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Engaging in Public Policy for Umbrella Organizations

Toolkit Intro 3-3

 If you are managing an umbrella or sector infrastructure organization, then it is likely you are providing public policy support for nonprofits or foundations in your state.

Here are seven steps to help you effectively advocate for your state’s nonprofits or foundations in the arena of public policy.



1. Decide to Engage in Advocacy

Both the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) and the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) organized specifically to provide a unified voice for the nonprofit and foundation organizations in Michigan.  Step one for an umbrella organization that wishes to engage in public policy work on behalf of the sector is to make advocacy a part of its core mission.


2. Develop a Board Level Committee and Public Policy Agenda

Educating government about the charitable sector and its needs is a policy position for an umbrella organization’s board of trustees.  Working through the volunteer board committee, a formal “public policy agenda” should be developed that specifically outlines legislative or regulatory goals, desired timelines, and next steps in order to address these goals.


3. Engage Professional Staff to Lead the Public Policy Work

While trustees, volunteers, members, and the CEO of an umbrella organization need to be proactive in establishing a dialogue with policy makers, Michigan has found it helpful to have a full-time staff member to help organize the work, analyze data, regularly communicate with members, and to organize meetings.


4.  Organize Volunteers at the Legislative District Level

We all work and live in various types of “communities.” The nonprofit community consists of volunteers, board members, staff, and the people they serve. Board members, donors, staff, and grantees are a part of the foundation community. In Michigan, the Council of Michigan Foundations and the Michigan Nonprofit Association organize foundation and nonprofit members to talk with their local representatives about issues of interest and concern to the sector in their specific nonprofit and foundation communities. In some cases the interests have intersected, allowing these two communities to effectively work together for the benefit of the entire sector.

“One of the things that make Michigan unique, truly, is that we actually organized on congressional district levels and had someone in every congressional district who was a foundation leader. It was the leadership, probably board leadership (even though staff might have been involved), but it was board leadership who were truly appointed to be liaisons with their particular member of Congress. To a very great extent, we tried to do that with both the state senate and state house as well.”                                                                                                                                                                              —Margaret Ann Riecker


5. Visit the State Capital and Legislators in Washington, DC

The Council of Michigan Foundations organizes a visit annually to Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. to meet with federal policy makers. The visit includes:

  • Informational packets for the individuals chosen to represent their field
  • An informational packet for each legislator that clearly states the need for policy change
  • A brief that clearly states the position of the nonprofit’s members on the policy issues being discussed

A particular strength of the visits occur when members of the team are volunteers with no personal benefit to be gained by the visit – only concern for their community and the nonprofits who serve.


6. Build Rapport with your Legislators

Cultivate relationships with legislators before you begin to work with them on public policy issues – this will make it easier for you to communicate with them on crucial issues.  Also, be sure to have at least one member on your team who lives in the legislator’s actual district – legislators represent their districts and pay close attention to their constituents.


7. Partner with Government

Both nonprofits and government are organized for the benefit of the greater society. They are natural allies. The existence of umbrella organizations for the foundation and nonprofit sectors provide a means for public officials to work with the “sector” as a whole, rather than trying to discover and balance the interests of multiple nonprofits and foundations that operate at a variety of geographic levels.

The Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) [partner profile] and the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) [partner profile] have worked closely with government to build institutional connections with the primary governmental branches that have a natural relationship to nonprofits:

  • The executive branch, through the governor’s office
  • The legislative branch through the state’s nonprofit caucus
  • The judicial branch, through the attorney general’s office

“The first part of our public policy work was really very much oriented towards defensiveness. How do we protect philanthropy? How do we make sure that Congress does not pass laws that put philanthropy out of business? The second part of our public policy, which we really learned and grew into as we learned from these experiences, was the whole aspect of how do we partner with government around policy issues? […] We really realized that we had to expand our public policy work beyond government relations and the regulatory issues and really look at key ways in which philanthropy in Michigan could be a partner with local government, state government and the federal government.” –Robert Collier

Finally, as in any strong partnership, government and the nonprofit sector work together to accomplish their own agendas, and to identify and accomplish those objectives they share. By building a relationship of trust and providing easy access and communication, innovative partnerships can be developed.