Nonprofits that want to influence public policy in today’s polarized political climate need to be persistent and develop a long-term strategy for achieving their goals, says Dan Smith, a former nonprofit advocate who spent more than 10 years working for Congress.
Mr. Smith, who just left a position as staff director of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, or HELP committee, says Washington’s political system is currently “dysfunctional,” making it hard to get even routine business done. He says one big problem is the filibuster, a tactic lawmakers use to require measures to pass the Senate with 60 votes rather than a simple majority.
But, he says, that doesn’t mean nonprofits should just give up. In fact, he says, they should continue to cultivate lawmakers between now and the November elections.
“You don’t know what the next Congress is going to hold,” he says. “And as you build support for your ideas, many of those members are going to be back next time, and over time you build more and more support.”
Mr. Smith, who served on the HELP committee for about two and a half years, this month begins a new job as a consultant at the Sheridan Group, a firm that advises nonprofits on advocacy and lobbying. He will draw from his experience working for the American Cancer Society from 1999 to 2010, serving first as national vice president for government relations, then as president of the Cancer Action Network, the group’s advocacy arm.
Before that, for about eight years, he was a Congressional aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who now chairs the HELP Committee.
He says he decided to leave Congress this time around mainly for financial reasons, noting he had taken a pay cut to accept the committee job and has two children approaching college age.
Following are excerpts from an interview with Mr. Smith.
What is the most important thing nonprofits can do to improve their advocacy efforts?
Have an effective and well-thought-out strategy for how you want to influence the process and take the time to actually plan out that strategy and be thoughtful about where you can influence the process and what the key decision points are. Far too many people have good ideas but don’t always understand how the process actually works and where the critical decision points are and who you actually need to get to to influence. The other thing that’s important is to build out a good coalition and a good set of supporters.
Do people on the Hill get the nonprofit sector?
To an extent, but what folks have to understand is people on the Hill are very, very busy. You think about the HELP committee: It has a huge portion of the domestic agenda under its jurisdiction. When you go up as an advocate, you need to be very succinct and very direct about both what your problem is and also to offer real solutions to lawmakers and their staffs.
Do nonprofits devote enough effort to advocacy?
Most nonprofits could actually spend more time, money, and effort on advocacy when you look at what kind of change you can bring and how you can advance your mission. When we formed the Cancer Action Network, we were able to effect big policy change across the country. We worked with a coalition often to do this. When I joined the Cancer Society in 1999, there was, I believe, one state in the country that had smoke-free laws. When I left, I think the number was up to 28 or 29 10 years later. That was not by accident. We had well-funded, well-thought-out campaigns across the country.
How different is the atmosphere in Washington now from when you worked on the Hill in the 1990s?
I was struck when I went back how even the easy things that used to happen as a matter of course no longer happen as a matter of course. There are must-pass bills that normally would pass: At the end of the day, both sides would come together and make that happen. There’s less of that. I really think the filibuster needs to be reformed. That everything now in the U.S. Senate requires 60 votes practically, that’s very bad for the country. If we can’t make national policy effectively, that’s going to impact our future as a country. That gets right to the heart of many of the issues that matter to the nonprofit sector.
What is the best way to work with a polarized Congress?
The people who are successful at it are the ones who are persistent, that don’t give up, that continue to educate, that try to have reasonable conversations with folks and don’t throw up their hands and make one attempt and say it’s not going to happen. You might not be able to get something done in this Congress, but that doesn’t mean you just stop working with them. No, that’s an opportunity between now and the election to go up and educate folks about your issues.
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