Public Policy 101 for the Nonprofiteer

These days, I spend some time at the Minnesota Capitol complex. I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who knows the ins-and-out of the political process and political maneuvering. I’ve realized in the last few weeks, I’ve got a ways to go before I can spout off different political scenarios and predict  how a particular piece of legislation will move through the legislature.  What I do know is that nonprofits and YOU have an important role to play in statewide policy making. Together, we can make a policy difference that will impact the lives of real Minnesotans. Most policy decisions are informed by lobbyists, interested parties, and constituents who voice their opinions to legislators. It is part of the democratic tradition and helps find real solutions to help real people.

Consider an example: A nonprofit food shelf with a mission to eradicate hunger in its region serves community members directly through providing foodstuffs to families in need. The staff and volunteers of the organization  know the community members they serve and the barriers they overcome. They may also be aware of the policies that affect their patrons. The food shelf is a legitimate and reliable source of information and advocacy on policy issues related to hunger, health, food assistance policies, among others. Their participation in the legislative process can influence policy change at a statewide level that really benefits their patrons.

In today’s blog post, I will share my top three lessons from my first eight weeks on the job as a public policy advocate with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits!

1. Nonprofits can—and should!—lobby. Don’t let anyone tell you that they can’t or that you as a nonprofit employee, board member, or volunteer cannot. No where in federal or state law does it say otherwise. So next time someone says nonprofits are not allowed to lobby, set them straight! Lobbying is a part of achieving the mission of your organization. There are, however, some limitations to nonprofit lobbying and some reporting requirements that you should know about. Lucky for you, I just co-led a webinar with my boss on Nonprofit Lobbying, check it out for all of this good info.

2. Legislators and other elected officials are just people. I twisted myself into knots before I walked into my first senate office solo, where part of my job is to talk with legislators. After a few calming breaths and exchanging of pleasantries, we started our conversation. I realized I was freaking myself out in anticipation of the conversation. Talking to a legislator is not too different from talking to anyone from whom you are seeking support or looking for clarification. Don’t forget: you are an expert in what you do and your organization’s work.

3. Be prepared; do your research. Legislators are busy and sometimes need to be in two places at once. When going into a meeting with a legislator, do a bit of research first.  State if you’re a constituent, have a clear purpose for the conversation, a specific ask, and your elevator pitch ready. Listen carefully. I promise it’s not so bad, and when you leave the office you’ll have  participated in democracy.

So whether it’s food assistance, minimum wageearly childhood education,voter re-enfranchisement, immigration reform, public health, affordable housing bonding, or the working family tax credit, get in the know and pipe up! You, your organization, and the communities you work in can make a difference. Here are a few easy ways to get in on the policy-making action:

There’s still a lot I do not know and I am learning more each day on the job and at the Capitol. But I do know that nonprofits don’t operate in a vacuum. The people whose lives nonprofits impact don’t live in one either. We are all touched by policy decisions made at the Capitol. Let’s lead together and help inform policy that is truly in the public benefit.

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