Advocacy with Sharon Anderson
In episode 31 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Sharon Anderson discussed include:
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Sharon. Welcome to the podcast.
Sharon Anderson: Thank you. Pleasure to be.
Carol: So I'd like to start out with a question of what you, what drew you to the work you do, what motivates you and, and what would you describe as your why?
Sharon: Okay, I would actually say the roots of it really go back to my growing up actually, because I saw with my parents, my family a lot of engagement with community service. And that just resonated with me through whatever form of non-governmental organization, the non-profits space, the ways that people found to address needs. And I just grew up with the sense of how important that was. And then. Having some opportunities to serve on some nonprofit boards and to see it in, in that regard. But I think as far as really the motivator around my consulting with nonprofits came from a project that I worked on for capacity building. And this was one of my friends. Projects. When I started as a consultant, I just saw that need and that space of different nonprofits with really good intentions, but needing support, needing the information to help them take it up to the next level. Yeah. And one of the areas you focus on is helping organizations with their advocacy and policy development starting with a definition, what, what would you describe? How would you describe advocacy? My conversation opener with advocacy is telling your story. And finding a way to make certain that you are clear about what it is that as an organization, what is the organization about, what do you do? Who are you trying to help? What kinds of things are you doing to make those and make improvements. So That for me is the, the why I, and going back to something I mentioned sort of earlier, just looking at, at nonprofit, I saw some times that there were a lot of nonprofit boards in particular that when you said advocacy to them, it was like, oh my gosh, no, I can't, I can't do that. And so that's what I mean. To address the importance of it not only to their sustainability, but also the fact that, yes, there are rules and you can meet those rules and still do what you need to do in this space of advocacy.
Carol: Let’s start with why it's important. And then I'm curious for you to say a little bit more about why you think it's so scary to folks, and then what the reality is.
Sharon: Okay. The reason that I think it's important is the fact that when you really sort of look at it, And sort of put the nonprofit under the microscope. Almost everything that they do is in that sphere of advocacy, there's raising money. You need to be able to advocate for yourself in order to indicate this is why we are a good investment, because this is what we do. And here are the people that we are right. You are looking at issues around sustainability. You need to be able to advocate for your organization in order to get board members, potential board members in the pipeline to get community supporters in the pipeline. And I think more and more now there's a reality to that in that public policy space. There is a place for nonprofits to be able to come to the table and say, this is an important area. So for instance, as a quick example I worked in a couple of areas with a nonprofit dealing with the foster care system and being able at one point to go before the city council to talk about foster care in the city, what was working, what was needed.
And I think sometimes that gets missed in that legislative space. Which is nonpartisan. What you're addressing are the guts of legislation and why certain legislation is important and what's needed in order for the system to function.
Carol: Yeah. And I think it's important for organizations to remember that in that whole public policy and that policy development process, there's often that, that initial steps where legislators are hearing from a lot of people doing hearings, getting testimony, and they may not have even, I don't I'm, I'm not an expert in this, so correct me if I'm wrong, but they may not have even put a bill forward yet. That may be in the formation phase or maybe they have, and, and it's to inform, what else, what might be missing, what needs to be amended. Correct?
Sharon: Yes. and, and at various stages, yes. In some instances they are looking at legislation sometimes within, especially I would say the local and state government sphere, a lot of times when they are doing budget oversight, because a lot of these profits are working with governmental agencies, the question becomes, how are things working? What's working well with that, and what's not working, in order to make any necessary adjustments or changes to the system. And that's a good space for them to be because of the fact that, government. A lot of times it basically needs those kinds of partnerships with nonprofits to help. When I mentioned the foster care system, for instance working with court appointed special advocates, well, it's a nonprofit that brings in the volunteers and trains them, and then they work. The family court system. And so there is a need to have those conversation lanes open in order to make the necessary improvements in order to share here's, here are the trends so that adjustments can be made or, What, what needs to happen to stop what's going on here? How do we protect the children?
Carol: Yeah. And I think that there are a couple of different things in there, but one thing that comes to mind is with all the growing distrust of the government in our country, one of the things I think people don't realize is how it actually is. Non Profit organizations that are actually getting, being granted money, being contracted with, to deliver a lot of these services. So it's not necessarily the government doing it themselves, but empowering it, giving others the resources to then, fulfill those goals and, and, and provide those services. What, what would you say Are some of the misconceptions, especially among boards that folks have around, what nonprofits are and aren't allowed to do in terms of advocacy.
Sharon: I think a lot of times there's a concern because of the discussion around, especially with a 501C3 designation of not lobbying. And so it's that confusion between what is lobbying and what is advocacy and. And sometimes it's like, I don't, I don't even want to touch it and it is daunting. And, and a lot of times too, especially within the state government, sometimes their additional rules are our requirements, but I think it's been. Clear about what it is that this particular agency needs to do. And I think there are also some very clear points where you can say, okay, first and foremost, you don't endorse. You just have to clearly be key. You don't endorse candidates. That is a definite no-no. So stay out of that realm. However, if as a nonprofit. And maybe in partnership with other nonprofits, you want to put together a candidates forum so that your stakeholders in the community can hear what people feel about income support programs, or about. Foster care. I keep sort of circling back to that one or about these literacy programs. Then basically there's a way to do that. You invite all of the candidates and you make certain that they all come and they all answer the same question. And that's a service. That's a part of advocacy, but it's a service to educate your stakeholders.
Carol: And what is the definition of lobby?
Sharon: Lobbying is basically getting into the partisan space. So it's also, it's about the people running for office and saying we do or don't vote for them, do or don't vote for somebody. So that is some part of it. And then the other part of lobbying can also be around. And it's tricky. Area, and I will, it really depends on local guidance a lot of times, but it's around legislation and the extent to which you try to make certain that people are informed about legislation and where the particular nonprofit stands on it. Without necessarily saying now, go out there and change this legislation or, it's, it is a tricky navigation and a lot of times it does depend on the state too. So I'm thinking, for example being able to say that this as an organization, we support. Back in when the affordable care act was being challenged, to be able to say the affordable care act is important because of these reasons for our, our community.And it's an essence saying, think about this Congressperson, council member versus putting forth that debate without getting deep into the politics of, and if you don't do this, then we're not going to vote for you.
Carol: Yeah, the way I've heard it described as, and it's interesting that you say that there's, there's variation at each state and locality. So putting a caveat on that, folks should really pay attention to what the rules are in their local area. But the way I heard it described was, advocacy education, when you're providing information. Stories about your constituents and the people that you work with. Statistics, trends that you're seeing, that's all in the realm of education. And then lobbying is only really, when you say, our members where we're getting part we're part of a coalition and our members are supporting this particular bill, we urge you to vote for it. And, and yeah, without any . Connection to whether or not. The people that you represent, the people that you work with might or might not vote for a particular candidate that being walled off, but the space that, that is okay within limits for non-profits 502 and 501-C 3 is to engage in is that piece of, we urge you to vote for HR. Number one, whatever it is within limits and their limits. But, since it's a pretty narrow definition, very few nonprofits. You know that very few who do some advocacy and are actually gonna run up against that limit. And I think that's the part that boards don't understand.
Sharon: Yeah. And, and it's, it's interesting one of the parts maybe. Right, right. And, and, and of course to the whole, when you look at the range of 5 0 1. Organizations, we always focus on the 5 0 1 C3 because of the fact that they generally tend to be charitable. And then, realizing that there are other nonprofits. Who are in that space of doing endorsements and the likes. So this is why I think it also gets to be tricky for boards because they need to understand the range of things the different options that are available to a non-profit and then just be sure to stay within their space. But I, I definitely agree and appreciate the, when you mentioned the education piece that educating people and that's your stakeholders. Elected officials about what's going on in this space that this nonprofit serves, then you're definitely in an, in your lane, that's the sweet spot for nonprofits advocacy.
Carol: Yeah. And I think that another point that you make is that, W w we quote the part of the IRS code, the 5 0 1 C3 that, that designates one particular type, which is, a large portion of the, of the nonprofit sector, but there are others C4, C5, C6, all who, all of which have different purposes and, and then different rules. But yeah, what we were just talking about really pertains to the C3 category, which is. Most organizations that are trying to do either serving a field or trying to do some educational, some, charitable service work, making things better for people, animals meant the whole range, all of it, the whole of things that could be within a mission. What would you say helps organizations be successful with their advocacy efforts?
Sharon: I think being really clear about What is their advocacy policy and their plan. I think having some very doing that work and what the standards for excellence, for instance, program there. Resources there as far as being able to talk about here's a draft plan, but you need to be clear. So from an organizational perspective, who speaks for the organization. So making certain that they've clearly delineated that if a question comes in, let's say the media calls and says, where do you stand on this? Well, everybody in the organization needs to know who's equipped. Answer that question because not everybody in the organization can answer that. So, you want to be clear about that and also be clear about what the objectives are. So, let me pick another organization, like the league of women voters, there's the league of us and then the league in various localities. And so in the interest of full disclosure, I'm a member of the league and the district of Columbia. And, there's a strong non-partisan state. But there, but the, the educational pieces about making certain that people know about the candidates and that there's an effort made to get feedback from all of the candidates. So in an election year, the policy is going to be, we're doing everything we can to make certain that people understand what the rules and regulations are for voting in our community. During an off year, it may be some other thing, but that's the policy. And then you just have to be able to have what the plan looks like as to how you go about doing that? How do you accomplish that and how do you, what are the outcomes you're targeting?
Carol: Yeah. When one point that you made around who can, who can talk to the media, having a plan for that pause for a second while the train goes by. One of those enthusiastic conductors who really likes to blow their horn.
Sharon: Maybe it has some spectators on the side of the tracks.
Carol: Maybe they're waving and yeah, a couple of points there with who can talk to the media or who can talk, who can represent and speak on behalf of the organization. And especially if, if a stance is being taken, who could write a letter to the editor, all those things I think are really exciting. For groups to have conversations about and know, make sure that everyone's clear. I think one of the things that on any board decision is important is for ma board members to understand that they can only work on behalf of the organization as a whole. And so if they're the board member who's empowered, they then need to. I mean to talk to everybody else. So they have a sense of, they know what the organization stance is. They themselves may have a different opinion and to be really careful and clear, are you talking as XYZ, individual citizen? Or are you speaking now on behalf of the organization?
Sharon: Right? Right. And depending on the nature of that organization, there, there may be some very specific pieces of. You know what that looks like and how that's interpreted. So, the, the league of women voters, I'll go back to that, with their non-partisan position, if you're serving on the board, there is a nonpartisan statement, which indicates that, you have this hat on representing the organization writ large and in the interest of not muddying the waters. It's encouraged that you stay in that lane and not get involved in campaigns, for instance. Of course, as an individual, that's your right, but because you are with the board and people, if they know, especially that you're a board member, it gets a little dicey. And in order to just make it clear that policy is you wouldn't be campaigning.
Carol: So you could, after you're done with your board service, that might be something you choose to do, but while you're a board member, they've made that policy just so that they have a super bright line. And again, that's an individual organizational policy. Others might have different ones, but having those policies and having had discussions and then documenting it about. Yeah, how do we take a stance as an organization? What are they, what has to happen? what discussions and processes have to happen so that we know that we're in agreement on this, et cetera, I think would be super important. Yes. Yes. And you had mentioned the standards of excellence before. I just want to make sure folks know what that is. It's Program that came out of and is still housed within the Maryland nonprofit association, the Maryland association of nonprofit organizations. And it's a way for nonprofits to be accredited in this set of very high standards. The standards of. In all aspects of their operations. So, advocacy is just one component. And all the other things that you need to think about in terms of how you run your nonprofit are part of that accrediting program.
Sharon: Yes. And one of the things that I truly appreciate about the standards for excellence program is that. There is that accreditation process. If an organization chooses, they are very generous with their information. So I often use in the work that I do when I do workshops on advocacy their policy and plan. I, I provide copies of that to say, here's the sample that you might work from, just because they are open with a lot of their information.
Carol: Yeah. And they have samples for all, all other aspects. So I've, I've built used pieces from, and we're both standards of excellence consultants. So we have access to all of this, but I've used their board assessments as a jumping off point when working with the boards and organizational assessments, right. Pretty much everything. And, and even if our organization doesn't decide to go through the entire process, there are aspects that could be really useful. And a lot of the state level associations also offer it. So you don't necessarily have to be in Maryland. This is nationwide.
Sharon: Yes. It is a nationwide program and they have, what's a code which basically provides, guidelines, high level. And the code is easy. There's an app for that.
Carol: I didn't realize I'm going to have to look it up. All right. Well, at the end of each episode, I'd like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. So I have one here for you. I'm out of my handy box of icebreaker questions and it is what is the last random thing that made you smile?
Sharon: Lately, given everything that's been going on with health challenges in the country and the world. The last random thing that made me smile was noticing that birds were starting to be attracted to the flowers on my patio. And, and starting to , I've seen them in the general vicinity flying over, but actually coming down and landing all the table versus just sitting on the fence and it just. Actually that just happened to me before this call. In fact, I just was like, oh wow. And I just was so tickled by that. So it gave me joy.
Carol: Awesome. Awesome. I'm not much of a birder, but we are big. We have a lot of flowers around in our front and there was a Cardinal that came by and landed in a tree. So that dramatic red was quite, quite lovely. Yeah. Lovely birds. So, what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you do
Sharon: Currently we’re making some pivots as far as being, if you will, in the nonprofit space, but I'm starting to work with the national museum of African-American history and culture. And I've worked with them previously, but I'm now working as far as with visitor services and it's just First and foremost, I am just taken by the museum and all that it's done and, and just the immense scope and importance of it. And to have an opportunity to contribute means a lot to me. So for me right now, personally, that's where I am.
Carol: Yeah, it's an amazing, amazing museum. I am definitely going to go back to it because you can, it's not possible to do, to really take all of it in, in one visit. So I definitely need to go back.
Sharon: And, and I just I, I guess I should tread gently here, but I think it's legitimate as an employee. I could still say but wonderful resources on their website too, because and, and a huge. I am biased in the museum space, but the Smithsonian has been doing a wonderful job with all of its museums and digitizing a lot of their information and definitely during the pandemic, making that those resources available as a way to reach everyone and definitely check them out because they're just amazing museums within the system.
Carol: Yeah, I think we forget living here in Washington, how spoiled we are to have those amazing resources. So-called so close by. Yes. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast.
Sharon: Well, thank you. I greatly appreciate being invited and I've enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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