Mission-driven entrepreneurs and organizations know best that it takes at least a village to achieve long lasting impact and generate the irreversible systemic change needed to better the lives of historically underserved and disenfranchised individuals and communities.
Building and expanding this village should be a priority for any entrepreneur or organization involved in the social impact sector regardless of focus, size, acumen, location, and resources. Our village should be as wide as possible, dynamic, engaging and constantly expanding.
A village might include beneficiaries, families, volunteers, funders, donors, advocates, and peer organizations. In today’s world where there will be a rush of new funding, new programs, and policies in response to Covid and focus on social justice, entrepreneurs and organizations would benefit by making elected officials and government entities whether at local, state, and national level a priority.
Building strong relations and partnerships with only some of the stakeholders mentioned above might seem more natural and easier. Yet, engaging with elected officials and other governmental entities is equally important and beneficial even though it might seem like an intimidating undertaking. And costly as well, especially, when you are part of an organization with limited human and financial resources.
Why Developing Relationships with Government Entities Matters
Caravanserai Project has recently facilitated a conversation about the need and importance of engaging and developing strong connections with elected officials and government entities. Denise Davis, Redlands City Council Member and SEED Lab Fellow, Italia Garcia, District Representative for State Senator Richard D. Roth, Sam Chasin, Senior Manager for Youth Development Partnerships and Policies at YMCA of the USA, and Adán Chavez, former Director of Civic Partnerships at the NALEO Educational Fund, joined our brainstorming session and shared their experiences both in the mission-driven sector and the government.
For our organization, the benefits are clear: advance our work and increase its impact, make sure the voice of our beneficiaries is heard, access unique resources and expertise but also inform and share new perspectives based on our experiences, influence policies to the advantage of our beneficiaries, raise awareness on issues that are central to our communities, increase the visibility of our work and the profile of our organization to name just a few. But developing and implementing a successful strategy to engage with government entities is challenging.
Here are some of the takeaways from this conversation that we consider at the core of a successful strategy. They are also must-have tools to build and expand our networks that are equally accessible to organizations with limited resources.
Know Your Audience
Mapping the government sector, from elected officials and their teams to various agencies, is one of the earliest processes mission-driven entrepreneurs and organizations should consider as they start planning their engagement. Sam Chasin reminded us of the importance of “customer’s experience” or “customer relations” in our work. Being familiar with their agendas and interests, composition of their teams and their roles as well as their constituents will help us not only better customize our message but also understand the impact of these relationships.
Targeting the right people is to your advantage. This is not only determined by what we want to accomplish, but also by the added value they could bring to the conversation, both current and future. Some could become excellent champions of our work or even partners in our projects. Others could provide access to resources, facilitate introductions to key networks or play an important role in making the voice of our communities heard when it matters. In some cases, just making sure they know who we are and what we do is all we want.
Prioritize Relationship Building. Be Less Transactional and More Transformational
For mission-driven leaders and organizations, the impact we are aiming to achieve does not happen in a vacuum. Regardless of our passion, commitment and resilience, our impact is determined, and sometimes, conditioned, by our ability to connect and develop meaningful relations with others, especially elected officials and other government representatives.
Key in building relations with these stakeholders is our ability to move from a transactional mindset to a transformational one. Approaching these offices only when we need their support should no longer be part of our modus operandi. It hardly works and it requires more energy and time. Having already established a dialogue and being connected with a counterpart that is familiar with our work and our plans will prove instrumental in a moment of crisis whether we need their endorsement or access to information or a particular resource. Indeed, it requires time and energy, but the benefits are worth this long-term effort. As Adán Chavez mentioned “relationship building is really going to open up a lot of opportunities and a lot of doors.”
One resource you might draw on is tapping your network of beneficiaries, volunteers, Board members and staff who may already have relationships with elected officials. They can provide introduction, access and validation.
Design and Follow a Strategy: Have a Specific Ask!
Relationship building is as much an ongoing strategy as it is a skill, as Denise Davis has highlighted during our conversation. While some are more natural at relationship building and networking than others, it is crucial that these efforts be driven by a clear vision, specific goals, a well thought plan, and a long-term strategy.
As Italia Garcia mentioned, “a lot of times, we’re not really sure what direction to take when it comes to the next steps”. Having a specific ask, as Sam Chasin puts it, keeps the parties engaged and provides a roadmap for future engagements. For the representatives of a government entity to be able to understand the expectations of their interlocutors and how they can engage with them provides a more comprehensive perspective on where this relationship will go as well as the potential deliverables.
When you are asking for support or specific action it can be very important to get granular on knowing what is going on with the elected official and their staff. Are they in the middle of a campaign? Is there a crisis or a new bill that has been introduced? Timing can be very important.
Be Consistent and Persistent
Once the strategy and the goals are clear, being consistent and persistent is equally important. It shows commitment and engagement, but it also positions us as relevant and active participants in these communities and networks.
In many instances, after a first meeting, the regular post factum thank you note is hardly followed by a consistent and persistent follow-up. Sometimes for pertinent reasons: not much alignment, the timing is off, a crisis hit, too much work etc. But we need to look beyond short-term outcomes and immediate benefits and think long-term. Taking the initiative to continue the conversation and the engagement with these stakeholders should become part of the mission-driven organization’s ongoing agenda. Elected officials and government entities are constantly bombarded by similar requests and have hectic schedules and therefore the pressure of keeping the conversation going is on us.
Be Present. Be Noticeable. Be Relevant
Connecting and building relations with any government representatives, be they elected officials in Redlands, Sacramento or Washington DC, head of agencies or staff, is at the end of the day the result of good marketing and strategic planning. Being present at meetings, whether online or in person, engaging on issues of mutual interest, contributing with information of relevance for these stakeholders as well as keeping them informed about our work are key to increasing our visibility and awareness about what we do.
Relationships are a two-way street. Think about things you can do to support the elected official and issues important to them and align with your mission. Attend their events, forward information from their offices that is relevant, be part of their community. Invite them to speak at your events. Engage them in ways that help them understand you are a partner in their community.
Some of us are very good at knowing how to reach out, build relationships and have strong self-confidence to do this work, but many of us are not as experienced, less outgoing and reticent to speak. Fortunately, being truly authentic is the most powerful way to be in building trusting and ongoing relationships and trumps all the skills.
According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), approximately 1.54 million nonprofits were registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2016, an increase of 4.5 percent from 2006. In 2020, Cause IQ reported that the number of nonprofits registered with the IRS reached 1.848 million. The mission-driven sector is more competitive than ever and, like in any other field, each organization’s survival and thriving are also the result of its ability to raise awareness about its work, impact etc. Being present, noticeable, and relevant goes beyond relationship building as it is more about strengthening these already established connections.
There is much more to say about engaging with elected officials and government entities and the strategies mission-driven entrepreneurs and organizations should use to strengthen these connections. It is also an ever-evolving process that constantly tests our ability to pivot and capacity to commit and plan for the future. The results, whether visible in a few weeks or months, can only enrich our approaches, and open new doors that will help us advance our work.
Learn more about the conversation Caravanserai Project facilitate by watching the recording of our webinar: Partnering with the Government – Benefits and Strategies.
This blog was made possible in part by the generous support provided by the Wells Fargo Open for Business Fund. Caravanserai Project is the recipient of a Wells Fargo Open for Business Fund award aiming to provide programs and services that support small business viability through growth, expansion, innovation, and increased productivity. Read more about this award.