Seventy nonprofit leaders from across Vermont gathered under the Dome to connect with legislators and and learn what bills will move forward this session. Common Good Vermont’s annual legislative event took place on “crossover” day, the deadline for voting bills out of the House and Senate committees in order to be considered for passage by the other chamber.
House Speaker Shap Smith welcomed participants as “the backbone of the economy”, providing support services vital to the state. “At the end of the day. we all share the same goal. We want a Vermont that is a place of opportunity and quality of life that attracts people here, keeps people here, and continues the transition of taking care of each other.”
Common Good Vermont presented the latest state-level profile of the state’s nonprofit sector which reveals that we constitute 20% of the gross state product and workforce. Vermont’s nonprofit sector “by the numbers” are now available in interactive format for review and analysis.
Kevin Gallagher, experienced storyteller, therapist and nonprofiteer reminded the audience that our story cannot be told by numbers alone. Demonstrating his own skills, Kevin spelled out the five key components of a good story as a vital tool for advocates. These include:
- Passion and a “Hook”.
- Protaganist (The hero, someone to be really interested in).
- Antagonist (Someone to give you trouble).
- Conflict (the Protagonist and Antagonist need to “duke it out).
- Transformation (the positive or negative resolution that makes stories different from simple anecdotes.
Kevin also advised nonprofits to find the right people to tell your organization or causes story (staff members, constituents and funders with demonstrated skill) and have them engage with policy makers and stakeholders throughout the year.
BUILDING SUPPORT FOR YOUR CAUSE
As our lobbyist friends have said before, building relationships over time are necessary for legislative success. Andy MacLean (MMR), Rebecca Ramos (Necrason Group), John Hollar (DRM), and Amy Shollenberger (Action Circles) were joined by the Governor’s Chief of Staff Darren Springer and his Legislative Director Sue Allen made a number of key points.
- Structural Change Takes Time – Citing the Paid Sick Leave bill signed into law by the Governor on March 9th, panelists explained how long it takes to make structural change happen–often years. Many good ideas die in the legislature. It is necessary to take the long view and to be realistic about what it can be accomplished. Legislative decisions are not black and white, legislators try to balance competing values. The current debate about siting renewable power projects v. local control is a good example of this. Another is the call for increasing childcare reimbursement rates in light of serious budget constraints.
- Relationships, Relationships, Relationships – You will be well received by the folks you speak with. According to Andy MacLean, “you have forgotten more then they will know”. Talk with them from your heart. Be quick. Don’t always speak with your friends. Speak to everybody. Don’t be intimidated. The Legislature is a polite place. People are interested in your input and want to be educated. To start, aim to become a reliable source of information for legislators and the administration on the issues that matter to you most. Work with others who understand how to develop and execute legislative strategy and be prepared to be disciplined in your focus and organizing efforts. Remember that this is an election year--and now is a good time to start talking with candidates about your issues, because one of them will win!
- Don’t Forget the Executive Branch – Because the Governor proposes the budget, the panel agreed that working with the Governor’s staff to submit requests into the “base” budget is an important advocacy goal. Amy Shollenberger encouraged everyone to become involved in the annual budget hearings as a way to move requests forward. If successful, it is much easier to move forward if your proposals are included in the Governor’s budget. You’ll be fighting to keep your request in the budget rather than the more difficult task of moving it from the Appropriations Committee “request list” into the Budget.
- Balance of Data v. Storytelling – Sue Allen emphasized that “Real people telling your story is the best way to get attention for your legislation.” One of the secrets of lobbying is to “make your story more important than it really is. Questions about the importance of data v. storytelling yielded a number of responses, explaining that reliable factual information is important to build credibility while stories told from a variety of perspectives help to bring the both need and solution alive for legislators.
The story helps get you to the “front of the line”, to engage, but the facts help you to prove that what you are suggesting works. Data can help make the case for a good outcome.
The data helps you know what story to tell and shows the path to the world you want to live in.
- Show the World We All Want to Live In – The Appropriations Committee can be a discouraging place. But it helps to let legislators to know funding requests can lead to the “happy ending”, what success will be accomplished and how the future will be different. Use this as the frame for the stories you tell.
As an example of best practice, Zon Eastes on the Vermont Arts Council gave an over view of their Legislative Agenda, including increase in annual funding, designation of the Vermont Creative Network, the addition of state-level outcomes for the arts and the creation of a Legislative Arts Caucus to support the agenda.
TO BE OF USE
Patricia Fontaine, artist, writer and activist shared her “micro nonprofit” writing workshop efforts with cancer patients and the profound impact her work as on their coping and healing. She offered a poem, “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy, to “all of you who listen well enough to to the stories to do the work you do and may you be well supported”.
DATA, DATA EVERYWHERE
The final presentation demonstrated how the collective efforts of our state government and the nonprofit sector are making a difference in Vermonter’s lives. These statewide indicators are now available in easy to use dashboards, including:
State Indicators - Developed by the state’s Chief Performance Officer, Sue Zeller, using data provided by state agencies and outlined in Act 186, which specifies population level indicators and ties them into agency budget performance.
Vermont Scorecard – Revived from the early 2000’s and further developed by Dru Roessle, Performance Improvement Manager at the Agency of Human Services, the scorecard shows how Vermonters are doing on important indicators of health and well being.
Vermont Insights – Produced by Building Bright Futures with funding from the Vermont Department of Education’s Race to the Top Grant, Vermont Insights provides a number of data sets pertinent to the well-being of Vermont children and families.