Why Advocacy Loves CompanyPat Willis | Georgia Nonprofit NOW, Fall 2013
In her tenure heading the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, Executive Director Pat Willis has helped establish, lead, and grow three different state-wide coalitions: the Georgia Children’s Advocacy Network, the Georgia Birth to Five Coalition, and JUSTGeorgia, each involving between 100 and 800 members. Besides scoring a major legislative victory in last year’s revised juvenile justice code, Voices has just been selected to “house” yet another statewide coalition, the Georgia Statewide Afterschool Network. Here, Willis discusses the principles of coalition-building and effective advocacy her team has developed over ten years of work.
Advocacy isn’t about one organization’s relationship with decision-makers, it’s about engaging many organizational partners throughout the community; likewise, it isn’t just about those organizations’ voices, but the voices of their constituents. As an advocate, you are always standing on someone else’s shoulders—you never accomplish anything by yourself. To paint a picture of what’s needed and convey the urgency of the decision at hand, you need partners, decision-makers, constituents, and beneficiaries. We founded Voices for Georgia’s Children with the understanding that, in order to make change for kids through public policy, we must engage many voices.
In my work, I’ve heard people—including board members—express concern that Voices is not a household name; they suggest ideas like billboard advertising to “get our name out.” That misunderstands the way we create sustainable advocacy. I say to them: if we can build the relationships with those who already have grassroots relationships with members, clients, and funders, we will have generated the kind of large-scale awareness that’s needed to get the attention of decision-makers.
As an advocate, you are always standing on someone else’s shoulders—you never accomplish anything by yourself.
To that purpose, one of our fundamental strategies is to build trust with community organizations who already have built trust with their constituents, ultimately bringing all these voices together to advocate for children. To generate trust in our role as advocate-organizers, we work to help partner organizations understand the issues, largely through a series of forums in which our constituents—like the members of our Georgia Children’s Advocacy Network (GA-CAN!)—have small-group conversations with representatives from various state agencies, including the Departments of Education, Early Care and Learning, Juvenile Justice, and Human Services and Public Health. We even engage the less obvious supporters of children like the Departments of Agriculture and Economic Development. In talking about our respective roles in solving a particular children’s issue, we educate participants about the process, illustrating why it takes multiple agencies working together and with the private sector to address children’s needs. The forums also give nonprofit leaders an opportunity to build relationships with governmental decision- makers.
Broader, deeper, better partnerships
Because elections create continuous turnover in state decision-makers, and because we have a small staff, it’s important to go broader into the decision-making community and deeper into the nonprofit world.
Going broader into the decision-making community means looking beyond the obvious leaders, like the Governor and the Lt. Governor, to state and local legislators and the people who advise them. Whenever we find a public policy we want to address, the first question we ask is, “Who is the decision-maker?” Then we ask, “Who influences those decision-makers?” By understanding the players involved in the process, you begin to see the opportunity for, and the necessity of, gathering a larger base of policy influencers.
Going deeper into the nonprofit world means looking for two kinds of partners. One is a policy partner; because we don’t have all of the policy expertise within our organization, and we never will, we find partners steeped in the latest legal and policy research. The other—which we have more of, and are constantly seeking—are the advocacy partners. These consist largely of service providers who help kids directly, including civic organizations, child-welfare nonprofits, and others. It’s our obligation and opportunity to provide these partners with the tools to be effective advocates, especially in organizations where the mission leaves little time or energy to spare.
Because the vast majority of their coalition partners are service providers, not advocates, it’s up to Voices for Georgia’s Children to make advocating as simple and straightforward as possible. That’s why they came up with the Two Minute Advocate Ask, a standardized, easy-to-grasp overview of the issue at hand and the position that best serves child welfare.
View the advocacy tool.
We provide those tools online and in-person through informational outreach and multiple kinds of meetings. One of the important new tools we’ve developed is the “Two Minute Advocacy Ask.” Because people often don’t have time to read through white papers or even two-page briefs, this tool explains what the issue is, why it’s important, what’s the key message, and who to contact—with a direct email link—in just two minutes.
Another tool is the credibility we’ve built with the governor and other key decision makers, which we share with our partners through meet-and-greet opportunities. While the General Assembly is in session, for example, we hold legislative receptions where we’ve been able to get the governor and commissioners to attend. We invite our partner organizations there to co-host and receive recognition, not only to give those partners access to decision-makers, but to demonstrate the unity of the coalition supporting children’s issues.
Sitting at the table, and staying there
Managing a coalition is about serving your partners: considering them committed advocates who also have other day-to-day responsibilities. When I took on the directorship of Voices at its inception 10 years ago, I had already built some 30 years of relationships. That history and trust were helpful in bringing people to the table, but keeping them there is something else entirely. To do that, you have to understand their individual interests, needs, and time constraints, and then build to those specifications.
It’s much more effective to organize people around a general issue if you have a specific goal they can commit to. When we started JUSTGeorgia, we knew that our ultimate objective was to create community advocates for juvenile justice. To provide a focus, we made our specific work the revision of the juvenile justice code. It may have taken us seven years to pass a revised modern juvenile code, but having that specific objective kept our partners in the game over the long haul.
Managing a coalition is about serving your partners: considering them committed advocates who also have other day-to-day responsibilities.
It’s also important to understand that decision-makers, even in issue-specific agencies, have a wide scope of responsibility—most legislators, for instance, have duties ranging from transportation to banking to energy to kids. It’s necessary to respect the fact that these are very busy people, while keeping in mind that they do, in fact, share your interests and your goals. Voices has come to recognize that getting the attention of busy policy-makers requires two things. One, you have to establish (or re-establish) an emotional connection to the issue, so that the individual experiences, feels, or sees why the issue demands attention. Second, you have to make a case for the public good that will come from supporting your position.
That’s why Voices organizes Georgia Pre-K Week, a program that gives every elected official and key agency executive a personal experience with quality Georgia Pre-K. During one week a year, we schedule time for each official to attend a pre-K classroom in their home district. There, lawmakers see first-hand that pre-K isn’t about babysitting, but about developing children to be successful learners and successful citizens. We also make it clear that pre-K isn’t just a concern for parents and teachers by getting our nonprofit partners to send leaders and community members to join on-site.
The key is persistence: you make the emotional connection and reinforce it, making sure that each decision-maker carries away the value of your preferred policy for the vitality, economy, and future of Georgia. If we can make both the emotional connection and the case for public good, decision-makers will be equipped to make choices and set priorities that serve kids and the state.
When you band together, develop concrete goals, communicate the urgency and value of your position, and stick with it, policy change can happen—and the difference it makes can be transformative, for individual Georgians, their families, and the state as a whole.
Pat Willis is executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, a Georgia Center for Nonprofits member organization.