In episode 31 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Sharon Anderson discussed include:
Important Guest Links:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Sharon. Welcome to the podcast.
Sharon Anderson: Thank you. Pleasure to be.
Carol: So I'd like to start out with a question of what you, what drew you to the work you do, what motivates you and, and what would you describe as your why?
Sharon: Okay, I would actually say the roots of it really go back to my growing up actually, because I saw with my parents, my family a lot of engagement with community service. And that just resonated with me through whatever form of non-governmental organization, the non-profits space, the ways that people found to address needs. And I just grew up with the sense of how important that was. And then. Having some opportunities to serve on some nonprofit boards and to see it in, in that regard. But I think as far as really the motivator around my consulting with nonprofits came from a project that I worked on for capacity building. And this was one of my friends. Projects. When I started as a consultant, I just saw that need and that space of different nonprofits with really good intentions, but needing support, needing the information to help them take it up to the next level. Yeah. And one of the areas you focus on is helping organizations with their advocacy and policy development starting with a definition, what, what would you describe? How would you describe advocacy? My conversation opener with advocacy is telling your story. And finding a way to make certain that you are clear about what it is that as an organization, what is the organization about, what do you do? Who are you trying to help? What kinds of things are you doing to make those and make improvements. So That for me is the, the why I, and going back to something I mentioned sort of earlier, just looking at, at nonprofit, I saw some times that there were a lot of nonprofit boards in particular that when you said advocacy to them, it was like, oh my gosh, no, I can't, I can't do that. And so that's what I mean. To address the importance of it not only to their sustainability, but also the fact that, yes, there are rules and you can meet those rules and still do what you need to do in this space of advocacy.
Carol: Let’s start with why it's important. And then I'm curious for you to say a little bit more about why you think it's so scary to folks, and then what the reality is.
Sharon: Okay. The reason that I think it's important is the fact that when you really sort of look at it, And sort of put the nonprofit under the microscope. Almost everything that they do is in that sphere of advocacy, there's raising money. You need to be able to advocate for yourself in order to indicate this is why we are a good investment, because this is what we do. And here are the people that we are right. You are looking at issues around sustainability. You need to be able to advocate for your organization in order to get board members, potential board members in the pipeline to get community supporters in the pipeline. And I think more and more now there's a reality to that in that public policy space. There is a place for nonprofits to be able to come to the table and say, this is an important area. So for instance, as a quick example I worked in a couple of areas with a nonprofit dealing with the foster care system and being able at one point to go before the city council to talk about foster care in the city, what was working, what was needed.
And I think sometimes that gets missed in that legislative space. Which is nonpartisan. What you're addressing are the guts of legislation and why certain legislation is important and what's needed in order for the system to function.
Carol: Yeah. And I think it's important for organizations to remember that in that whole public policy and that policy development process, there's often that, that initial steps where legislators are hearing from a lot of people doing hearings, getting testimony, and they may not have even, I don't I'm, I'm not an expert in this, so correct me if I'm wrong, but they may not have even put a bill forward yet. That may be in the formation phase or maybe they have, and, and it's to inform, what else, what might be missing, what needs to be amended. Correct?
Sharon: Yes. and, and at various stages, yes. In some instances they are looking at legislation sometimes within, especially I would say the local and state government sphere, a lot of times when they are doing budget oversight, because a lot of these profits are working with governmental agencies, the question becomes, how are things working? What's working well with that, and what's not working, in order to make any necessary adjustments or changes to the system. And that's a good space for them to be because of the fact that, government. A lot of times it basically needs those kinds of partnerships with nonprofits to help. When I mentioned the foster care system, for instance working with court appointed special advocates, well, it's a nonprofit that brings in the volunteers and trains them, and then they work. The family court system. And so there is a need to have those conversation lanes open in order to make the necessary improvements in order to share here's, here are the trends so that adjustments can be made or, What, what needs to happen to stop what's going on here? How do we protect the children?
Carol: Yeah. And I think that there are a couple of different things in there, but one thing that comes to mind is with all the growing distrust of the government in our country, one of the things I think people don't realize is how it actually is. Non Profit organizations that are actually getting, being granted money, being contracted with, to deliver a lot of these services. So it's not necessarily the government doing it themselves, but empowering it, giving others the resources to then, fulfill those goals and, and, and provide those services. What, what would you say Are some of the misconceptions, especially among boards that folks have around, what nonprofits are and aren't allowed to do in terms of advocacy.
Sharon: I think a lot of times there's a concern because of the discussion around, especially with a 501C3 designation of not lobbying. And so it's that confusion between what is lobbying and what is advocacy and. And sometimes it's like, I don't, I don't even want to touch it and it is daunting. And, and a lot of times too, especially within the state government, sometimes their additional rules are our requirements, but I think it's been. Clear about what it is that this particular agency needs to do. And I think there are also some very clear points where you can say, okay, first and foremost, you don't endorse. You just have to clearly be key. You don't endorse candidates. That is a definite no-no. So stay out of that realm. However, if as a nonprofit. And maybe in partnership with other nonprofits, you want to put together a candidates forum so that your stakeholders in the community can hear what people feel about income support programs, or about. Foster care. I keep sort of circling back to that one or about these literacy programs. Then basically there's a way to do that. You invite all of the candidates and you make certain that they all come and they all answer the same question. And that's a service. That's a part of advocacy, but it's a service to educate your stakeholders.
Carol: And what is the definition of lobby?
Sharon: Lobbying is basically getting into the partisan space. So it's also, it's about the people running for office and saying we do or don't vote for them, do or don't vote for somebody. So that is some part of it. And then the other part of lobbying can also be around. And it's tricky. Area, and I will, it really depends on local guidance a lot of times, but it's around legislation and the extent to which you try to make certain that people are informed about legislation and where the particular nonprofit stands on it. Without necessarily saying now, go out there and change this legislation or, it's, it is a tricky navigation and a lot of times it does depend on the state too. So I'm thinking, for example being able to say that this as an organization, we support. Back in when the affordable care act was being challenged, to be able to say the affordable care act is important because of these reasons for our, our community.And it's an essence saying, think about this Congressperson, council member versus putting forth that debate without getting deep into the politics of, and if you don't do this, then we're not going to vote for you.
Carol: Yeah, the way I've heard it described as, and it's interesting that you say that there's, there's variation at each state and locality. So putting a caveat on that, folks should really pay attention to what the rules are in their local area. But the way I heard it described was, advocacy education, when you're providing information. Stories about your constituents and the people that you work with. Statistics, trends that you're seeing, that's all in the realm of education. And then lobbying is only really, when you say, our members where we're getting part we're part of a coalition and our members are supporting this particular bill, we urge you to vote for it. And, and yeah, without any . Connection to whether or not. The people that you represent, the people that you work with might or might not vote for a particular candidate that being walled off, but the space that, that is okay within limits for non-profits 502 and 501-C 3 is to engage in is that piece of, we urge you to vote for HR. Number one, whatever it is within limits and their limits. But, since it's a pretty narrow definition, very few nonprofits. You know that very few who do some advocacy and are actually gonna run up against that limit. And I think that's the part that boards don't understand.
Sharon: Yeah. And, and it's, it's interesting one of the parts maybe. Right, right. And, and, and of course to the whole, when you look at the range of 5 0 1. Organizations, we always focus on the 5 0 1 C3 because of the fact that they generally tend to be charitable. And then, realizing that there are other nonprofits. Who are in that space of doing endorsements and the likes. So this is why I think it also gets to be tricky for boards because they need to understand the range of things the different options that are available to a non-profit and then just be sure to stay within their space. But I, I definitely agree and appreciate the, when you mentioned the education piece that educating people and that's your stakeholders. Elected officials about what's going on in this space that this nonprofit serves, then you're definitely in an, in your lane, that's the sweet spot for nonprofits advocacy.
Carol: Yeah. And I think that another point that you make is that, W w we quote the part of the IRS code, the 5 0 1 C3 that, that designates one particular type, which is, a large portion of the, of the nonprofit sector, but there are others C4, C5, C6, all who, all of which have different purposes and, and then different rules. But yeah, what we were just talking about really pertains to the C3 category, which is. Most organizations that are trying to do either serving a field or trying to do some educational, some, charitable service work, making things better for people, animals meant the whole range, all of it, the whole of things that could be within a mission. What would you say helps organizations be successful with their advocacy efforts?
Sharon: I think being really clear about What is their advocacy policy and their plan. I think having some very doing that work and what the standards for excellence, for instance, program there. Resources there as far as being able to talk about here's a draft plan, but you need to be clear. So from an organizational perspective, who speaks for the organization. So making certain that they've clearly delineated that if a question comes in, let's say the media calls and says, where do you stand on this? Well, everybody in the organization needs to know who's equipped. Answer that question because not everybody in the organization can answer that. So, you want to be clear about that and also be clear about what the objectives are. So, let me pick another organization, like the league of women voters, there's the league of us and then the league in various localities. And so in the interest of full disclosure, I'm a member of the league and the district of Columbia. And, there's a strong non-partisan state. But there, but the, the educational pieces about making certain that people know about the candidates and that there's an effort made to get feedback from all of the candidates. So in an election year, the policy is going to be, we're doing everything we can to make certain that people understand what the rules and regulations are for voting in our community. During an off year, it may be some other thing, but that's the policy. And then you just have to be able to have what the plan looks like as to how you go about doing that? How do you accomplish that and how do you, what are the outcomes you're targeting?
Carol: Yeah. When one point that you made around who can, who can talk to the media, having a plan for that pause for a second while the train goes by. One of those enthusiastic conductors who really likes to blow their horn.
Sharon: Maybe it has some spectators on the side of the tracks.
Carol: Maybe they're waving and yeah, a couple of points there with who can talk to the media or who can talk, who can represent and speak on behalf of the organization. And especially if, if a stance is being taken, who could write a letter to the editor, all those things I think are really exciting. For groups to have conversations about and know, make sure that everyone's clear. I think one of the things that on any board decision is important is for ma board members to understand that they can only work on behalf of the organization as a whole. And so if they're the board member who's empowered, they then need to. I mean to talk to everybody else. So they have a sense of, they know what the organization stance is. They themselves may have a different opinion and to be really careful and clear, are you talking as XYZ, individual citizen? Or are you speaking now on behalf of the organization?
Sharon: Right? Right. And depending on the nature of that organization, there, there may be some very specific pieces of. You know what that looks like and how that's interpreted. So, the, the league of women voters, I'll go back to that, with their non-partisan position, if you're serving on the board, there is a nonpartisan statement, which indicates that, you have this hat on representing the organization writ large and in the interest of not muddying the waters. It's encouraged that you stay in that lane and not get involved in campaigns, for instance. Of course, as an individual, that's your right, but because you are with the board and people, if they know, especially that you're a board member, it gets a little dicey. And in order to just make it clear that policy is you wouldn't be campaigning.
Carol: So you could, after you're done with your board service, that might be something you choose to do, but while you're a board member, they've made that policy just so that they have a super bright line. And again, that's an individual organizational policy. Others might have different ones, but having those policies and having had discussions and then documenting it about. Yeah, how do we take a stance as an organization? What are they, what has to happen? what discussions and processes have to happen so that we know that we're in agreement on this, et cetera, I think would be super important. Yes. Yes. And you had mentioned the standards of excellence before. I just want to make sure folks know what that is. It's Program that came out of and is still housed within the Maryland nonprofit association, the Maryland association of nonprofit organizations. And it's a way for nonprofits to be accredited in this set of very high standards. The standards of. In all aspects of their operations. So, advocacy is just one component. And all the other things that you need to think about in terms of how you run your nonprofit are part of that accrediting program.
Sharon: Yes. And one of the things that I truly appreciate about the standards for excellence program is that. There is that accreditation process. If an organization chooses, they are very generous with their information. So I often use in the work that I do when I do workshops on advocacy their policy and plan. I, I provide copies of that to say, here's the sample that you might work from, just because they are open with a lot of their information.
Carol: Yeah. And they have samples for all, all other aspects. So I've, I've built used pieces from, and we're both standards of excellence consultants. So we have access to all of this, but I've used their board assessments as a jumping off point when working with the boards and organizational assessments, right. Pretty much everything. And, and even if our organization doesn't decide to go through the entire process, there are aspects that could be really useful. And a lot of the state level associations also offer it. So you don't necessarily have to be in Maryland. This is nationwide.
Sharon: Yes. It is a nationwide program and they have, what's a code which basically provides, guidelines, high level. And the code is easy. There's an app for that.
Carol: I didn't realize I'm going to have to look it up. All right. Well, at the end of each episode, I'd like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. So I have one here for you. I'm out of my handy box of icebreaker questions and it is what is the last random thing that made you smile?
Sharon: Lately, given everything that's been going on with health challenges in the country and the world. The last random thing that made me smile was noticing that birds were starting to be attracted to the flowers on my patio. And, and starting to , I've seen them in the general vicinity flying over, but actually coming down and landing all the table versus just sitting on the fence and it just. Actually that just happened to me before this call. In fact, I just was like, oh wow. And I just was so tickled by that. So it gave me joy.
Carol: Awesome. Awesome. I'm not much of a birder, but we are big. We have a lot of flowers around in our front and there was a Cardinal that came by and landed in a tree. So that dramatic red was quite, quite lovely. Yeah. Lovely birds. So, what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you do
Sharon: Currently we’re making some pivots as far as being, if you will, in the nonprofit space, but I'm starting to work with the national museum of African-American history and culture. And I've worked with them previously, but I'm now working as far as with visitor services and it's just First and foremost, I am just taken by the museum and all that it's done and, and just the immense scope and importance of it. And to have an opportunity to contribute means a lot to me. So for me right now, personally, that's where I am.
Carol: Yeah, it's an amazing, amazing museum. I am definitely going to go back to it because you can, it's not possible to do, to really take all of it in, in one visit. So I definitely need to go back.
Sharon: And, and I just I, I guess I should tread gently here, but I think it's legitimate as an employee. I could still say but wonderful resources on their website too, because and, and a huge. I am biased in the museum space, but the Smithsonian has been doing a wonderful job with all of its museums and digitizing a lot of their information and definitely during the pandemic, making that those resources available as a way to reach everyone and definitely check them out because they're just amazing museums within the system.
Carol: Yeah, I think we forget living here in Washington, how spoiled we are to have those amazing resources. So-called so close by. Yes. All right. Well, thank you so much. It was great having you on the podcast.
Sharon: Well, thank you. I greatly appreciate being invited and I've enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.
Episode 02: Today we’re talking to Kathy Patrick.
We talked about:
• what it takes to influence decision makers.
• the concrete steps leaders can take to create a plan, identify who is key to your organization and how to start building a relationship with them before you need their help.
• Why it is so important to remember that key decision makers are human first and not fixate on their title and role.
Kathy Patrick, of Strategic Sense, LLC, helps progressive non-profit leaders build influence and create powerful relationships with all types of decision makers, so they can increase the impact and reach of their organizations, attract more resources to their work, and free up time to do the creative, visionary work they were meant to do.
Mission: Impact is sponsored by Grace Social Sector Consulting
Carol: welcome, Kathy. It’s great to have you on the podcast.
Kathy: It’s great to be here, thanks.
Carol: I just want to start out by asking you what drew you to the work that you do? How did you kind of get where you are? What was your journey?
Kathy: Hmm journey…. Well, I started out in advocacy work and my first big leadership role was running a statewide women's rights organization in Wisconsin. I had two main jobs. They were basically “make good policies happen” and “keep harmful policies from happening”. Then I came to Washington to work at a national women's employment organization, which is where you and I met. Part of my job there was the same thing only at the federal level, but the other part was to help the 1200 or so direct service programs in our national network. They would call with what seemed like policy problems, but in fact they were about something much deeper and they were struggling with all sorts of decisions that were getting made, funding decisions, policy decisions, you name it, but they were all getting made without their input. They were finding out about potential threats and opportunities at the last minute, or sometimes too late to even do anything about it. The result was that they were just constantly in reactive mode, they were feeling powerless, frustrated, exhausted, and demoralized. That's when I realized that what all these problems had in common was that folks just didn't have enough influence with the decision-makers, and until they changed that they weren't going to get different results.
So we started creating training programs to help leaders improve their access and influence, and it worked. They started getting a seat at some of the key tables and helping to guide the thinking there; and that meant more and better opportunities, and fewer disasters started coming their way. When I started my consulting business, I moved out of the employment universe and started working with all different kinds of nonprofits on healthcare, and nutrition, and housing, and a bunch of other issues. I also found that in fact, no matter what you're working on, there is a uniform truth for all nonprofit leaders which is: when you have strong influential relationships with the key decision-makers in your world, you consistently get more opportunities coming your way and have fewer instances of having to deal with the impact of harmful decisions. That means that leaders get to spend more time doing that creative visionary work they were meant to do, which is why we all got into this in the first place right? We want to solve big problems and make a big impact, and that's pretty hard to do when you're being yanked around by decisions that you don't have a lot of control over. So at this point, what I’m all about is helping non-profit leaders create that influence so that they can do what they were really put here to do.
Carol: So in terms of creating that influence and building those relationships, and getting out of that reactive mode, what are some of the key steps that organizations can start taking to start building that influence with decision-makers that you're, that you talk about?
Kathy: Well you know, the good news is it's actually pretty simple. It's not necessarily easy, but it's pretty simple. There's about five and a half steps to getting that done, but the other thing that I would say is that this is perhaps counter-intuitively maybe one of the best possible times to be thinking about either starting that work or doing more of it because, it's really all about figuring out how you can help those decision-makers solve the problems they're working on. I've got some steps that I'll walk us through on how to do that, but the reality is that a lot of times, one of the first steps in figuring out how you're going to build a relationship with a decision-maker is to figure out, well, what are what's important to them?
What problems are they working on? What keeps them up at night? So right now, while we're all in pandemic mode - and we'll probably be there for the foreseeable future, some interesting things are happening, routines are blown out of the water, no decision making processes routine right now, and all of the usual plodding, bureaucratic approaches to things are not really happening. Instead what's happening is that everybody is totally focused on the immediate problems at hand that are coming out of all of the disruption that's occurring. So it's actually pretty easy to figure out what problems people are working on, ‘cause we're all kind of working on the same things. So that actually makes everybody's job a little bit easier if a bit more chaotic.
So basic steps to this are to first of all, just pick a decision-maker or two, and not 20 decision-makers, but like one or two that are really good.
Carol: What would be an example of who might that be like for an organization that you've worked with before, what, who are the key, some of the key people that they might need to be reaching out to?
Kathy: Sure. So you know, the first thing that people always think about with that are like elected officials and that's great. You know, you could, you could think in terms of your city council or your County board, or your state legislature, or members of your state legislature, maybe a key committee chair, somebody who might be in charge of a policy or funding that you would care about, something like that. It would also be administrative bodies. So again, I'm just thinking pandemic terms and all of the problems that are rolling out of that. So it might be a County health department or a city employment agency, or a city housing department, those kinds of administrative creatures. It can also be funders, it could be grantmakers, foundations, corporate partners you have, or corporate partners you wish you had, there are a lot of interesting corporate nonprofit partnerships that are happening right now to tackle some of these problems. So really the way I always put it to two new clients is any decision-maker who has the ability to make a decision that will impact your organization's wellbeing or the wellbeing of the people you serve is potentially a legitimate relationship building target, but those are the kinds of categories that they typically fall into.
Carol: Yeah. and it's interesting. Cause you know, so often people, when they think about this work, they think primarily about government related folks, and I was working in a network that was trying to make change in a large watershed, and one of the things that they were trying to do is employ influence, you know, they were working at the municipal level, so pretty local, but then also with individual landowners and, you know, some of those landowners have large tracts of land, they might be corporate related or whatnot, and, you know everyone's going to the legislative folks trying to get their bit in and I said: well, what if you were to, cause this was about like how you do things, right? How you do things on the ground and changing practice, changing how people do their work. So I was like, there are so many associations for every single one of these fields and there are probably three people who make decisions about what that entire field gets trained on. If you could get to those people, and get them to get trained on sustainable practices for whatever you're trying to do, you can influence huge amounts of people, but it's not on people's radar that there are all these other groups they could influence beyond government folks.
Kathy: Exactly, and I used to use the word advocacy and I stopped using that word because people's brains immediately go to elected officials and they shut out all the other possibilities. So I decided I could either explain 150 times that no, advocacy is much bigger than that, or I could just talk about it differently. I went with talking about it in a different way. ‘Cause when I thought about it more, I realized that it really is all about influencing people's thinking and their decision making process, whatever that that is, but that ultimately what you want to do is be engaged in a collaborative problem-solving relationship with them, and when you get to that point, you've kind of hit the Holy Grail of influence, right? Who do you listen to more in life, as a human being than somebody who's helping you solve a problem?
Carol: Yeah, and I think that's often the challenge again, going back to that word advocacy. It's so - and I'm not an expert in this, but when I've seen it, when I've seen what I perceive as it being done badly, it's all about a one way conversation. “We have these talking points, we're going to tell you what to do.” and you know, if you've ever tried to tell your cat or your child or anybody, what to do, you know how well that works. So I'd love to know more about how you move it towards that collaborative problem-solving.
Kathy: Right. Well, the front, yeah. I mean, I just have to pick up on what you just said ‘cause it's so true, and it drives me crazy and unfortunately there's a bunch of advocacy experts out there that are not helping with this. You know, how many nonprofit leaders who are part of a larger organization of some sort, whether it's a national association or a network or whatever, and you come to Washington for your Hill day, every year, and what do they tell you? You have to have an ass, don't go into your meeting with your elected official without an answer, and there's a certain amount of legitimacy to that in that you don't want to just go in there and blabber, but the worst possible way to initiate a relationship is “Hi, nice to meet you. I want something from you.” No, that doesn't work too well either.
It would be a really bad dating strategy and it's a pretty bad relationship building strategy with decision-makers. So the thing is that relationship building takes an investment over time, and so the idea that you're going to walk into a meeting and start telling somebody what you do, and therefore they should help you with something is almost guaranteed to fail, and so the best time to be developing a relationship is long before you actually need them to do something for you, and also to approach it again with that collaborative problem-solving mindset, that we're peers, we each have an angle on a particular problem. We can help each other solve it. and if you can be a collaborative partner in that way, you're going to go a long way toward having them know who you are, trust you, appreciate your abilities and expertise, and appreciate the contributions the organization can make.
They're also going to start to trust you, and the thing that we forget to talk about a lot of times is that relationships are built on trust. So if they don't have some reason to know, like, and trust that you're going to have an uphill battle if you want to influence them in any way. So how do you do that? Well, basically you make a plan and so, like I said, start by picking one or two, because one of the mistakes people make is they start to think about this and they go, Oh my goodness. Well, if I think about all the decision-makers who could have an impact on my organization and the people I serve, that's a lot of people. Then they make a list of 20 or 50 or a hundred people, and then they get overwhelmed and freak out and don't do anything. So that does not generally work as a strategy.
So what makes sense is, pick a couple, and particularly right now, I'm pretty sure that every nonprofit leader out there has a couple of decision-makers who are kind of on their radar right now that they really like to be engaging with more effectively and take a little minute to write down a few bullet points here and there to just sort of keep your thinking focused, make a few notes to yourself about why they're important. Why did I pick them? How can they affect my organization? How can they affect the people we serve? and also take a minute to take some notes on what your ideal collaborative relationship with them would look like? ‘cause if you don't have some idea of where you're trying to go, it's going to be much harder to get there, and similarly, It requires a little bit of brutal honesty. and this is kind of step two, which is to assess where you are now in your relationship with that person and compared to the ideal that you described.
So if my ideal relationship with a County commissioner is that, you know, there are five things that come across in their jurisdiction and decision making realm that I know on an annual basis are going to have a big impact on my organization, and I need them to ultimately do two things. I need them to give me a heads up, if something new is going to come along, that could either help me or hurt me, and I want to be able to be in on the conversations early enough that I cannot just be coming in at the end, saying, I want you to vote yes or no, but to be saying, I want to help shape the plan that you create, because the work that we do directly intersects with that, and we could help each other out here. So if that's kind of my ideal and what I want that to be looking like, and where I am now in my relationship is they kind of know who I am and they've sort of heard of my organization and they sorta know what we do, but a lot of times when they describe it, they get it wrong.
Well, you know, I've got a ways to go to get to my ideal, but at least I know where I am. You know, and if I'm further along, if we do have a more solid relationship and they maybe come to my events, they know who we are. They've maybe volunteered at our organization. A couple of times they've met our clients, they have a pretty solid idea of who we are and what we do, but they don't necessarily see us as central too the problem they're working on. Well, that's a much shorter trip for me to get to my ideal, and it also gives me some idea of what my main tasks are. So once you have that sense, you can start to build that roadmap between where you are now and what your ideal is, and the biggest question to ask yourself at that point is how can I add value or help solve a problem they're working on right now?
Now, before people get worked up here, this does not mean that you should go out and start a whole new initiative, unless that makes sense for you for some reason, but instead look at what you're already doing. How have you been adapting your operations and services for greater impact in this country, politically chaotic and upheaval time, and how does that help the problem? Obviously, always look at how you can continue to adapt and improve, but basically start with what you're already doing. It's really a matter of how does understanding, how does this intersect with what that decision-makers are working on and what they're focused on. Once you've made some notes to yourself, lay that out. What you've done is you've begun to go down the road of thinking about the world from the decision-maker’s perspective. One of the biggest mistakes that almost everybody makes when trying to engage a decision-maker is they'll go in and it's, you know, a chorus of Me, me, Me me me me! This is what we do, this is what we're about, this is how many people we serve, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. and that's all great. There will be a time and a place to share that information, but it's one of those where you mentioned kids and cats, right? I sometimes think that when we're talking, what they're thinking to themselves is your lips are moving, but all I hear is “blah, blah, blah”. and that's kinda how the decision-makers are going to react, If you're not framing what you do in terms of something they really care about and getting to know them as a person. Cause I think that's the thing that people forget too. They hear it, they see the word decision-maker or that big title of senator, county commissioner, municipal councilperson, whatever, and they forget that there's a person in there. They're people first, and so you know, don’t forget everything you know already about relating to people, verses relating to that title.
I had a client in Connecticut who had an elected official that they needed to, to get on board with something they were trying to make happen and they just couldn't figure out how to connect with her. She was not responding to them, and they had reason to believe that she would be, generally an ally given her political leanings and so they thought, well, if we could just engage with her, we think we could probably get her to play, but we can't figure out how to get her to talk to us. So finally they did some research and found out that well, in addition to whatever else she did for a living, she raised goats as a hobby and she had a little dairy goat farm. So my client went out and visited the dairy goat farm and hung out for a day and just chatted with her about her goats, and it broke everything wide open. All of a sudden, now she was taking his phone calls, she was sending him pictures of the goats and he was a completely different interaction because he approached her as a human being and expressed interest in something she cared about. Now, in that case, it wasn't at all about the thing they were working on. It was like, hey, I took the time to come up here and hang with you and your goats, and that really made a difference to her.
So, you know, it was a, that's a really good point, Carol. and I think that people often will forget that. and related to that, I think is something that, is, is part of the inner game thing that can be such a struggle for folks, particularly if they're leading a smaller organization or one that has had some tough times engaging with decision-makers and have not felt like they've come out too well in that process. There's a tendency to kind of go to decision-makers as a supplicant now and kind of saying, “Oh great Poobah decision-maker person, we hope that you will smile upon us and not kill us and be nice to us and maybe do something for us” and that does not play well. It’s actually incredibly counterproductive, and what they're much more likely to respond to is if you approach them as a peer and someone who has value to bring, who has problem solving abilities, who is going to be able to be a partner in something that matters, and-
Carol: How do you help people step into that? feeling like they're their peer and that they can engage in the conversation in that way?
Kathy: Well, that's an interesting question, it kind of depends on what's in the way in the first place.
Carol: What are some of the things that are typical that get in the way?
Kathy: Well, lived experience, as I mentioned with smaller nonprofits in particular, if their experience has been, for example with funders that they've been kind of yanked around by the funders and felt like no matter what we do, you know, they only pick their friends and they never pick us and the whole system's rigged and then they have unreasonable expectations and they have bad deadlines and they begin to work up a whole story about how this is the enemy and this decision-maker is not my friend and they are going to be mean to me, I just know it, and so if you start with that story, you're pretty much doomed from the beginning, and so one of the things that is really helpful, and this is why I always say to folks at the very beginning, describe what your ideal collaborative relationship with that decision-maker would look like and start part of the inner game transformation is to start to tell yourself a new story about, okay, well then if my ideal collaborative relationship is, like the example I was using earlier with a County board member that, you know, this is what they're doing for me, well why are they doing that? Well, how am I showing up so that they want to treat me that way? Well, I'm coming in as a problem solving partner who has good ideas and who can work together with them to fix this. and I envisioned myself literally sitting at a table with them where we are, well, maybe this is a bad visual, right.
At the moment, since nobody's sitting across the table from anybody, but you know, maybe we're sitting across the zoom table from one another, or we're on the phone together or whatever, and we're talking together about, well, what about this idea? Well, have you tried this? What if we wait a minute, I see this problem over here and this problem over there, and I think this is how they intersect, and maybe there's a way that we could do X to solve both of those at once, whatever it is. If you start imagining yourself in that kind of a role where you're relating to them as a peer that you imagine actually having the conversation, and I had encouraged folks to even - I know people hate role-plays when they're formal, but you know, like talk to your dog and pretend it's the decision-maker, you know, whatever your roleplay version is, but to actually practice those conversations until you get comfortable talking to them that way.
Carol: Thinking about that, you know, cause I could imagine, you know, a situation you're describing where there are certainly power differentials there and, you know, lived experience, but what does that, the person who is looking to build that relationship with the decision-maker. What do they have that the decision-maker doesn't have, they may have perspective about a community, connections to community that the decision-maker would be valuable. There's all sorts of things, all sorts of assets that that person has, if they just start to think about it, and certainly in what you were describing. I mean, I could imagine that, you know, some of that anger and frustration and disappointment could be really valid and it gets in the way of building that relationship. So, you know, so it's both, right.
Kathy: Yeah, and you actually made me think of about half a dozen things there, but I'm going to tackle the last one first, cause it's a little bit of an elephant sitting on the table here that we didn't raise, which is that, you know, when we talk, whenever you start talking about power and influence, you can't really talk about power and influence without acknowledging, systemic racism, sexism, all kinds of economic inequalities of all kinds, you know, cultural biases, there's all kinds of stuff that, you know, there are, there are reasons that entire communities of people have been systematically disenfranchised. So I don't want to pretend that those aren't real and those aren't there. You can’t just wave a magic wand and say, aha, I shall just, you know, make the decision-maker, not the product of all of those realities and systems. It definitely doesn't work that way, or we would have all just done that, and that would be a really awesome magic wand.
The lived experience is incredibly important, but it's also critical not to let that be the determinant of how you operate moving forward, and it may be that there will be some decision-makers who are so fatally biased in one way or another against some aspect of what you or your organization represents that they will not be a good target for relationship building,
Not everyone is. I actually had to have a conversation with a client recently where he was just beating his head against the wall with a particular decision-maker, and I finally had to say to him, you know what, she just doesn't like you, and we don't know why somewhere along the way she decided she didn't like you, and I don't think that's going to change. We need somebody else to build that relationship, who else can we get? So we actually picked somebody else who was part of that coalition, who didn't have baggage with her, and they were able to very quickly establish a decent connection and go forward. So, you know, there also is the reality that sometimes somebody just doesn't like you and there's not always something you can do about it.
Carol: So what are some of the ways that you would have people kind of, you talked about. You know, they start out, they list a huge number of people, it gets overwhelming and they get stuck. I was with a group recently, it was around, you know, what partnerships could they get involved in, and within about 15 minutes of brainstorming, we had a list of about a hundred organizations. When clearly this tiny little volunteer led organization was not going to be establishing partnerships with a hundred organizations, so I had them kind of do a matrix of what's easy and what's impactful, and try to have them focus on those. How do you have people prioritize those, you know, and narrow it down so that it is manageable.
Kathy: Yeah, any of those kinds of tricks work pretty well, I'll sometimes have folks pick like a low, medium high rating for two different axes, and one will be, you know, how much, and in the case of partnership, actually, the thing that you suggest is probably what I would use in the case of a decision-maker role. It's more of- and you might even have three categories. You might have an immediacy category where you know, that in the next six to twelve months, this decision-maker is going to be making a decision that has a dramatic impact on us. So it's both high impact and immediacy, so that would move them to the top of the priority list. The other factor that is relevant is that everybody's got relationships with some decision-makers, they might not be really well developed relationships, but for the most part, if you're functioning, if your organization is still in existence, you as a leader have managed to build some productive relationships with decision-makers or you'd probably be gone by now. So a lot of times when things are feeling kind of overwhelming and you maybe don't have necessarily that immediacy or obvious high impact. Sometimes the best thing to do is say, well, where have we got a pretty good relationship already? but we feel like it could be so much better, and that may be a good one to tackle particularly right now, because again, everybody's bandwidth is a little limited right now. So, depending on the situation that you're in, you might want to say, you know, we've had this decision maker who likes us well enough. They don't totally get what we do, but we're pretty well aligned with what they're working on. Let's see! and so alignment is another piece. If your work is really well aligned with a problem they're working on, that's a really good priority selector as well. So all of those really go back to what's important and what's easy, which is pretty much what you flagged to begin with. Those are just different ways of talking about it.
Carol: Sure, sure, It's interesting. You worked a lot with direct service providers and I feel like oftentimes in our sector there's been kind of a false dichotomy where direct service and influencing have kind of been pit pitted against each other that, you know, where folks who do direct service are often told, well, you know, move further up, you know, you're just throwing the fish back into the sea, go back and see why they're coming out. But to me, it's, you know, there are people in need and there are systems that need to be addressed, so it's both. So I'm curious that you specialize really in working with direct service providers. How do you see how they can bring actually particular value to influencing decision-makers and systems?
Kathy: Well, one, this goes back to something you mentioned earlier, when I said you named like six things that I wanted to tackle in this. One of the huge, huge assets that direct service providers have, that other groups don't have, that classic advocacy organizations and associations and so on really don't have, is they- the direct service nonprofits have a direct connection to the members of the community that they are serving. They have a clarity of understanding what the actual problems on the ground look like and how they're impacting real people's lives, and they're also actively engaged in addressing those needs. So for the most part, they can fill in with a clarity that few other organizations can do, the actual human face of the problem, and for most decision-makers, that's a critical piece of the puzzle. If it's just, you know, chess pieces on a board that they're moving around or other abstract concepts that they're making decisions on data and graphs. You know, and that's all important, we need those too, because data driven decision making is a thing for a reason. So you want to be able to come with data and information like that as well, but to be able to talk about the people who are actually being served and the things that they're struggling with is not only valuable in putting a human face on the problem. It helps the decision-maker understand the problem in a new and different way. The other thing that tends to also happens is that talk about finding personal connections with decision-makers, as human beings for most direct service organizations, whatever they're working on, whether they're serving people with cancer or they're helping people with complicated housing issues as renters or whatever it is or employment services, whatever they're working on.
Chances are someone in that decision-maker’s family has dealt with something connected to that problem. and they will often volunteer that information, you know, I've been in meetings with decision-makers and clients where the client would be talking about, well, you know, here's an example of someone we help and they would describe the person's situation and the decision-maker will pipe up and say, Oh, my aunt had that problem, my cousin had that problem. You know, I have a friend who dealt with that and all of a sudden, first of all, they've handed you information that is absolute gold because now you know how to connect to them on a personal level, but also they're busy making that connection on their own. and so that's a huge value add that the direct service nonprofits can bring. The other thing is that in my experience for the most part, direct service nonprofit leaders are fully well aware that this is the systemic problems and issues and the policy failures that caused the need for their services in the first place. They've chosen because that's where their passion and purpose is to address those problems directly through direct service but that doesn't mean they're not aware of the systems issues and the policy issues that are part of the reason why we have to have those services at all, but what they are able to do is make that bridge between policy and reality on the ground in a way that many others are not. So I would say it's actually an asset; the thing that can sometimes be challenging for direct service nonprofit leaders, is that even more than other 501C3 leaders, they may have to help their boards understand why they are engaging, especially elected officials. That it is not only okay, but important and necessary work, and that can sometimes take a little education, but it helps a lot if you don't call it advocacy, actually because C3 boards, especially direct service C3 boards tend to have a bit of a knee jerk anti- advocacy reaction simply because they don't understand, really what it is and how it works and what the rules are and that not only is it not a problem to do that, but it really should be an essential part of every nonprofit’s mission and part of their strategic plan.
Carol: So I want to shift gears a little bit. You hold a fourth level black belt, and I didn't know that there were levels of black belt. So I now know something new and now, let me make sure I'm pronouncing it right. Jujitsu, Is that right?
Carol: So how has learning that martial art helped you with the work that you do with organizations?
Kathy: Well, what it does is it makes me a way better teacher and coach. I taught Jujitsu and practical self-defense for about 15 years and we would get lots and lots of people who had never practiced a martial art in their life, and it was brand new to them, and you know, it's a constant reminder to me that you don't need to know a lot to be able to be effective. So that was what I really took from that teaching process is that, you know, it takes many, many years to reach even the first level of black belt and then many more years to progress beyond that, and by the time you get there, you know a lot about a lot of different things, but if somebody just wants to know how to defend themselves from a common attack, you know, I can teach somebody in a day what they need to know and give them enough practice at it, to be able to feel like, okay, if something sketchy happens, I might actually be okay. At least I have better tools now than I did when I started, when I walked in the door and so it helps me stay focused on making sure that not everybody needs to become a black belt in anything to be effective at it. They just need to have a decent toolkit that they can access readily, and that feels comfortable to them and that if they've got that, they're good to go and that's true with the kind of work with influencing decision-makers too. You don't need to know a hundred thousand skills, you just need to know a handful and practice them regularly.
Carol: So one thing I do at the end of each episode is play a little game where I ask one semi-random icebreaker question. So given what we just were talking about, I've got one for you. If you could arm wrestle any historical figure, who would you choose and why?
Kathy: Oh my goodness, I wish I'd had time to prepare. That's such a fun question. Wow. Any historical figure. Gee, let's see… do they have to be alive or no?
Carol: No, it doesn't matter.
Kathy: Doesn't matter. Oh dear. You've stumped me completely. I hope-
Kathy: No. Well, the first, the first one that came to mind was RBG but that wouldn't be a fair fight cause I'd flatten her, but on the other hand, if we could arm wrestle our brains, then you know, she'd flatten me.
Carol: All right. Well, there you go. That's your answer.
Kathy: Okay, fun.
Carol: So, how can people find out more about the work that you do and get in touch?
Kathy: Well, I've got a couple of things here that I'd like to share with folks. I've got a - since we didn't get through all the steps, cause we were busy talking about a lot of things. I've got a free worksheet with all the steps listed out for your listeners to help them build their influence with a few key decision-makers that they can start on right now and if they just go to https://strategykeys.com/engagenow they can get their free copy of that worksheet and I hope folks will download that. The other thing that I'm excited about is I'll be launching a new masterclass on building your team of super allies sometime early summer exact date. Not yet known, but if you go to collect your worksheet, there'll also be an opportunity to get on the waitlist for that master class, and that will also be a free masterclass. So I want to just give folks a chance to get their feet wet with that a little bit and learn some more of the techniques and have a chance to get their questions answered as well.
Carol: All right, that sounds awesome. Thank you so much, it was great having you on the podcast and good luck with all your clients and influencing.
Kathy: All right. Well, yes, influencing not advocacy, there we go. Thanks for having me. It's great talking with you always, and I hope we get to do this often.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.