Making the Case for ChangeMarc Schultz | Georgia Nonprofit NOW
Tackling legislative reform can seem like an overwhelming task for your already-busy nonprofit, but the rewards can be just as outsized. “We’re impacting thousands, instead of the hundreds we reach through direct services,” said Stephanie Davis, executive director of Georgia Women for a Change, a GCN member organization, regarding their successful campaign to reform Georgia’s laws regarding prostituted children.
Davis asserts that the only thing keeping nonprofits from affecting legislation is an irrational fear of advocacy, based on the myth that nonprofits can’t get involved in legislation without running afoul of lobbying laws. The truth is that much advocacy work—like discussing issues with elected officials or trying to influence policy enforcement by government agencies—isn’t even considered lobbying, and that a simple one-page IRS form, the 501(h), is all you need to start advocating for changes in the law.
“Without some level of policy work, we would just be spinning our wheels.”
Davis and several other organization leaders shared their stories at a panel discussion at the 2012 Nonprofit Summit, demonstrating what Georgia nonprofits can achieve when they do the research, connect with lawmakers, and effectively make the case for needed change.
Georgia Women for a Change and the Freedom from Human Trafficking Act
Three years ago, Georgia Women for a Change marched into the state’s Capitol with a bold agenda for reforming the way the justice system handles prostituted children: rather than arresting minors coerced into “the life,” Georgia Women wanted to ensure they were treated as the victims they are, caught in a trap set by predatory pimps. Davis, who has been personally involved with the issue for 12 years, reported that their initial proposal, to make prostitution charges applicable only to individuals 18 or older, “went over like a lead balloon.” It seemed that legislators were unwilling to tackle a topic as charged as “child prostitution,” especially after critics colored the proposal as an attempt to legalize underage sex-for-hire.
After regrouping and rethinking, Georgia Women came back to the legislature with a focus on “human trafficking,” a move that reframed the issue in less-threatening terms, broadened the conversation’s scope to include a wider range of victims, and took advantage of a trending topic in state legislatures and District Attorney offices across the country. After that, they found House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey receptive to calls for a bill that would give prostituted children an affirmative defense and toughen penalties for pimps and johns. Hearing that Representative Lindsey and Attorney General Sam Olens were also looking at the issue, they reached out with a bill they’d drafted with partner John Harbin of King & Spalding. “As soon as the bill was introduced,” said Davis, “I got to work putting together a coalition.” That coalition would end up including more than 60 organizations, which made an enormous difference in the capitol: “Rep. Lindsey talks about how he had a strong network behind him, and we put that together.”
2. Frame your argument so legislators will listen. Georgia Women turned around a struggling campaign by recasting their issue—prostituted children— in terms of a politically popular topic: human trafficking.
3. Find your champion. Get to know your lawmakers, their values and their style. The champion you go to when you want to push through new legislation isn’t the same one you go to when you want something blocked.
Together, Georgia Women, Lindsey and Olens hammered out the final language of HB 200, the “Freedom from Human Trafficking Act,” which Governor Deal signed into law on May 2, 2011. “Representative Lindsey’s leadership was invaluable,” said Davis. “He reinforced for us the importance of working across both aisles, and of having leadership behind the issue from the very beginning.”
Georgia Justice Project and the Criminal Justice Reform Bill
In 2009, the now 25-year-old Georgia Justice Project (GJP), another GCN member, picked its very first legislative battle, looking to reform Georgia’s criminal records laws as part of its Coming Home reentry assistance program. For years, Georgia records laws—rated second-worst in the country in 2009 by the Legal Action Center—have helped deny those with a criminal record access to housing, employment, and basic social services; even an acquittal wouldn’t guarantee an expunged record. “We realized that, no matter what we did in terms of direct action or outreach, we would be unable to make a real difference for people without some level of policy work,” said GJP staff attorney Marissa McCall Dodson. “We would just be spinning our wheels.”
For the next two years, Dodson reported, the GJP identified the“low-hanging fruit” in the records statute, “things we could tweak that would really make a difference in people’s lives,” and drafted legislation sponsored by Representative Jay Neal that focused on individuals who weren’t convicted but nevertheless were ineligible for expungement. Opposition initially crowded out support with a “soft on crime” refrain, but the 2010 recommendations of Governor Deal’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform cleared the way for major changes. “With the state’s budget crisis, [Georgia lawmakers] realized we were spending way too much money incarcerating individuals who did not need to be in prison,” said Dodson, “and that we really needed to get serious about finding alternative ways to deal with that system, including making it easier for people with criminal records to successfully reintegrate into society.”
After that, the GJP gained new supporters in the legislature, and found the dedicated opposition willing to work out compromises. Dodson credits their success to “our presence at the Capitol and our education work, informing legislators and the community.” To build the case, the GJP partnered with other nonprofits like the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Georgia Stand-Up, the Center for Working Families, and the United Way, as well as corporate partners like UPS and law firms including King & Spalding. In the final tally, “Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians” passed without a single “nay” vote, and was signed by Governor Deal on May 2, 2012. The victory expanded the pool of cases eligible for expungement and modification, and greatly increased the speed of a system that once left applicants waiting upwards of a year for their records to be cleared.
Georgia Appleseed and The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act
While working with New Orleans evacuees, the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice discovered that thousands were ineligible for federal assistance because they had no clear deed to their property—the latest in a long-standing series of problems for those, mostly poor homesteaders, who inherited their land without a valid will. Known as “heir property,” this land can be attached to any number of “tenants-in-common”—a collection of siblings, for instance—each with an equal right to the land, despite the fact that only one of those tenants actually lives on, cares for, and pays taxes against it. Under a state law common throughout the U.S., any one of these tenants-in-common can force a sale, leaving the family living there homeless and with just a fraction of the sale price. In 2008, Georgia Appleseed started the Heir Property Project to help these landowners through pro bono legal representation, research and education, and a challenge to the legislative status quo.
“Much advocacy work—like discussing issues with elected officials or trying to influence policy enforcement by government agencies—isn’t even considered lobbying.”
Anecdotes concerning heir property issues are common, said project manager Crystal Chastain Baker, but Georgia Appleseed needed hard research to diagnose the problem and quantify it for the powers-that-be. With funding from the Cousins Public Interest Fellowship at the University of Georgia School of Law, and later from the Kellogg Foundation and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Georgia Appleseed has ongoing research projects in 20 Georgia counties. In McIntosh County alone, volunteers uncovered more than 400 heir property parcels with a combined value of more than $25 million—value that could, according to Baker, “help pull low-income landowners out of poverty,” if only those assets weren’t completely inaccessible. “The motivating theme of the Heir Property Project,” said Baker, “is that ‘an end to poverty begins with property rights.’”
In four years, the project has conducted dozens of community presentations; trained more than 100 attorneys in heir property issues; published manuals for both landowners and lawyers; and assembled more than 250 volunteer researchers across 20 counties. They also helped push through the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, drafted by the Uniform Law Commission with Alabama Appleseed and Representative Edward Lindsey. Passed unanimously by both the Georgia House and Senate and signed into law by Governor Deal on April 16, 2012 (in photo), the new law improves the notification process for forced sales, extends legal alternatives to those forced sales, and broadens the range of considerations judges must take into account before forcing families from their homes.
Marc Schultz is writer/editor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.