Advocacy Doesn't Have to Be Scary

Practitioners and community-based nonprofits engaged in building financial security play a key role in protecting and empowering the vulnerable households to succeed. They are on the front lines every day, confronting the financial challenges clients face, meeting their families' basic needs and empowering clients to build a successful future. As a result, they are keenly attuned to the strategies and practices that can help individuals and communities create their own financial success.

This unique perspective equips practitioners, service providers and community-based organizations to be effective advocates. Practitioners and community-based organizations have the knowledge and power to shape policies that strengthen the financial well-being of disadvantaged communities and individuals, advance their values and set priorities. That's why these community leaders need to be a vocal presence in the decision-making process.

However, too many of such organizations lack the tools — or confidence — they need to become effective advocates. There are misconceptions around the definition of advocacy, unease with the political process, and a fear of breaking the rules that govern non-profit lobbying.

But engaging in advocacy doesn't have to be scary. There are many tools and resources that can help organizations build their advocacy prowess. Bolder Advocacy, an initiative of the Alliance for Justice, has a premier series of resources and workshops that can help you understand the rules of advocacy as they relate to executive or administrative advocacy, influencing legislation, ballot measures and electoral activity. Prosperity Now also has a series of advocacy training webinars for those in the financial security field.

Perhaps the best way to become more comfortable as an advocate, however, is to start by raising awareness or educating clients and partners about specific policy issues. Broad-based coalitions or other formal partnership structures that bring together will understand the importance of a collective voice in policy change and are probably already engaged in advocacy in some way. If you're new to advocacy, consider building your skills by joining already established coalitions and networks in their efforts, including visiting with policymakers to educate them on your issues, highlighting the stories of clients impacted by policy decisions and using traditional or social media to build public awareness.

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For example, United Way of Greater Houston, an Assets & Opportunity Network Leader, noticed that a number of people seeking financial coaching services in their community were being trapped in a cycle of debt. So they decided to step their toe into the waters of advocacy around regulating predatory lending. They started by joining a state-wide coalition in Texas focused on educating policymakers and influencing legislation. After working on advocacy at the state level, they realized that they may be able to have an impact through a city ordinance regulating predatory lending in Houston. They gathered the support of the groups they met in the state coalition and coordinated efforts to educate City Council members, the Mayor and other decisionmakers on impactful policies and led the way for a strong ordinance to be introduced by a City Council member that is now in place.

The Idaho Asset Building Network (IABN), also an Assets & Opportunity Network Leader, has done this, too. IABN is a relatively new network but is actively developing the comfort of its partners to become effective advocates, ensuring that Idaho invests in the resources people need to become financially stable. Early this year, IABN hosted a two-day legislative advocacy event and training focused on improving partners' and allies' knowledge of asset-building policies and advocacy skills. On the first day, IABN provided advocacy training to 25 advocates from 14 organizations. The next day, advocates put their training into practice, spending a full day at the state Capitol visiting legislators to talk about asset-building policy and participating in hearings.

In addition to the very hands-on advocacy days, IABN launched a free, five-part webinar series on advocacy designed to help practitioners understand advocacy. The series, which features a national expert on public policy and civic engagement, will be available on the IABN website shortly (but in the meantime, contact Jessica Sotelo for more information).

IABN is on one end of the spectrum, proactively building confidence with advocacy for those that are new to this work. But what if your coalition is more established, and is generally comfortable with advocacy? Or what if your coalition is large and represents multiple policy priorities? How do you continue to engage those partners in effective advocacy, encouraging them to lend their voice and influence to issues that may be a lesser priority?

The Minnesota Asset Building Coalition (MABC), another Assets & Opportunity Network leader, has been doing just that. MABC has a large, statewide coalition made up of more than 130 members. The coalition has been actively engaging with their partners and recruiting new allies through regional conferences, workshops that address the concerns community-based organizations have about advocacy, annual member surveys that inform the coalition's policy agenda and practitioner learning circles.

MABC's practitioner learning circles have proven to be a successful strategy for cultivating the coalition's advocacy efforts. These learning circles are issue-driven convenings that meet virtually once a month to develop policy expertise, build a shared policy agenda, learn from each other and build members' advocacy skills. MABC currently has three practitioner learning circles focused on small business development, VITA sites and vehicle programs. The learning circles have served to create trusting relationships within the coalition and build collective impact, while engaging in critical advocacy activities such as vetting policy language, holding in-district events to educate policy makers and testifying at the state Capitol. The learning circle on vehicle programs was involved in passing legislation in 2015 around a transportation equity bill. While the bill was not ultimately funded, the learning circle engagement in this issue in 2016 will advocate for funding the bill that will benefit many low-income, working individuals.

Effective advocacy is not linear and does not follow a one-size-fits-all formula. As shown by the efforts of many Assets & Opportunity Network members, the best way to get comfortable with advocacy is to just do it. Find opportunities to engage in advocacy ensures that clients' challenges and voices are heard, particularly during critical decision-making processes. You can join the Assets & Opportunity Network as General Member to keep informed about federal, state and local advocacy opportunities. Or, better yet, reach out to your Assets & Opportunity Network Leader to hear more about policy issues in your area!

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