.

    And, so, that’s why I always get nervous with this “anti-lobbyist” talk.

    I mean, I called myself a lobbyist for many years, was a registered lobbyist, and believe(d) very strongly that my lobbying was the best way for me to serve my clients, and, indeed, my country. I absolutely influenced legislation, and legislators, and convinced people to take stands that they would not have taken without my efforts. I changed votes, on multiple occasions, and I used every tool I could think of to do so.

    Does that make me part of the creation of an “artificial opinion”? Was I distorting the process? Or, in fact, are we misplacing our angers when we take aim at lobbyists instead of those who sometimes hire them? Why do we decry the yeoman’s work of those who monitor legislation, provide counsel to confused or conflicted policymakers, and interpret the policy process for lay men and women in their home constituencies, rather than focus our energies on the campaign finance system that allows vested interests to buy their lobbyists greater access and control?

    I know that those who talk about “special interests” don’t necessarily mean low-income communities with nonprofit lobbyist representation. I certainly never had campaign contributions (or free tickets to anything) to throw around. I usually bummed a Diet Coke from a state senator friend of mine. But I did try everything I could, and worked long and hard, to change the outcomes in the legislature, and I was focused on the relatively narrow interests of my target constituency when I did that (believing, of course, that the polity as a whole would benefit, but I bet some of the corporate lobbyists would say that, too!).

    That makes me a lobbyist.

    But it doesn’t make me ashamed.

    In search of the tipping point: Lobbying Lessons

    Finding a way to make it stick

    One of the first messages that social work activists learn, upon entering the lobbying arena, is that, unfortunately, the quality of our messages is not that directly related to whether people will remember them.

    Yes, it’s true.

    We can have terrific facts.

    We can have beautiful visual aids.

    We can even have heart-wrenching stories.

    And, still, sometimes, the targets of our advocacy efforts won’t remember what we said.

    Legislative sessions are starting up all around the country. Congress is heading back to work. And, so, as we prepare for the real work of building power, nurturing relationships with decisionmakers, researching issues, and constructing solid policy proposals, I have advice that seems rather trivial:

    Make your message sticky.

    I’m sure it’s a testimony to how frequently my brain turns to nonprofit advocacy, that I can find lessons for that work even in a business book. But, you knew that already.

    In The Tipping Point, there were dozens of examples of the importance of ‘stickiness’–the need to figure out two key things:

    1. The one piece of information that you want to “stick” with people
    2. A trick, of sorts, to make it stick

    The latter, while seemingly more challenging, is actually the easier part. Think of every jingle you remember, every random fact that sticks in your brain, everything you may have learned in a freshman introduction to marketing class you took for general education requirements in college.

    Use juxtaposition–people remember things that are surprising.

    Use imagery–people remember pictures better than words.

    Use linguistic techniques like alliteration–people remember things that they can’t get out of their heads.

    The harder part, for most of us, is the former.

    There’s just so much we want to say, and so much we want people to learn, about these issues about which we already know so very much. We think that we have an obligation, a duty, to communicate everything.

    We use smaller and smaller margins to try to fit in everything we think people should know.

    But we know that doesn’t work. We know that we, ourselves, tend to only be able to remember a few things at a time, and we know that we tune out, are even put off by, those who try to cram in more.

    And we can’t afford to have our messages discarded like that.

    So, this legislative session, we’re going to make our messages stick.

    And we’re going to change conversations, shift thinking, and…we’re going to win.