Independent Sector National Conference 2014: Imagine – Public Policy Action Institute

testa coloriImagine. That’s the theme of the 2014 Independent Sector National Conference currently being held in Seattle. And it’s a reminder for nonprofit board members and managers of the importance of thinking beyond our very important day-to-day matters and mere compliance. One of the Conference’s two important pre-conferences was the Public Policy Action Institute (PPAI): 

The Institute is an exciting day-and-a-half event that brings together a diverse group of nonprofit leaders, policy advocates, and communications professionals to discuss policy issues vital to advancing the work of the nonprofit sector and meeting the needs of our communities. It truly is our premiere policy gathering of the year. The Institute features timely expert presentations on the key issues facing the nonprofit and philanthropic sector; effective strategies for conveying our messages to policymakers; networking opportunities with other policy leaders; and practical, hands-on learning through small group breakout sessions.

At the PPAI, I had the pleasure of participating on a panel moderated by Jane Searing discussing how social enterprise policy and trends affect nonprofits. Some takeaways from that session: (1) newer alternative business forms like the benefit corporation, social purpose corporation, and L3C (so-called “hybrids”) may signal more trustworthy for-profit collaborators; (2) hybrids may be used by nonprofits creating subsidiaries to house earned income ventures (particularly if they include substantial unrelated business activities); (3) hybrids are legal forms (except for Certified B Corps, which represents an independent certification of meeting certain social good standards) and will not in and of themselves make a business venture work; (4) donors, businesses and some funders are increasingly becoming sector agnostic in supporting organizations that do social good (nonprofits should recognize this competition for resources, dollars, and talent); (5) hybrids may be the shiny, new toy of the moment, but nonprofits will continue to lead the work on addressing many of the most difficult social issues that market forces alone cannot and will not correct.

Other highlights from the PPAI:

  • A panel moderated by Laverne Woods discussed the power of having a 501(c)(4) organization affiliated with a 501(c)(3) organization. The 501(c)(3) can raise charitable contributions and engage in educational activities, including advocacy. The 501(c)(4) can lobby and support candidates for public office who would best further the affiliated group’s social goals. During the session, Greg Colvin and the Bright Lines Project sent proposed regulations to Treasury to define political intervention for 501(c)(4) social welfare groups. Incredible work.
  • A panel moderated by Allison McCaffree discussed emerging state and local policy trends (including property taxes, minimum wage) and how important it is to advocate on state level issues because they spark action at the federal level. On the importance of coalition-building, we were reminded by Michael Rafferty, Director of Detroit Metro Partnership: “If you’re not at the table you’re on the menu.”
  • Independent Sector CEO Diana Aviv talked with Mike Harcourt, former premier of British Columbia, about his involvement with nonprofit advocacy as a citizen, a government leader, and now as lead faculty of the local United Way Public Policy Institute. I had the great pleasure of speaking briefly with Mr. Harcourt and his colleague at the Public Policy Institute Yves Trudel about growing up in Vancouver while Mr. Harcourt was mayor and hockey in the 70’s and 80’s. So cool.
  • A panel moderated by Sandra Vargas discussed federal policy affecting the sector on a wide variety of issues but particularly regarding proposed tax reform. We were told to be proactive, engage policymakers (look for the best partners), meet in-person, don’t just send policy geeks, and don’t disregard working with candidate who lost but still hold great influence.
  • A panel moderated by Andy Solomon discussed communications that not only move people to action, but inspire policymakers and other key stakeholders to advocate on behalf of the people served by our organizations. We were told to tell stories to support the data and to bring along beneficiaries of our organizations to tell their stories of how they are impacted. Great tips: (1) If you want me to listen to you, talk about ME, not about you; (2) No good advocacy plan survives the first battle. You must accommodate the inevitable change.
  • A panel led by Jason Sabo discussed navigating legislative roadblocks and started off with the powerful message: “Anyone can win anywhere.” In order to move policy, you need to focus, build credibility, recruit believable messengers, be pragmatic, and partner w/ government. And you need to know how to speak and frame issues in the language of the other side. Adaptability, timeliness, and utilizing all political levers (administrative, legislative, judicial, corporate) are critical.

If you have the opportunity to attend the Independent Sector National Conference next year, I recommend that you include the Public Policy Action Institute in your plans. Advocacy is one of the most powerful, underutilized tools in the nonprofit tool kit.