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Programs Empower Texas Nonprofits to Influence Policy Change

Molly Hubbert Doyle

December 2015

Many Texas nonprofit organizations work to promote economic opportunity and stability through outreach, education and information. However, one area that may be lacking is policy work and advocacy.

According to John Siburt, president and chief operations officer of multiservice nonprofit CitySquare in Dallas, “Too often, nonprofits deal with the effects of poverty without addressing the causes. Advocacy is an important component to accomplish that. The best way to impact our communities in a systemic way is to address systemic issues.”

Advancing Nonprofit Work Through Policy and Influence

Nonprofit service providers have a direct connection to low- and moderate-income communities. They have a frontline view of prominent issues that may affect the financial well-being of individuals and families. This position provides nonprofits with information to influence policies relevant to their clientele and encourage involvement in elections. A new report from Nonprofit VOTE found that prospective voters contacted by trusted nonprofit service providers turned out at higher rates than other registered voters across all demographic groupings in the 2014 election cycle.

“It’s essential for nonprofits to share the stories of their clients—who typically are underrepresented in the political process—with elected officials. We also want clients to feel empowered to be politically involved themselves, and they’re more likely to listen to someone they trust,” says Stephanie Mace, director of public policy at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas.

Alliance for Justice (AFJ) is one organization working to support nonprofits in this type of policy work. AFJ is a national association of more than 115 organizations that are committed to ensuring all Americans have equal access to justice and can fully participate in the democratic process. Through guidance and resources, its Bolder Advocacy initiative advances and protects the role of nonprofits and foundations in influencing public policy. Bolder Advocacy provides training to nonprofit organizations on federal, state and local laws related to lobbying, elections and advocacy.

Since AFJ began the initiative (out of its California and Washington, D.C., offices) over 25 years ago, the organization has seen an increase in demand for its services in Texas. Several years ago, it developed Texas-specific state law resources and has since received many requests for technical assistance from nonprofit organizations in the state. Staff knew it was time to consider adding a location in Texas.

“We decided it made sense to have someone in Dallas–Fort Worth to build relationships and knowledge on state laws—to have someone working on the ground,” said Elizabeth Posner, director of the organization’s foundation relations.

AFJ Office Opens in Dallas

In February 2015, AFJ opened an office in Dallas to represent organizations pursuing policy efforts in Texas. Its work will extend from DFW to Austin, El Paso, Houston, the Rio Grande Valley, Waco and other areas across the state.

Natalie Roetzel was brought on as director of the Texas office. She earned her law degree from Texas Wesleyan University. Before joining AFJ, she helped create and run the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit dedicated to securing the release of the wrongfully convicted.

When the Texas office opened, Roetzel initially spent time in the community learning about local nonprofits, their needs and initiatives. “We don’t want to come in and set any agendas,” said Roetzel. “We want to let Texas organizations lead this work. We’re figuring out how we can best tailor our work to the needs on the ground.”

According to Abby Levine, director for Bolder Advocacy, “Our role here is to empower nonprofits and funders to be bold, effective advocates. We want to demystify advocacy and present it as a tool to help organizations achieve their missions. For example, we want to help 501(c)3 organizations understand their role in elections or lobbying.”

AFJ Texas Office, Other Organizations Provide Support

AFJ’s Texas office is located at The Grove, a co-working space with a social mission in downtown Dallas (501 Elm Street, Suite 450). The Grove is a state-of-the-art facility that can host large groups for advocacy training.

One day a month, Roetzel provides in-person technical assistance for organizations in Dallas–Fort Worth. Earlier this year, she hosted AFJ’s first Dallas training session at the new office that was open to all nonprofits in the DFW area. Representatives from about 15 local organizations attended. The organization hosted another training session for nonprofits in DFW that addressed how nonprofits can be involved in policy work and advocacy during election season.

Roetzel is working on a series of training events for the collaborative nonprofit group Dallas Faces Race. According to Chantel L. Jones, the group’s program officer, “There is an opportunity to leverage the connection between nonprofits and their clients to address the core of social disparities and injustice through policy reform. AFJ’s presence and support are vital to provide our nonprofit partners with the tools and resources necessary to refine their advocacy efforts.”

United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, the Commit! Partnership and the Dallas Regional Chamber have formed a coalition to provide resources on how to influence policy. They are hosting a series of events for local nonprofits. The first was a webinar that provided guidelines for getting involved in election season. AFJ was part of a second webinar on Nov. 13 at which sponsors gave a high-level overview of what kind of lobbying nonprofits may do and provided real-world examples. A Feb. 2 event focused on tips for meeting with elected officials, some of whom will be in attendance to give advice.

For more information, visit the Alliance for Justice website or contact Roetzel at natalie@afj.org or 214-530-9144. For information on the coalition between United Way, the Commit! Partnership and the Dallas Regional Chamber, contact Stephanie Mace at smace@unitedwaydallas.org.

About the Author

Molly Hubbert Doyle is a community development specialist in the Community Development Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.