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Legislative staff seen as nonprofit resource

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Julia Vail

RALEIGH, N.C. – The N.C. General Assembly is filled with people who can help nonprofits get their message to a sympathetic ear, three nonprofit experts told the 2009 Public Policy Forum.

Legislative assistants, clerks, bill drafters and researchers are just some of the many personnel in the state legislature who can help nonprofits plead their cases to lawmakers, said Linda Millsaps, chief operating officer for the state Department of Revenue.

“Legislators have to know a little bit about thousands of different things,” she said, “so they’ll turn to one of the subject-matter experts on their permanent staff and ask whether this is a good idea.”

And staffers have just as much power to hinder advocacy efforts as they do to help them, she said.

Millsaps said she knew of one lobbyist who, try as he might, could not get on the schedule to speak with a committee member.

The lobbyist finally learned that the he had offended the legislator’s assistant months ago.

“Legislative staff can cause you more harm over the long-term than members can,” she said.

However, nonprofits should note that, while they may talk and share their ideas with legislative staff, permission is required from legislators before working with their staff on legislation, Millsaps said.

At the policy forum, sponsored by the N.C. Center for Nonprofits on Feb. 20, panelists made several suggestions to help nonprofits get their voices heard at all levels of legislature.

Research

Before approaching legislative staff, it is crucial to do some homework, said Bill Holman, director of state policy at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.

“You really need to pay attention to what’s going on in the outside world, and also in the political environment,” he said.

It is no coincidence, he said, that water allocation has become such a pressing policy issue following last year’s drought.

Nonprofits that can address constituents’ most burning issues tend to get the most attention, he said.

“Find out legislators’ interests and be ready with information for their staff,” he said.

He suggested nonprofits visit the General Assembly’s website and sign up for electronic notifications about which legislators are on which committees.

“The access is phenomenal,” he said, “And you should take advantage of it.”

Timing

Legislators, as well as their staff, have the weight of an entire state on their shoulders, a factor any nonprofit vying for even a sliver of their time should take into consideration, panelists said.

“Be aware of the length of time you’re asking a person to spend,” said Yvonne Johnson, mayor of Greensboro and executive director of One Step Further. “It would be good to give them an option of a time frame.”

Usually late Thursday or early Friday is the best time to approach staffers in the General Assembly, Millsaps said.

Since sessions typically wind down in late morning or early afternoon on Thursdays, staffers have more free time to devote to advocates.

And when it comes to session cycles, advocates should get started early trying to contact legislators and staff.

“Once you get down to late April, May, June, they’re all going to be subsumed in the budget process,” Millsaps said.

Though some times are better than others, the panelists said, nonprofits should not be timid if they have ideas that could bring about long-term benefit.

“Right now we’re looking at saving money and cutting as much as possible,” Johnson said. “If you have an idea that will benefit the quality of life and save money in the long run, [you should] bring it forth.”

Communication

While dealing with legislators and their staff, nonprofits must remember to keep language clear, concise and specific, panelists said.

“We need to be able to champion your issue in layman’s terms,” Johnson said.

However, rules for communicating with legislators and staffers are somewhat different, Millsaps said.

Advocates should approach legislators first to give them the big picture, she said. They then should follow up by giving detailed explanations to bill drafters and researchers.

“These folks tend to be pretty heavy subject-matter experts already,” she said. “They don’t want you to tell them why heart disease is bad. They want to know why your solution is the best one.”

Respect

Though it may seem obvious, Millsaps said, it bears repeating that nonprofit representatives should be polite and respectful when dealing with legislative staff at every level.

They also should keep ethics rules in mind at all times to avoid making staffers uncomfortable.

“Don’t put them in an awkward situation unintentionally,” she said.

And remembering to thank legislators and staffers for their trouble could help keep lines of communication open.

“Remember, friends come and go,” Millsaps said, “But enemies tend to accumulate.”

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