Article In Brief:
- The Problem: It can seem like nonprofits have the deck stacked against them and that bringing about meaningful change is next to impossible. Even when changing government policies is the only way forward, the task may appear daunting.
- The Context: Nonprofits are subject to many laws and regulations with unintended consequences that adversely affect the sector’s ability to make a bigger impact. Bringing about change is always an uphill road, but nonprofits know better than anyone that when communities work together, there’s no telling how much they may achieve.
- The Solution: The authors use a real example of a successful effort to change policy at the state level to present a roadmap for how nonprofits and their communities can face and win against Goliath.
For most nonprofits, challenging unfair laws or public policies that interfere with their ability to serve has all the elements of a classic “David versus Goliath” story.
Advocating for policy changes at the state or federal level can require months, years, or even decades of sustained lobbying efforts. That’s a major investment of time, money, and resources — one that most nonprofits simply can’t afford on their own.
Fortunately, even with the deck stacked against them, small nonprofits can successfully bring about major changes at the highest levels by effectively using their most potent resource: Community.
When a nonprofit can bring its friends, supporters, and allies together around a common goal, that can become a powerful coalition.
Together, a coalition of nonprofits can pool resources, connect with a broad audience of stakeholders, build community and political support, and collectively endure the long advocacy campaigns that an individual nonprofit simply couldn’t.
Coalitions in Action
It’s an approach that has already seen success.
In November 2022, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed HB 2214 into law, outlawing a longstanding practice where extra liabilities were unfairly forced onto the shoulders of nonprofits, causing insurance coverage to become cripplingly expensive, or outright impossible, for many of them to find.
The bill passed thanks to more than a year of advocacy work by nonprofits and their allies working together, partnering with politicians and staffers, communicating with stakeholders, providing testimony, drafting bills, and more.
By pooling their time and resources, these nonprofit advocates were able to help advance HB 2214 every step of the way — from identifying a problem, through the state legislature, to the governor’s desk, where it was signed into law.
A Difficult Road, But Not Impossible
Even with a strong coalition at your back, bringing about positive change is still incredibly difficult. It’s important to understand the obstacles you may encounter so that you are prepared when they arise.
To have a chance of overcoming them, you and your team are going to need very good communication skills — reinforced by patience, preparedness, flexibility, and some luck.
- Keeping a coalition together is hard. You’ve got a common goal to unite you, but different partners will have different opinions. Members may come and go over time, personalities may clash, priorities may change, and you’ll find that passionate people can disagree passionately on just about anything.Communication is key. Maintaining open lines of communication within your coalition is often the best way toward ensuring all parties are represented and involved in the decision-making process. By developing and cultivating those relationships, you’ll find it’s far easier to reach consensus and find the compromises to keep everyone together and moving forward.
- The status quo is working against you. When you advocate for change, you’re trying to get people on board and fired up for something new and different. In that process, you’ll encounter those who view change of any kind as unfamiliar and frightening. Overcoming the sentiment of “that’s the way it’s always been” can be more powerful stumbling block than many realize.This is why it’s important to include community-level stakeholders in your coalition — people who understand why an issue is a problem because they’ve seen its effects firsthand. They’ll be your best allies for effectively communicating real-life stakes as to why change is needed.
- Opposition may be fierce. People and institutions who currently benefit from the status quo and don’t want to see it change may strongly oppose you. They may form well-funded, vocal, and organized coalitions of their own that can create all manner of headaches for your team, even derail it entirely.Do your homework before you begin actively advocating. This includes exploring and researching your issue from all sides, giving you a chance to identify those with differing opinions and prepare to meet their concerns — before they have a chance to become opponents.
- You may need to start over. As difficult as it is to effectively change laws and policies, it’s even harder to get it done on the first try. Even if you do absolutely everything right and make all the right moves, odds are you’ll find yourself back to square one at least once. Learn from it, dust yourself off, and try again.
The most important thing you can do? Don’t give up — and maybe carry a map.
An 8 Step Road Map to Achieve Legislative Victory
There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all recipe for effective advocacy, but by creating your own recipe — or road map— and tailoring your approach, you can better set yourself up for success.
When creating a road map, it’s important to keep in mind that every advocacy situation is unique, with a unique set of circumstances.
A road map that works for one group may not work at all for another. Some steps might happen for you in different order, others might not be necessary at all, or maybe the situation will call for something new altogether.
Here is just one example of a road map: Eight steps used by Nonprofits Insurance Alliance (NIA), the publisher of Blue Avocado, and advocates in Pennsylvania to plan and organize our approach along the entire advocacy journey to pass HB 2214.
Step 1: Define the Problem
Identifying a standing law or practice as a potential target of an advocacy campaign can seem subjective at first glance.
When a nonprofit is looking at an issue and considering whether to advocate for change, key questions to ask include:
- Is this issue preventing or impeding our nonprofit from serving our community?
- Are other nonprofits being affected by this issue?
- Are those creating this issue operating within the law?
In this case, our team recognized that many Pennsylvania nonprofits providing state-mandated services were between a rock and a hard place.
When negotiating contracts with city, county, and state government actors, nonprofits were commonly being forced to sign agreements that would indemnify government actors from any liability — even in situations where the state actor had been negligent (or worse), or the state actor was either partially or wholly legally responsible for the harm.
Their alternative? Walk away and lose the state funding they needed to function.
Not only was that completely unfair to nonprofits but putting all the potential economic consequences on the nonprofits — regardless of responsibility — prevented accountability and ultimately resulted in harm to the vulnerable populations the nonprofits meant to serve.
Step 2: Design the Solution
After determining the problem in Pennsylvania, the next step was to agree on the best option for a viable, long-term solution to pursue.
While several potential solutions were considered, including working with state regulators on contract language and individual nonprofits on contract negotiation, an ambitious legislative approach was considered the best chance for sustained change.
That meant partnering with elected officials to develop a bill that would explicitly prevent unfair shifting of liability, regardless of the contract language.
This approach was preferred because, if the bill were to be passed in the legislature, it would represent a broad solution — one that wouldn’t be open to renegotiation every year, depend on regulators operating in good faith, or require continuous, ongoing vigilance and legal expenses.
A steep climb yes but it represented the only sustainable solution.
Step 3: Identify the Legislative Path
After deciding on a legislative solution, the next step is to find an appropriate partner, an elected member of one of the legislative houses, who could lead the advocacy effort within the state government.
In this case, NIA’s coalition identified a member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly who had previously championed a similar bill, making them an ideal choice to get the solution through the legislature.
Step 4: Build a Coalition
To convince the assembly member to introduce this solution as a bill, and to rally the support needed to pass it, you will need a coalition of in-state advocates.
In the case of Pennsylvania, several potential coalition members had prior experience working with members of the state legislature, and they were sought out as members once the legislative path had been chosen.
When several key umbrella groups were approached and invited to join a coalition effort, most declined to engage as they had their own agendas and were focused on other legislative initiatives.
However, the one umbrella group that did engage, the Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth & Family Services (PCCYFS), was exceptionally well-equipped — and had even previously worked with the desired assembly member on the prior bills.
That umbrella group and its members became a key partner in moving HB 2214 from an idea to a law.
Step 5: Develop Collateral
The next step is to persuasively communicate the problem to as broad an audience as possible — all with the goal of convincing community stakeholders that your bill would solve the problem.
As a national organization, NIA had policy expertise and insurance knowledge, but it was PCCYFS and the in-state coalition members that did the work in individual communities to help develop effective, relevant communications materials and collateral. They knew the people, the language, and the best ways to persuade those in their communities.
The challenge was in understanding the situation from stakeholders’ point of view, understanding what “solutions” already been attempted in the past (in this case, an unpopular cap on damages had been proposed), and determining hot-button and sensitive issues.
Step 6: Get Legislation Through the Legislature
Once the legislation is introduced, your coalition will need to get as many eyes on the collateral as possible — not only to rally support, but also to assuage the fears of potential opponents.
In our case, collateral was presented to key members of legislative committees in both houses, as well as in front of individual members in their home districts.
Potential opponents outside the legislature, such as the county counsel and city solicitors’ group, were also briefed on the language of the bill — and the impacts it would and would not have on them.
Finally, the coalition created a “dream team” to appear in front of the relevant committees for a hearing on the bill that were made up of stakeholders that included child service nonprofit staff, nonprofit umbrella groups, representatives of insurance companies, and others.
Ultimately, the bill went through both houses unopposed.
Step 7: Get the Governor’s Signature
It can be helpful to reach out to your governor’s office directly to make them aware of your coalition’s support for the legislation.
In this case, here was very little, if any, outreach to the Pennsylvania governor because he was already inclined to support the bill. NIA’s coalition was also not in a position to engage with the governor on this bill. But, as expected, the governor signed this bill into law.
Step 8: Share Your Experience
After achieving your legislative victory consider whether other nonprofits in other states could benefit from your example.
Since the Pennsylvania bill passed in November 2022, a number of groups and organizations in other states have expressed interest in this process, recognizing that the success of this bill could solve similar problems in their state.
As a result, there are already efforts underway in at least five states to pass similar legislation — and one national umbrella group is actively advising their members to consider partnerships to do it in even more states.
Communities Working for Change
These outlined steps are just one way that nonprofits, advocates, and allies can bring about meaningful change by working together.
For a nonprofit feeling the pressure of an unfair law, taking on the state or federal government can feel like an insurmountable challenge, and maybe you’re feeling pressure to just accept the status quo.
But when you serve your community, you are never alone.
Bringing about change is always an uphill road, but nonprofits like yours know better than anyone that when communities work together, there’s no telling how much they may achieve.
And by documenting and sharing your experience, you’ll not only help your own efforts — you may just help other nonprofits and coalitions in their own advocacy, too.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.