Why advocate? Q&A about the legislative process with Meredith Sullivan Benton
February 7, 2017
It’s a question we hear often in this new political climate: what can we do? For nonprofits, advocacy provides an answer. On March 3, CNM is partnering with The Healing Trust and The Sycamore Institute to present the free session “Legislative Update: How Could Your Mission Be Affected & What Can You Do About It?” which will include analysis of some of the proposed bills and an advocacy strategies panel.
Nonprofits (understandably) can have many questions about advocacy. Check out the Q&A below with The Healing Trust’s Senior Program Officer Meredith Sullivan Benton for some answers:
Q: How does the bill filing process work in the state legislature? Why should nonprofits be aware of this date?
A: We have a part-time legislature, which means that they meet for only a few months out of the year. They do a two-year session. As we just had an election year, the folks that just got elected will be here for the next two years. The bill filing deadline is the way they start each session in order to give all the legislators time to file their bills. From that day forward, we know what legislation they may consider. Since they have a limited amount of time, they feel like it’s a great way to plan agendas and committees going forward for what will happen over the next couple of months.
If organizations wanted to have a bill filed on their behalf or on behalf of those they serve, it would have to be done by that date. After that, nonprofits can look and see what are the bills presented that may or may not have an impact on your organization or the clients that you serve.
Q: What happens next in the legislature after the filing date?
A: Next in the process is that they are considered by the legislative committees. There’s a bill filed in each one of the chambers (House and Senate) so they will have a House bill number and a Senate bill number. Each bill moves thru their respective chamber committee(s) and subcommittee(s). You can go on the legislative website and there’s a way you can track bills (free of charge) to see when they are scheduled for which committees. You’ll be able to see the path your bill is likely to take and which legislators will vote on it. Knowing the path can help you prioritize communications or meetings with the appropriate legislators.
In addition, bills are also assessed for a fiscal impact to the state. They go to a group of staff in the legislature who work with state agencies to determine the cost of that piece of legislation, called to as the fiscal note.
Q: Nonprofits can sometimes get “stuck in the weeds” focusing on day-to-day operation. What would you say to encourage them to get involved in advocacy work?
A: Oftentimes we talk about this in terms of systems change. It’s a way to look beyond the immediate number of people you can serve; advocacy is a way to broaden the impact of your mission and reach. When we talk about an environment where there’s a scarcity of resources, leveraging our talents for advocacy means that we can often work for a greater good that positively impacts those we serve as well as those we may not serve due to a lack of resources, geography or other limitations.
Additionally, I would say that many nonprofits already have many of the skills needed to be successful at advocacy. Nonprofits are generally very good at managing relationships, whether it’s with donors, clients, partnerships with other nonprofits. Advocacy is another way to utilize that strength and skill set as it is about developing and maintaining relationships with a specific audience: policy makers.
Q: How did you personally get involved in this field?
A: I am a recovering lobbyist. I got started working in D.C. for Senator Fred Thompson and then at the state Capitol for Governor Phil Bredesen. Both experiences showed me first-hand the value that citizens as well as nonprofits provide their legislators. They are able to provide policy information, personal stories about how a bill might affect their constituents, and they help make the words on a piece of paper come to life for those legislators so they can truly understand how their vote will impact people. Working with the legislature for about 10 years really gave me that understanding of the need for nonprofit voices in the policymaking process and this passion.
When I left the legislature, I started working with different advocates. I worked in 20 states helping nonprofits and their volunteers understand how to be advocates at state and local governments for effective policy change.
Q: What are some examples of local nonprofit success in advocacy efforts?
A: There are nonprofit advocates doing this work every day so there are hundreds of stories to share. Going back a few years, a lot of the smoking cessation policies that we have in Tennessee, such as workplaces and restaurants going smoke-free, were led by a coalition of nonprofits. I think that’s a huge one that you can see has carried on today and really changed perceptions about a public health issue.
Mostly recently, we’ve seen the Tennessee Immigrants and Refugee Coalition (TIRRC) mobilize successfully to help a single family. With the recent news about Fuad and his family, we saw that TIRRC’s advocacy engaged our federal officials so that this family can now call Nashville home.
Q: What else should nonprofits know about advocacy work?
A: Advocacy takes time, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. By coming to sessions like the one on March 3, it will help raise their awareness of what’s going on so that they can come together to do something about it. It’s not just about them as an organization becoming advocates; it’s also a way for nonprofits to empower their clients to become advocates for themselves. Having this information and this knowledge can put power in the hands of those who need it.