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Nonprofits need to make new friends among legislators

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By Jill Warren Lucas

In North Carolina and across the nation, nonprofit leaders are facing a distinctly unfamiliar challenge this year:  New legislators, and lots of them.

Redistricting brought about considerable change in many districts where elected officials had enjoyed longevity and constituents benefitted from established relationships.  When the North Carolina General Assembly convened last week, about a third of the seats were occupied by freshmen lawmakers.

So what does this mean for nonprofits that count on state allocations to serve constituents, or which hope to acquire such funding?

“It’s time to make some new friends,” says David Heinen, director of public policy at the N.C. Center for Nonprofits, adding that many new legislators will have had little or no exposure to local or statewide agencies.

“It’s not reasonable to expect members to know all sides of every issue on their own,” he adds. “Nonprofits really are in a position to be experts for their cause, as well as demonstrate that they are a good on-the-ground resource. If they don’t speak up, no one else is likely to do it for them.”

David Thompson, vice president of public policy at the National Council of Nonprofits, agrees.

“I have a quote posted on my wall:  You never want to have to ask a stranger for a favor,” Thompson says. “Get to know them, and make sure they know you. It’s always better to ask a friend for a favor, or ask them to not hurt you.”

Lesson No. 1 for advocates is to get on their legislator’s calendar as soon as possible. For those located outside of the capitol, it’s not necessary to travel to the legislature. In fact, most experts advise against it.

“Don’t ask for a meeting at the state house while it’s in session,” Thompson says. “Try to connect on a weekend when they’re home. Ask them, ‘Please come visit us.’ It’s best to meet at your office, or the place where the results of your advocacy can be seen.”

Thompson says a good way to begin the conversation is to send a letter of congratulations and good wishes for the start of the new session.

“Every nonprofit should be ‘selling’ itself to donors and the public. They need to do the same thing with legislators,” he says, adding that the overture to should be made to new and known lawmakers. “And they need to do their homework before the meeting happens.”

Research your legislator’s position on relevant topics, but avoid making partisan assumptions about newly elected representatives and their policy priorities. Stick to your core message and key goals.

“No nonprofit should change its view or belief, or cower because there are changes in the legislature,” Thompson says. “But it is smart to deliver your message in a way that connects with your audience. If it’s a fiscally conservative member, for example, you should lead with why taxpayers are better off because of what you do.”

Organize your remarks to be succinct, meaningful and memorable. How many lives were touched by your program? Did it save money or prevent additional hardship? Would the nonprofit’s success reflect well on a member who argued on its behalf?

“They want to know how they can achieve their agenda through the success of the nonprofit – or why what they’re doing is adverse to their own interests,” Thompson says. “You both have the job of solving a problem. Find a way to do it together.”

Heinen believes that lawmakers who understand how nonprofits serve their communities are more likely to support them when budget cuts need to be made. The relationship could be especially important when legislative sessions stretch late into the night, or when a hastily called meeting makes it difficult for a nonprofit to send a spokesperson.

“It’s also important to have good relationships with other nonprofits that have a similar mission,” he says. “If I hear something that might affect another organization, I let them know. It’s not as competitive as you might think. It works best when we all work together.”

When it appears that a well-reasoned dialogue is not possible, however, there are alternatives.

“Public protests may be needed when policymakers just aren’t listening or when the news media isn’t covering what your organization deems essential to the debate,” Thompson says. Other options include op-eds, petition drives, sign-on letters and even humor to draw attention to an overlooked message.

Caution should be exercised, however, to ensure that nonprofits do not stumble over the grey line that can damage momentum or even reputation. “Public outrage can be overdone to an extent that a nonprofit becomes marginalized,” Thompson warns.

Additional guidance on ways to approach legislators and effectively promote nonprofit missions is available online through the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest and other websites.

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