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Monday, June 13, 2011

Practicing Politics - Tori

In his case study on the Washington-based advocacy organization, Bread of the World, Eugene Bardach chronicles an inter-organizational conflict that developed in the late 1980s between the nonprofit’s Organizing Department, whose responsibilities included membership recruitment and coordinating letter and phone campaigns, and its Issues Department, whose responsibilities included lobbying members of Congress and policy education. Members of the Organizing Department believed that their recruitment efforts could be bolstered by promoting visionary issues that would inspire the ‘grassroots.’ Instead of narrowly tailored legislative proposals that stood a greater chance of surviving Congressional scrutiny, the Organizing Department backed a legislative package focused on structural themes and concepts. With more experience in the halls of Congress, analysts from the Issues Department countered that lawmakers “vote for bills, not concepts.”[1] In order to be more effective advocates, members of the Issues Department felt they needed the autonomy to make policy decisions based on changing political realities and the mechanics of legislative process.

Advocates or lobbyists for nonprofit organizations are frequently faced with reconciling the enthusiasm of their members for a particular cause with the sometimes harsh reality of a contentious and unpredictable legislative system. Distilling complex parliamentary rules and procedures or explaining the role of partisanship and ideology in the legislative process without confusing or even alienating passionate supporters can be difficult.

Yet, by taking a proactive approach to educating members of a nonprofit organization about legislative issues, advocates for nonprofits can reduce confusion and channel the passion of its members towards practical legislative ends.

Below are three suggestions:

1) Advocates or lobbyists for nonprofits should provide monthly updates about legislative institutions and lawmakers. For example, several members of the Virginia General Assembly have retired or switched legislative districts over the last several months. By sharing their insights about how these changes will impact the 2012 legislative session, an advocate can help the nonprofit identify potential sponsors of the organization’s legislative proposals.

2) Social media tools can be an effective means for engaging the organization on legislative issues.

3) With their knowledge of institutional history, norms and partisan dynamics, an experienced advocate can also help a nonprofit balance desired policy aims against what a legislative committee is likely to consider.

Ultimately, by engaging members of nonprofit in on-going dialogue and regular consultation, an advocate can minimize frustration and confusion members have towards the legislative process.

[1] Eugene Bardach, “Bread for the World,” The Electronic Hallway, 2000, p. 6.

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