Maryland Nonprofits’ Legislative Preview event was held on Monday, January 9th with over 500 people in attendance. Whether your organization is new to advocacy or a long-time advocacy leader in the sector, this event advised on how to navigate a legislative session that could lead to critical new funding for any organization’s mission.
A particularly applicable panel gathered several nonprofit leaders to speak on successful nonprofit budget advocacy. Moderated by Maryland Nonprofits’ Senior Policy Analyst, Neil Bergsman, the panel included: Ed Zakrenski from Round House Theatre, Kathy Hedge from Parent Encouragement Program, Michael J. Wilson from Maryland Hunger Solutions and Santo Grande from Delmarva Community Services.
Ed Zakrenski always focused on their mission as a theatre that serves as a gathering place with a warm and welcoming community space for everyone. He advised starting all meetings with an approach to listening first. Pay attention to the interests of the legislator so you can customize your pitch, talking about the strengths of your program depends on their interests.
Kathy Hedges was doing this kind of work for the first time this year. She brought a real urgency to the conversations when discussing with the governor’s office, decision-makers, etc, indicating the child mental health crisis that going on and how they want to get some work done and need the resources to do so.
Michael J.’s elevator speech asking to raise a supplemental benefit to the SNAP program varied on who was giving it. Often his staff would talk about their data but they also had real participants get involved in the process, shaking up preconceived notions of ‘what a SNAP participant looks like’ and making people think differently.
Santo didn’t just ask one organization for money but diversified the asks getting federal money, state money from 3 or 4 different departments, local money, and philanthropic money, bundling it all together to really make Delmarva’s project a reality.
All of the panelists had a common thread that Neil highlighted, really reinforcing the concept of storytelling. A narrative can engage our minds and the personal story is hugely important. As Kathy mentioned when discussing how she shared her personal story in the process, “you have to connect with the heart before you connect with the brain.” Meetings and allowing the legislators to see you face to face, whether in person or via Zoom, really makes a difference.
Other effective strategies include testimonials, letters of support, a short video showing people talking about their use of your services, an op-ed in the local newspaper, and sending emails with data to people running for and then actually winning elections. The basic message is to stay in front of these policymakers so you aren’t forgotten and show you’re relevant in the community.
As the session was wrapping up, when asked for a lightening round piece of advice for anyone listening who is going to be asking for the first time, the panelists shared some valuable insight
- Be bold, don’t ask for a small amount, ask for what you need.
- Don’t feel like you have to have it all perfect. Just start the process and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Build relationships with your senator and delegates. Don’t just focus on them during the session, get them involved year-round, and do not underestimate the importance of their staff.
- Be tenacious.