Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Developing a Legislative Strategic Plan

The 111th Congress is in a frenzy of activity as the new administration proposes new legislative priorities on many fronts. State legislatures are meeting or will be meeting over the next few months. State Net produces an excellent state legislature calendar. If your organization has not already done so, now is an excellent time to develop a Legislative Strategic Plan.

Most nonprofits diligently work on strategic planning, but most often that planning is limited to the business end of the nonprofit and not the policy end. A Legislative Strategic Plan helps you identify exactly what your legislative goals are in the short and long terms, and determine what it will take to help you reach those goals.

Unless you are a huge organization, like AARP or the National Education Association, it is best to limit your short term legislative goals. Mid to smaller nonprofits typically don’t have the resources and “person-power” to take on dozens of issues and certainly they don’t have the resources and person-power to do them all well. As with regular strategic planning, Legislative Strategic Planning begins with understanding your mission and brainstorming what policy goals will help the organization achieve that mission.

I like to develop a list of primary, secondary and tertiary issues. What are the two or three issues that are primary and critical to our members? What would be secondary or even tertiary? Clearly identifying your primary issues helps you plan how to use the resources you have (money, time, members) and keeps you from getting side-tracked by issues that you may have a stake in but are not critical. After figuring this out then you can better determine how you will spend your political capital.

Most of us are not islands; we work in coalition with other groups and organizations that have similar or sister missions. For instance, what would the cattle association have in common with the sheep herders’ association? Is it grazing or water rights? Legislation that protects open land while allowing structured use? Is it legislation that funds disease research and eradication? Conduct outreach to organizations that you think your nonprofit crosses paths with and find issue areas of agreement. Leveraging the power of your membership and the power of another organization’s membership is critical.

For the secondary and tertiary issues, I always loved finding things I could sign on to, whether it was another organization’s legislative strategy, letter to Congress or amicus briefs. Signing on not only put you in the game, it also increases your cache and visibility. It tells your members that you are doing “something” to be part of a public policy effort, but you are not spending your resources on issues that don’t rank at the top.

In your Legislative Strategic Plan it’s okay to dream. In a perfect world, what do we want? Is it an amendment of an existing law? Is it a completely new regulatory scheme or a completely new law? Are we going for a Constitutional Amendment? I did say dream. What would it take for us to realize that dream? More money, more members, more clout? The dream legislation can become part of your longer range goals.

How are we positioned to mobilize once we have our plan? In the olden days, we used to create phone banks, I still have an old chapter training manual that taught our chapters how to phone bank. Now it is so easy to pop off a message, provide links, even sample letters, etc. My favorite tool for mobilization is CapWiz by Capitol Advantage, but there are many of these tools out there that work equally well. Mobilization requires planning and judiciousness, you run the risk of wearing people out if you are constantly issuing a call to action. Think about how you are positioned. I had a conversation recently in which I was told the organization did not have the email addresses of its members. So now, they have to go collect those addresses of over 1,000 members before they can begin to send out instant alerts.

What will it take to familiarize the decision makers with our cause? Have we done a good job of educating legislators or do we need to make an effort? Have we identified and matched our members with legislators? What do we need to do to achieve that?

On a later post I will talk about visiting your legislators and decision makers. But for now, these are a few hints on developing a Legislative Strategic Plan, a very important process if you are in an organization that needs to advocate for itself or for a worthy cause.

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