Strength in Numbers
News, Winter 2018
NONPROFITS WORK TOGETHER TO IMPACT PUBLIC POLICY
BY MARY LEE HARVEY DIRCKS
Policy is defined as a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational results, which is a long way of saying that policy is really just a community agreement.
At least that’s how Marj Plumb, director of Coalition for a Strong Nebraska (CSN), defines it. “Policy is about making agreements about how we as citizens of this earth will live on the earth together,” she says, likening it to a household agreement. “You live in a house with kids and you make an agreement that they will hang up their coats when they come in and load their dishes in the dishwasher when they are done with them. You have house agreements. Policy is all about having community agreements.”
Unfortunately, the rancor of politics has bled so intensely into policy that many people feel helpless and don’t know what to believe. “Then we lose the policy conversation or we think that policy is about fighting each other,” Plumb says, adding that policy debates can resort to arguments where both sides come from a position of “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
“That is the gist of our challenge as a society right now—to break out of that absolute thinking and to get our politicians to break out of that absolute thinking,” Plumb says.
CSN tackles that challenge by encouraging nonprofits to engage decision- makers by using their collective voice to advocate and impact public policy. “We don’t want you to get involved in those arguments; we want you to bring the sanity you bring to running your nonprofits back into policy,” Plumb says.
“Let’s talk about the issues using data and science, working together to become informed and to make the best decisions for our house—our society,” Plumb says.
About Marj Plumb
Plumb grew up in Illinois in a working class family. Her father was a truck driver; her mother a waitress. “When I was growing up I had no idea that nonprofits even existed,” she says. “That just happened to be where I got my first job.”
Plumb was the first of seven kids in her family to graduate high school and then to go on to college. “Being the first generation college student and not knowing how to even apply, or apply for student loans, or how to find my dorm room, was the backdrop to my entire life,” she says. She learned early to just figure it out.
But when she became an executive director for a nonprofit for the first time, Plumb was terrified. “I didn’t know how to be an executive director, so I read everything I could read and I talked to everyone I could talk to. I was terrified of making mistakes,” she says. “Some people, when they are terrified of making mistakes, hide and sort of pretend they know everything when they don’t. And some of us become veracious knowledge gatherers. So I joke with friends that there’s probably not a workshop held in the United States about nonprofits that I haven’t taken. I want to always be trying to figure out what I don’t know.”
She stayed in nonprofit administration for 25 years. “I learned so much about organizational development and management, leadership and public policy,” Plumb says. For the last 19 years she has channeled that knowledge back into the community working as a non-profit consultant specializing in public policy advocacy, community-based participatory research and nonprofit organizational and leadership development. She has a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management from the University of San Francisco and a Doctorate in public health from the University of California, Berkeley.
Plumb moved to Nebraska from California in 2013 with her wife, Tracy Weitz, who accepted a position at the Susan T. Buffett Foundation. “When I moved here and started meeting people, I was stunned, blown away. I was so thrilled and so impressed with the level of policy sophistication that some of the nonprofits here in Nebraska have,” she says. When offered the CSN director position, Plumb couldn’t say no. “These are amazing people, so knowledgeable and humble, which is beyond the best combination—to be so smart and yet so humble and so committed to Nebraska and Nebraskans,” she says.
Coalition for a Strong Nebraska
“The goal of Coalition for a Strong Nebraska has always been the same: To get more nonprofit organizations involved in public policy, specifically around issues surrounding poverty, so that nonprofits have a voice about everything from taxes, the economy, housing, food, health care, education—all of the issues that affect people’s ability to have a full, safe, secure and financially feasible life,” Plumb says.
When Plumb came on board as director two years ago, CSN morphed from being a lobbying organization to a training organization. “I don’t want to be the lobbyist, I want to train people to do their own lobbying,” Plumb says. CSN’s membership has tripled in size from 25 members to 75 under her leadership. “We focus solely on collaboration, communication and training,” she says. CSN does not take a position on the issues but rather passes on the positions of its members and facilitates collaboration between member organizations with a particular focus to connect those who are lobbying with those who want to start.
Free trainings and forums provide opportunities for organizations to strengthen their skill base and expand their knowledge. CSN focuses on issues related to poverty or reducing poverty in these 10 areas: housing, education, health care, budget/economy, economic justice, trauma justice, civic engagement, criminal justice reform, immigration and food security. “Any nonprofits in Nebraska that have any relationship to any of those 10 areas can join the coalition for free,” Plumb says.
During the legislative session, CSN facilitates weekly conference calls so members can give updates in those areas and make requests for what they need from other organizations—collaboration and support at its best.
One obstacle that can deter many nonprofits from policy work is a lack of staff to devote to it. “Being a part of the Coalition means they don’t have to have the full-time policy director,” Plumb says. Organizations that do employ policy directors do all of the work reviewing the bill, figuring out what it does, and creating the fact sheets. “They just need to use their voice and that makes it a lot easier to get involved,” she adds.
CSN Trainings and education empower nonprofit professionals and board members with information and resources about what lobbying is, the public policy process, and rules that apply to nonprofit lobbying. CSN also holds trainings on how to file the 501h for reporting lobbying expenses and how to set up an expense tracking system. CSN’s website posts short, simple, and informational videos about the 501h and about how a bill becomes law in the Nebraska Unicameral, as well as other resources.
Last year, CSN piloted a training program for clients from member organizations who were testifying at committee hearings at the Capitol. “We work with clients, not to polish their story but to do two things: make sure that the retelling of the story doesn’t re-injure them and make sure they understand what part of the process they are in and what comes next,” Plumb says.
They prepare clients to testify by empowering them to be in control of their own stories, with question and answer sessions and discussions about what kinds of things people might say during the
hearing. The Inside Game, a new experiential training class CSN developed, gives attendees the opportunity to practice writing letters and emails and making phone calls to legislators. It runs through a mock committee hearing, giving people a chance to practice testifying and a feel for the
“Yes phone calls, emails and letters do make a difference but we need more of them to make more of a difference,” Plumb says. The next step is to follow up with elected officials and watch how they voted. “Did they listen enough to their constituents? Did they vote the way you told them to? If they did, send them a thank you note. If they didn’t, send them a note asking for an explanation. They just got elected to represent you.
Make sure they are representing you well,” she adds. “We need to be partners in this process with the people we elect.” CSN is nonpartisan, with members from many different points of view. “We actually want to be a coalition that people who disagree with each other can be a part of,” Plumb says. “Everybody doesn’t have to believe in the same thing, but we do have to be reasonable and thoughtful and agree to listen and to come to common understandings.
You can’t have your own fact, but you can have your own belief. My hope is that the Coalition continues to bring folks together who maybe do have different positions on certain things.” “When you create, strengthen or grow a coalition, you want to make sure the parameters are set so that you are not doing work that is already being done by other places,” Plumb says. That’s where Nebraska Civic Engagement Table (NCET), Nonprofit Association of the Midlands (NAM) and Rebuild Nebraska come in as Coalition partners.
CSN defers to NCET for organizations that need help developing grassroots campaigns; NAM for education, support and board development; and Rebuild Nebraska for matters concerning budget and tax.
Nebraska Civic Engagement Table (NCET)
NCET is similar to CSN in that they help nonprofits get involved in the public policy process, but their approach is through grassroots organizing. “We look at our difference in mission as we teach nonprofits how to work on the inside of the Capitol; they teach nonprofits how to work on the outside of the Capitol to have communication from their communities and their members,” Plumb says.
“The way we work with the Coalition is a mechanism that can go both ways,” says Angie Remington, NCET communications director. NCET has members who’ve been engaged in grassroots lobbying—such as holding phone banks, participating in lobby days or doing door-to-door canvassing for years but haven’t participated in direct lobbying at the capitol. CSN has members who’ve been lobbying inside the Capitol but haven’t been engaging their supporters on the ground.
“Between the two of us, we have organizations interested in taking the next step in either direction. So that’s where we come together to help move those organizations across that spectrum,” Remington explains. “We are interested in building a year-round culture of civic engagement in Nebraska,” Remington says about NCET’s mission. “We’re trying to engage more Nebraskans in government and policy-making decisions, which includes voter registration drives, and voter turn-out work.” They work to empower the Rising American Electorate (RAE), including African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, new citizens, low-income families, women, LGBT Nebraskans and young voters.
NCET offers training and core support for data collection and reporting, as well as running field operations such as phone banking, and door-to-door campaigns. NCET provides access to and training on how to use its Voter Activation Network (VAN). The VAN is a huge database of information about voters that is shared across all of NCET’s member organizations. “Which means that if one organization is calling voters and asking about Medicaid expansion, another organization can access that information,” Remington explains.
NCET’s data director helps members use the VAN to pull lists that target voters that are likely to support the issues they are working on. “The idea is to not use energy on people you can’t move,” Remington says. “You’re not trying to go to somebody’s door and change their mind from scratch. You’re trying to reach people that are likely to support your issue and you want them to take action. So the VAN really helps to create a more targeted list.”
Remington sends out emails that outline what’s going on and who needs help with what in conjunction with CSN’s weekly conference calls during the legislative session. “As the communications director, my job is to take all of the information during the legislative session and put it in very easy-to-read, easy-to-follow callto-action vignettes,” she says.
“It’s much easier to read one email than a bunch of emails.” The NCET website also hosts a member portal for collaboration forums to reduce any redundancy and duplication of efforts by organizations. “We’re trying to build collaboration, strengthen the impact and make it as easy to participate as possible,” Remington says.
Nonprofit Association of the Midlands (NAM)
Anne Hindery, chief executive officer of Nonprofit Association of the Midlands, says her organization’s role is to strengthen the collective voice, leadership and capacity of nonprofit organizations because it’s all of those organizations that enrich our quality of life.
A part of the National Council of nonprofits, NAM has a membership of over 500 nonprofit organizations across Nebraska and Southwest Iowa. “We’re a state association of nonprofits much like a chamber of commerce, we are a chamber of service,” Hindery says. “We serve nonprofits of all sizes and missions.”
“Every Nebraskan uses a nonprofit every single day, whether they realize it or not,” Hindery says. And one in every 11 Nebraska workers is employed by a nonprofit organization, making it the third largest industry in the state. “Nonprofits are businesses too, we have employees and we help with the economy,” Hindery says. “It’s really important to make sure we are at the table.” Each January, NAM sends out a list to each senator of every nonprofit in their district. “It’s a way to increase the awareness,” Hindery says.
The nonprofit sector in Nebraska generated $537.2 million in tax revenue in 2008, according to the 2012 Nebraska Nonprofit Economic Impact Report. “There’s an urban myth that nonprofits don’t pay taxes,” Hindery adds. While nonprofits are exempt from state and federal income tax, “the majority of nonprofits in Nebraska pay sales tax, payroll taxes and property taxes.”
Serving so many different types of organizations, NAM offers a wide variety of services—from management practices, training and education to advocacy and collaboration, all with the goal of helping organizations address the needs of their communities and function successfully as nonprofit businesses. “Public policy is only one aspect of what we do,” Hindery says.
“We educate our members on how they can work with the government to provide services in a more nimble and cost-effective manner,” Hindery says. “And we work with the private sector to provide services to their employees and their families. So it’s really that connected three-legged stool.”
Guidelines and Principles, NAM’s signature program, is a set of two assessments that help nonprofits see where they are at currently and set goals for the future. The first is the Infrastructure Checklist for nonprofits to make sure they are legal and compliant. “And the Practices Assessment helps them understand where they’re at in the nonprofit life cycle,” Hindery says. “You don’t know what you don’t know. Nonprofits are by in large started out of passion, and while we hope they all create a business plan, that may or may not be the case.”
NAM’s Guidelines and Principles assessments are the best place to start when addressing nonprofit management and board development. NAM adopts a public policy agenda each year and holds Issues Forums to educate nonprofit professionals and board members on developments at the federal and state levels and empower them to use their voice to reach out to their representatives. NAM partnered with OpenSky Policy Institute to inform members about the current federal tax budget and how that impacts nonprofits. “We also look at how that ties in with what will be going on at the Unicameral in January, because Nebraska’s tax code is tied very much to the federal tax code,” Hindery says.
They are holding Issues Forums about the federal tax code in Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island. “We’ll update members on what the final facts package looks like on the federal bill, how that affects nonprofits and what things we need to be aware of, and what bills will be introduced at the Unicameral and what we need to be aware of in that respect,” Hindery says.
Many people are not aware that nonprofits can lobby. “Lobbying is not only legal but encouraged, and is something all nonprofits should be doing,” Hindery says.
Rebuild Nebraska is another effort that’s keeping an eye on policy. Coordinator Lisa Sock describes it as “a coalition of organizations that come together on a regular basis to strategize, coordinate and share information about mostly state budget and tax policy.
But we are obviously also addressing the federal issue, because the federal tax cut right now in particular would have a pretty dramatic impact on Nebraska.” Rebuild Nebraska’s role in CSN is to “provide Coalition members with information and updates around federal and state tax and budget policy and what to do about it so they can have informed discussions with their members and with policy makers,” Sock says.
“Basically I field a lot of information for partners so they can inform their members about what’s going on and how it may impact issues that they care about—whether it’s about Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, social security, disability, infrastructure, etc.” CSN’s weekly conference calls during the legislative session provide a platform for Sock to share what her organization is working on and to collaborate where it makes sense.
“Rebuild members come together to discuss what they are concerned about,” Sock says. They share information, interpretations and viewpoints of a proposal and what its impact may be. “We discuss how proposed policy will impact life for all Nebraskans and what to do about it,” Sock says. “We coordinate efforts to have the greatest impact.”
Tax and budget work is very fast-paced, and plans can occur a year out. “The federal tax debate has moved extremely quickly,” Sock says. “Rebuild members came together and sorted out how they wanted to talk about it, what they wanted to do
about it and where they could have the greatest impact,” Sock says. “Between what
Rebuild members are doing and CSN members are convening with other organizations,
there is a lot of information sharing so that nonprofits can figure out what makes sense for them to be involved in.”
Sock finds that there is a lot of overlap between what Rebuild members are concerned about and NAM’s policy agenda. “Whether it’s state budget issues or in the federal tax bill, there’s a lot of issues around the standard deduction and what that may mean for nonprofits and the donations that they may receive going forward,” Sock says.
Rebuild coordinates closely with NAM in particular because their concerns are quite broad as to how federal and state tax and budget policies are going to impact all nonprofits. “They look at things from a different lens than Rebuild members do, and I think it’s really valuable to be all encompassing with the way we look at federal and state issues,” Sock says.
“CSN provides a great forum for all of these organizations to stay informed and collaborate on strategies that relate to issues impacting all Nebraskans,” Sock says. “I think the work CSN does really demystifies how nonprofits can be engaged in policy work, and that is incredibly valuable.”
“Nonprofits are the fabric of our society. They are everywhere,” says Plumb. “If we can get nonprofits to have a voice in the public policy process and they get their clients and community members to have a voice in the process, then we have a policy process that is responding to what the people want and need rather than just hiring them [elected officials] and four years later deciding whether to throw them out or not.” W