During the start of quarantine, like so many others, I picked up a new hobby. I had wanted to learn guitar for years, including acquiring a hand-me-down acoustic guitar years ago that basically gathered dust as I moved from apartment to apartment. Without the structure a teacher could provide, I fooled around, but never really learned.
With so much free time, I reached out to a family friend and professional guitarist. As we Facetimed every other week, it was so exciting to step out of my comfort zone and learn something new. The point wasn’t to become a skilled guitarist, but rather to explore a new interest.
And that is exactly what the Independent Sector policy team asked of our Independent Sector colleagues and American Express NGen fellows this week – to step out of their comfort zones, try something (a little) new, and expand on skills they already possess.
Last week was Independent Sector’s All Staff Hill Week – an opportunity for everyone (and we mean everyone!) in our organization to visit Capitol Hill offices – 57, in fact. Our expectation was not that staff would become expert, seasoned government relations professionals, but that they understand as experts in their work that they already possess the skills necessary to advocate, helping them feel more empowered to continue to advocate, including on issues of import to them.
Though last week technically was our office’s third collective visit to Congress, this year’s Hill meetings were unlike any previous year. First, we visited all 57 offices virtually over the course of three days – making this week a true marathon, not like our previous day-long sprints. Second, we were joined by our stellar American Express NGen fellows, a collection of emerging, impactful leaders working across the sector.
Our week of super-charged advocacy began with a training hosted by our own Allison Grayson and Neisha McGee. They spoke to the importance not only for Independent Sector employees to advocate, but for all nonprofit employees everywhere to do so for issues they care about.
As Neisha said, “Since its inception, the nonprofit sector has long served as a bridge between government and constituents. Nonprofits interface with diverse and marginalized communities, thereby making our employees effective agents for change who are uniquely qualified to educate elected officials about policies that cultivate a healthy and equitable civil society. As the nation’s third-largest employer, nonprofits can mobilize our network of 12.3 million employees, donors, volunteers, and constituents across 1.5 million organizations. These natural engagement assets, coupled with our deep community roots, make our institutions well-suited to engage in nonpartisan advocacy as a method to advance systems change.”
Following our training on the different avenues of advocacy, Ana Montañez led Independent Sector staff and American Express NGen fellows in a training on the focus of this week’s action – advocating and lobbying policymakers. Ana shared, “It is important for Independent Sector staff to go to the Hill so they can exercise their advocacy muscle. Independent Sector as an organization is all about making sure nonprofits are using their voices to advocate, and so we are practicing what we preach. I hope my colleagues were able to find their own voice and style when doing advocacy, as well as gain confidence so they can advocate on issues they are passionate about.”
And then off we all went! Over the next three days, in teams comprised of Independent Sector employees and American Express NGen fellows, we attended between three to four meetings. Debra Rainey, a communications team member, said, “Those of us on the team who don’t work directly with policymakers every day sometimes need a ‘refresher’ about what it’s like to advocate and talk directly with Congressional staff. Our annual Hill Day is an opportunity to do that. It’s also a reminder to us and our members about the importance of direct advocacy to the work we do and communities we serve.”
In the words of American Express NGen Fellow Dion Dawson, founder & CEO of Dion’s Chicago Dream, “[It was my] first time lobbying, and it was super cool. Now, it’s time to get ready for next year!”
Just as I have continued to practice my guitar (despite an increase in activities competing for my attention), I hope all of my fellow staff members who participated in last week’s Congressional activities will continue to practice this budding skill set. Advocacy is a powerful instrument that we all hold. We just need to remember that we have it – and put it into practice.