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Hey, Nonprofits and Funders. Now is Your Time to Get Loud with State Legislators and Governors.

Updated: May 21


Even if the Supreme Court were not about to overturn Roe vs. Wade- and it is- now would be the time to focus on the state level. Policy power is shifting. The new majority on the Supreme Court believes that states, not the federal government, should be making most decisions.


Many good laws were passed over the past half century. Laws that allowed LGBTQ individuals to live and love openly. Laws that bring people with disabilities into mainstream life. Laws that open voting to Americans of all races. It made us proud.


But now, in states from Alabama to Wisconsin, Governors and state legislators are working hard to eliminate these laws.


In their passion, they are going deep. About half of the states are likely to ban abortion. (NY Times, May 4, 2022). Florida’s Parental Rights in Education/ Don’t say gay law gives parents the power to sue districts for what would have been considered humanitarian actions like referring a suicidal child for counseling. Texas has banned gender affirming care, putting transgender youth, their families, and their providers at tremendous risk. Oklahoma’s State Legislature just passed a bill that prohibits nearly all abortions starting at fertilization and gives private citizens the right to sue abortion providers and anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion. The ability of teachers to educate their students in basic facts of American history and discuss issues of racism, sexism, and systemic inequalities of all kinds is under attack by laws or other actions introduced in 42 states and counting. And the list goes on and on.


First, they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out. … Martin Niemoller.


Most nonprofits are staying silent, even as they agonize over the impact of the polices.


They stay silent because of the risks of speaking out. Their Board of Directors could block action and fire the messenger. Donors would flee in anger. Advocacy and lobbying might put their 501c3 status in jeopardy. An organization labeled as political risks becoming a pariah organization.


And then there is the sheer enormity of not knowing exactly how to move forward. How to make sure the initiative has impact? How can this energize stressed out staff?


The stakes are high. Speaking out matters. Staying quiet is taking a position.


We must rewrite this narrative.


Here is why.


No matter the differences, most state legislators want what we all want: a safe community to work, love and raise a family. They too have family members facing unexpected pregnancies or who want to live openly as gay or who have disabilities. In their heart of hearts, they may not agree with the proposed changes but are afraid to challenge their leaders.


We are convinced that some legislators will challenge these positions if they have the courage and the cover to do so.


Our community of foundation and nonprofit leaders can provide that cover.


Foundation and nonprofit leaders sit on a pot of hidden power. They, their Boards, and their staff, are important constituents and respected experts. Therefore, elected officials, particularly at the state and county levels, are willing to meet with them. These officials listen. After all, these are future voters, campaign volunteers, and donors.


Even if doors are slammed, good things happen to those who advocate. Those donors and prospective donors who are distressed by actions once viewed as extreme and now mainstream will be attracted by your courage. Board and staff will be inspired by your leadership.


Here is How to Begin

 


Share your vision for building advocacy into the work of the organization with the Chair of your Board of Directors. This is about protecting basic human rights in the face of a seismic shift in the country.


Brainstorm with colleagues and staff around one issue, any issue that fits with your mission. What does success look like? What is the problem and the solution? Where is your organization’s expertise?


Join a coalition. Build a coalition. Where is there support for advocacy around this issue in the larger community? Who is leading on it now? Best to start with finding friends, especially allies with the time and the experience to do advocacy.


Learn what types of advocacy are always ok, what is strictly forbidden, and what fits into the “it depends” category. The staff at Bolder Advocacy of the Alliance for Justice are experts in this area. They are starting a training program state by state to equip nonprofits with the knowledge they need to advocate without risk. Find out when they are coming to your state.


Avoid getting out in front of your Board. Orient them to the issue, showing the impact on your ability to provide services to communities in need. Work with them to develop guardrails to protect your 501c3 status as well as to protect against the inevitable challenge that may come from donors. Most importantly, make sure that they are comfortable with your position.


Frame the message in terms of how it effects your ability to help people. Educate. It is remarkable how distracted people get by all the issues that need worrying about. Focus. Reach out to family, friends, and organizations. Recruit champions to be messengers.



Play the inside game. Build relationships with elected and appointed policy decision-makers, perhaps beginning with honoring them. Identify people who know the influential people personally and are willing to open doors. Testify at hearings. Engage in grassroots and direct lobbying.






This is a lot for leaders with too much to do and too few resources.


Start small, stay focused. We are currently working with two foundations and two statewide membership organizations, each of whom wants to build their advocacy infrastructure and support their grantees or members to speak out. Each are moving forward within their own culture. One, in fact, did not start small but rather went forth boldly to shape major legislation. Others are moving forward more cautiously but with equal determination.


Now is the time for foundation and nonprofit leaders to challenge the tsunami of scary legislation and speak out for our clients, our communities, our values, and the people we hold dear.

— Roberta Rakove, Suzanne Strassberger





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