Being located in Washington, DC, one might assume the Broadway show, Hamilton: An American Musical, serves as the soundtrack to daily work at Independent Sector – everyone entrenched in politics and policy. In reality, our organization looks much more like most nonprofits. The vast majority of our staff focus on daily operations, programs, and communications to advance the organization mission.
Yet, this month, we closed the IS offices for our second annual All Staff Hill Day, taking our entire staff to Capitol Hill to build their advocacy skills and promote the vital role nonprofit organizations play in strengthening democracy, advancing freedom of expression, and adding richness and diversity to community life.
A part of our organizational commitment to ensuring all people in the U.S. thrive is understanding that long-term systems change requires many people raising their voices on a wide range of issues. Nonprofit staff can not only contribute to advancing their missions and improving their communities through their 9-to-5 jobs. They are also constituents with the ability to influence policymakers on causes that are critically important to them.
Unfortunately, many people do not lean into their influence as an advocate because they do not feel they have the knowledge or skills necessary to succeed. In reality, personal experience combined with nonprofit expertise makes sector employees ideal people to educate the public and key decision-makers on issues that impact their lives. Our Broadway-inspired wisdom affirms that they are the most qualified to “tell their [own] story.”
The goal of Hill Day is to help staff use their influence as citizens and employees and overcome uncertainty about their own advocacy skills by demonstrating how great they can be at one of the most intimidating activities: lobbying legislators. As Hamilton lyrics emphasize, “You don’t get a win, unless you play the game.” Here are a few major takeaways from our staff’s experience this year:
- “It’s Time to Take a Shot”
Many IS staff admitted that they were incredibly nervous about the prospect of lobbying legislators, but it got easier each time they did it. One staff person noted that she could not even eat her lunch last year due to anxiety, but this year was smooth sailing. “Advocating is a lot easier than I thought it was, and the more you do, the easier it is. By our last visit, all of us felt comfortable and ready to do more.” In other words, experiential learning is an incredibly effective way to teach advocacy skills. Staff just need the confidence and support to take a shot.
- “You Want a Revolution, I want a Revelation”
In addition to building individuals’ advocacy skills, our Hill Day is also a great educational tool. Many IS staff noted that they felt as though they understood issues on the organization’s policy agenda for the first time. That knowledge made it easier for them to consider how policy issues may intersect with their own work. Connecting policy issues to everyday work is a proven method to motivate individual advocacy in the future.
- “I Promise that I’ll Make Y’all Proud”
Staff noted that one of their favorite aspects of Hill Day was working on teams with colleagues from different parts of the organization. The combination of shared nerves, a desire to succeed in a real task, and post-event celebration makes visiting Congressional offices a strong team-building experience. One staff person said Hill Day was “one of the most fun afternoons I’ve had at work in a really long time.”
- “What Comes Next?”
In Hamilton, King George asks, “What comes next?” after the United States was formed. On their own, some IS staff have jumped into their personal advocacy head-first since last year, including activities like leading school board advocacy committees and joining demonstrations minutes after wrapping up Hill Day. However, most staff still need support to figure out next steps. They’re more likely to advocate on organization issues if calls to action are intentionally highlighted as activities for individuals within the organization, not just external stakeholders. Additional training and access to resources about how to participate in other types of advocacy—like writing op-eds to newspapers or joining coalitions—increases the likelihood of staff advocating on other issues they care about.
The most impressive outcomes from Hill Day are reflected in the fact that our colleagues who are brand new to advocacy successfully convinced new legislators to take action in support of our issues. This reinforces the point that you don’t have to be a policy expert or professional lobbyist to influence public policy. Just like Hamilton and Burr, we know that “if we lay a strong enough foundation, [nonprofit staff] will blow us all away.”
Special thanks to the office of Representative Suzanne Bonamici for helping arrange the details of the day. Oregon is lucky to have such a nonprofit champion in Congress!
#ISHillDay 2019 is up and running!
Two squad photos because Kristina and Mareeha took turns taking the photo. pic.twitter.com/lve06LW0Ps
— Independent Sector (@IndSector) September 10, 2019