5 Top Takeaways from Start Early’s Advocacy & Policy Community of Practice Webinar - Early Learning Nation

5 Top Takeaways from Start Early’s Advocacy & Policy Community of Practice Webinar

While we’re still traveling less often during the pandemic years, we’re offering recaps—Top Takeaways—from important conversations, town halls, webinars and virtual events from the Early Learning field. Visit our Early Learning Nation Studio channel on YouTube for interviews with leaders from education, child development, business, politics and more.

Advocacy shifts into high gear during campaign season. While child care and early education will never have the lobbying firepower of industries like Big Pharma and utilities, the sector boasts a number of dynamic nonprofits dedicated to engaging candidates and voters on issues that matter for families with young children.

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Start Early, for example, works to improve early childhood experiences, build up public investments and support delivery systems to increase access as well as quality. On May 30, the organization’s Kayla Goldfarb (Policy Manager) and consultant Michelle Hughes moderated a webinar for advocates, featuring Shannon Jones (President & CEO, Groundwork Ohio) and Monica Murnan (Director of Community Support Services, Greenbush, an education nonprofit serving Kansas). Both Jones and Murnan drew upon experience as legislators to inform their advocacy work. Here are our takeaways:

1. There’s a lot on the line in 2024. At the start of the webinar, Goldfarb and Hughes conducted an instant survey, and everyone acknowledged fears about the election and implications for families. It’s clear there’s a lot at stake this year, with 13 gubernatorial races and 33 U.S. Senate seats up for grabs as well as the Presidential contest.

Goldfarb said that 78% of state legislative seats are on the 2024 ballot, as well as judicial elections and ballot initiatives. (Missouri voters, for example, have the opportunity to make child care centers tax exempt.) Elections give nonprofits the chance to seize the media spotlight as candidates debate issues. Amplifying voter voices and participating in candidate forums are two common strategies. Panelists cited examples from Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey.

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2. Compliance is strength. Two IRS classifications of nonprofits—501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4)—can engage in advocacy, but the rules are different. Both are free to encourage voting and to help people register and vote. The latter type of organization is less common and has more latitude about lobbying. Only the latter is allowed to endorse candidates and publicize its endorsements. Goldfarb and Hughes singled out Alliance for Justice for its authoritative guidance on how to comply with regulations and maximize impact, including:

They added that funders often impose additional restrictions. Murnan emphasized that nonprofit organizations should educate every level of staff on “being true to the culture” in their work e-mails and on social media.

3. Advocacy happens through relationships. Campaign season is the time to kindle or rekindle relationships with candidates and their staff members, but remember that trust is the currency of the realm, so everything you communicate must be accurate. “Elected officials don’t want to be embarrassed,” said Jones, who spent 10 years in the Ohio General Assembly. “If I felt misled by an advocate, I’d never talk to them again.”

Murnan, who represented her district from 2016 to 2020, recalled helping to overturn the so-called Brownback Experiment in tax cuts. She advised advocates, “You need to be the trusted expert that people call. You don’t have the luxury of disliking someone. You have to listen to both sides.”

She also noted that relationships with administrative officials are just as key as the ones with politicians, and recommended shoring up relationships after the election and before inauguration, when recently elected officials are making key appointments and preparing to realize their campaign promises. “Educate them when they’re at home,” Murnan said. “Follow them into the grocery store if you have to.”

Both Jones and Murnan stressed that elected officials are more than their party affiliation, so listen carefully and capitalize on common ground.

4. Work in coalition. No matter how knowledgeable and well funded your organization is, you will be more effective in collaboration with others than you are on you own. Advocacy organizations, businesses, unions and faith-based groups make more noise when they make it together. The flip side of this reality is that you won’t get to make all the decisions. Don’t worry about marching in lockstep; instead, concentrate on where you align. “Respect is more important than consensus,” Jones stated.

5. Play the long game. Maybe this isn’t the year for your specific policy issue, but if you solidify your partnerships and remain patient, maybe next year will be. Jones’s advice: “You have to understand when to take half the loaf. Or the heel of the bread. There’s always next year.”

Advocates have to play defense as well as offense, postponing progress until after the damaging policies have been thwarted. “Sometimes we have to stop the bad things from happening,” Murnan said, referring to the recent legislative session in her state where a hoped-for formation of an Office of Early Childhood eluded her, but on the other hand, a risky proposal to deregulate child care was avoided, thanks to the governor’s veto.

“Every day is trying to get out alive,” she said.

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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