Could Growing Your Agenda Actually Improve Engagement?

By Helen Anne Travis 

The Center for Law and Social Policy takes an always-on approach to advancing its anti-poverty agenda.

“There is no downtime,” said executive director Olivia Golden. “Depending on the issue, there’s always a chance to move it forward on some level.”

The result of this broad agenda — working closely with federal, state and local officials — is increased engagement. There’s always something relevant to say, and always an interested audience listening.

Going Wide

CQ Roll Call’s survey this month shows that a large majority of advocacy professionals find it far easier to engage heir members when there’s an issue in play. Three out of four said it’s hard to mobilize action without one.

That’s what makes the Center for Law and Social Policy strategy interesting. Rather than following the traditional wisdom of promoting a narrow agenda to a targeted audience, the center goes wide.

At the federal level, members promote policy options that help lower-income families. Should those policies pass, the center offers guidance to state officials and advocates in implementing the new programs. At the local level, the Center helps community organizations understand how the changes impact their operations.

The overall goal is to ensure that changes made at each level translate into tangible improvements in the lives of the low-income families the center serves. In the process, it shows that it is responsive to the needs of each level, and helps agencies and groups secure the funding and information they need to advance their individual agendas.

A Two-Way Conversation

If the center worked only on federal issues, the dialogue would be one-way: asking state and local groups to help advance anti-poverty policies at the national level.

But because of the Center’s broad approach, it’s not only able to garner the support it needs to advance the national agenda. It can also suggest better federal policy changes thanks to its boots-on-the-ground resources.

“We’re responsive to their needs,” Golden said. “We’re helping them meet their goals, not just asking them for help meeting national goals.”

Finding funding for such a flexible and up-to-the-minute strategy can be a challenge, center officials said. But by having a finger on the pulse of what’s happening at the state and local levels, the Center is able to identify crucial issues early and, if funders are flexible enough to respond, help them get involved right at the beginning.

‘Genuinely Savvy’

The Center does all this with a staff of just 35, all of whom are well versed in local, state and federal anti-poverty initiatives.

Indeed, having a highly trained team is part of what makes the center’s broad approach work. This is something Golden says is important for any group considering adopting a similar strategy.

“You need to think about your staff and board, and make sure they are genuinely savvy and have knowledge about each level (of government),” she said.

Just as important is establishing credibility. The broad strategy involves working with multiple audiences. Golden says it’s important early on to be honest about what you know and don’t know, and to assure your partners that you won’t speak out of turn.

But with a trained staff and a strong reputation for integrity, adopting a broad approach could help boost engagement and advance the agenda.

As Golden put it, “I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how a small, effective and focused group of people can be a lever for positive change in a huge country.”