Progressive message focus of new effort

By Ret Boney

After almost two years of informal meetings, a new initiative is underway to help progressive advocacy organizations do a better job getting their messages out to the public.

Known as Blueprint North Carolina, the project includes about a dozen Triangle-area organizations, all of which have statewide missions, and is funded primarily through a one-year, $250,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem.

Housed in the Raleigh-based N.C. Justice Center, the nonpartisan project aims to help nonprofits that are nonpartisan sharpen their public messages and their interactions with citizens, says Julie Mooney, who was hired in August as Blueprint’s project director.

“It’s an effort to bring nonprofits together toward achieving a better, fairer and healthier North Carolina,” she says.

Blueprint’s work has been distilled into two primary components, says Chris Estes, executive director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition and a member of Blueprint’s steering committee.

One involves analyzing and improving participant groups’ messaging strategies, while the other focuses on helping those groups better coordinate and improve existing civic-engagement efforts, he says.

The effort comes at a time when more conservative organizations have become increasingly effective in swaying public opinion and affecting public policy debates.

“On a broad level, part of the catalyst for coming together is the understanding that the political right has done a good job of creating the infrastructure to gets its message out,” says Estes.

Given the legal limitations facing nonprofits around advocacy and lobbying, he says, there is a need to identify ways progressive groups can conduct policy work, and be effective in the legislature and among voters, while remaining within the their tax-exempt designation.

“We want to make sure that the positive messages around investment, fairness and equity are getting out in the same way that messages that counter those things are getting out,” says Estes.

While the specific activities of the group have yet to be outlined, Mooney says they likely will involve conducting research on public opinion, promoting civic engagement and building the capacity of its members through networking, workshops and trainings on topics like what nonprofits can and cannot do around civic engagement.

Participants include groups such as the Justice Center, the Common Sense Foundation, the Conservation Network, Equality North Carolina Foundation, NARAL, El Pueblo and the Conservation Council.

“All these organizations have been working together for years,” says Debra Tyler-Horton, interim executive director of the Justice Center and a member of Blueprint’s steering committee.  “This is a place where we can process things together.”

The hope is that by honing their communication skills and encouraging the public to be more engaged, the group can better achieve its shared vision, as well as the visions of its participant organizations.

The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation has supported the group during the past 18 months by convening and covering the costs of meetings, and awarded a formal grant in May of this year, says Tom Ross, the foundation’s executive director.

“Even though these organizations are individually working on different issues, they all have similar visions for what the state should look like,” he says.  “And that aligns with what we think the state should look like.”

That vision includes creating a state that is fair for all its citizens and creates opportunities for all, he says.

Most of the participating groups are current or former foundation grantees, says Ross, and strengthening their ability to help make policies that benefit North Carolina is a central goal.

“Interaction and joint efforts around supporting each other’s organizational capacity, and cooperation around specific issues, can only strengthen their efforts,” he says.

David Mills, executive director of the Raleigh-based Common Sense Foundation, says learning from other advocacy organizations is a key goal.

“It’s an opportunity to communicate better, exchange ideas, share information and work with like-minded groups,” he says.  “We find we’re most effective in reaching our goals when we’re in coalition with other organizations.”

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