Barriers to policy engagement, Part 2

[Editor’s note: This series continues PJ’s look at the policy work of nonprofits and philanthropic organizations.]

Ret Boney

When nonprofit staff members are stretched beyond capacity, it can be difficult to free up time for public-policy work and advocacy.

But that work is important, experts say, and a little training and strategic use of boards and coalitions can broaden a group’s policy and advocacy impact, even if the nonprofit lacks a staff member dedicated to policy.

In many cases, nonprofit executive directors take on responsibility for policy and advocacy activities, but that is rarely the optimal course, says Elizabeth Heagy, president of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

“When you have the executive director in charge of the advocacy work, less of it will get done because that person is spread so thin,” she says.  “Those organizations have less involvement.”

A study the center conducted in 2002 with OMB Watch, a government watchdog group, and with Tufts University, found that almost six in 10 nonprofits surveyed say their chief has responsibility for policy.

But the study also says those groups are less involved in policy than nonprofits assigning responsibility to other staffers, Heagy says.

That was the case for the Mental Health Association in North Carolina, based in Raleigh, says Jennifer Mahan, director of policy and advocacy initiatives for the group, which provides direct services, education and advocacy for about 15,000 participating members across the state.

Before Mahan joined the association in 2000, the executive director was the sole staffer charged with advocating for the rights of the association’s constituents, among his overall duties.

“The board felt there was far too much policy work for an executive director,” she says.  “Between the expansion of residential programs and other service-delivery areas we were interested in going into, it was no longer possible.”

Mahan devotes all her time and attention to policy and advocacy work, which has included launching coalitions, conducting and disseminating research, and devoting more time to specific populations, namely children.

That focus and persistence landed her a spot on a statewide task force charged with rewriting the section of the state’s mental health plan devoted to children, a plan that now includes critical components the association backed.

“Most of what we asked for, we got,” she says.  “It took us three years, but we got it.”

Some funders, including the California Wellness Foundation in Woodland Hills, provide general operating support grants, flexible funding nonprofits can use to fund dedicated policy positions, says Ruth Holton-Hodson, director of public policy for the foundation.

Nonprofits should also think beyond their immediate staff and consider the role board members can play, she says.

“The board has contacts in the community and you want to take advantage of those contacts and relationships,” she says, adding that skills required for policy and advocacy work should be a factor in recruiting new board members.

Heagy agrees and says nonprofits should work to recruit board members with “experience and savvy” who can form dedicated advocacy committees to work on behalf of their nonprofit.

Working with outside groups to form coalitions is another way to extend the reach of a thinly-stretched staff, says Holton-Hodson.

“There are lots of advocacy coalitions nonprofits can join and that magnifies their voices,” she says.  “You’re not having to do it all yourself.  Everyone does a piece of the work.”

Mahan, of the Mental Health Association, says she has launched several coalitions over the past five years, helping not only her group, but other nonprofits with fewer resources.

“If your coalition wants to set up a mailing list, somebody has to physically do that,” she says.  “I can do that.  There aren’t a lot of other organizations that have a dedicated person.”

She also has time to conduct or oversee research, which she then makes available to the coalitions she works with, and when the state legislature is out of session, she has time to help other groups with their projects, she says.

Heagy says that, with just a little training, inexperienced staffers can get more comfortable with policy work.

The Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest offers such training, as do many state nonprofit associations, Heagy says, and any chance to get some experience will help staffers feel less intimidated by the process.

“Nonprofits need to tell themselves ‘These people want to hear from me and I can do it,’” Heagy says.  “It’s just relationship development like everything else.

Other stories in this series:

Part 1: Tight budgets, lack of flexible funding deter many nonprofits.
Part 3: A climate of fear makes many nonprofits wary of policy work.
Part 4: Lack of understanding, fear can limit board support and action, experts says.

Stories in other series:

Part 1: Policy and advocacy should be part of nonprofit toolkit, experts say.
Part 2: Foundations can influence policy without hurting status, experts say.
Part 3: Advocacy critical to fulfilling nonprofits’ missions, experts say.

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