Setting An Advocacy Policy Agenda Your Supporters Want

by Diana Manos // Dec 06, 2016 Communications

Agenda concept on blackboard with empty paper sheet

Putting together your annual advocacy policy agenda involves deciding what you’re going to prioritize, and what you’ll leave on the back burner. But many government relations departments decide what they’ll fight or support every year, with little or no input from the people that matter most – their supporters.
Putting a good annual policy agenda in place should include a healthy contribution from your advocates, clients, donors or members, and sometimes it’s as easy as just asking them.

Keeping An Eye On State Relations

The Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) uses a combination of annual snail mail and email surveys to get a feel for what their members are dealing with, according to Joan Bowman, MNA’s external affairs officer. It’s part of the organization’s agenda-setting strategy that also includes annual input from a public policy committee comprised of a diverse representation of members, from all subsectors of the organization, and from all geographic locations in the state.

MNA asks the committee what top 10 issues they would like to have addressed through legislative advocacy that year, Bowman says. The association then takes that initial list and pushes it out to the field of more than 3,000 members on the public policy email list, asking them to rank the 10 items in order of importance. From this survey, the association picks the top four to focus on for that year.

Sometimes MNA adds an additional item, as they did this year, Bowman says, especially if it’s an issue that members are unaware of that will affect them.
Most of the agenda MNA sets is for the state level, because “the fact is, most action is in the states,” Bowman says. For the national agenda, MNA relies on the DC-based umbrella organization, the National Council of Nonprofits, to keep tabs on things.

In turn, the National Council seeks input from the state nonprofits, with monthly calls, surveys, listservs, and a vast array of networking, she says.

Setting A National Policy Agenda

David Thompson, vice president of public policy at the National Council of Nonprofits in Washington, DC, says it’s always important to find out “what’s happening in the real world” before setting an agenda.

Sometimes the most effective way to do that is by listening to members during conferences, holding conference calls, or simply asking them “what policy issues keep you up at night?” he says.

Other methods include listservs, and public policy committees that help identify trends, challenges and opportunities.
“I’m generally not a fan of sending out a generic ‘what issues should we be following’ survey of members, Thompson says. “That approach creates expectations that the results will dictate or mandate the agenda – even when the most popular items may not be in the association’s mission or focus area.”
Thompson gives an example of why. “Suppose a group of arts organizations could encourage all of their colleagues to fill out the survey expressing support for arts funding, but the surveying organization could have a policy – as mine does – of not lobbying on subsector and or appropriations issues,” he says.

But for many organizations email and mail surveys are effective. At the very least they’re a way of trying to keep the most important group, your organization’s members, in mind when you’re setting your policy agenda. Of course, no matter how you decide to draw information from members regarding their expectations, you’ll need to account for anomalies.

Thompson says he once asked a group of nonprofit policy students to answer the question: “If you could change one policy to advance your mission, what would that be? Every student had a unique response, and there weren’t patterns that would lead to an agenda”.

In those cases, depending on the sample size you’ve taken, you might need to put your data analyst hat on, and give each similar-sounding response a number. That way you can see the predominant concerns when you look at the responses as a whole.

Alison Leipsiger, director of public policy at Forefront, an association of Chicago area grantmakers and nonprofits, says she uses annual surveys to gather grassroots input for agenda, but she is also sensitive to the fact that members don’t like to be polled too often.

Like MNA, Forefront also relies on the National Council to help with national-level agenda setting. National issues tend to stay the same from year-to-year, while issues move faster at the state level, she says.

To set state-level agenda, Forefront uses a strategy and policy committee, made up of diverse members from across the state. “We try to spread out their knowledge-base as much as possible, to have as many voices as we can, to get a good look at what’s going on at the grassroots level,” Leipsiger says.

Delia Coleman, vice president of strategy and policy at Forefront says keeping in touch with other state advocacy organizations is critical for state-level agenda setting. “If something keeps showing up on the radar with our peers, and in private conversations with decision-makers, that gives us a flag that we should check in with our members,” she says.

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