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  • Rich Tafel

How Progressive Nonprofits Can Navigate Conservative GOP Washington

With the turmoil in American politics, progressive nonprofits and social ventures have been left scratching their heads, trying to figure out whether to engage the new GOP-controlled Hill and White House—and if so, how. Some have decided their strategy is to resist; others realize they must find ways to work with the federal government if they are to successfully serve their constituencies. The good news is that with the right approach, a progressive policy agenda can thrive under GOP control. To see how, we need only look back to the Republican Revolution of 1994, when the GOP took control of Congress for the first time in decades.

A year earlier, I had opened the doors of Log Cabin Republicans—a group dedicated to representing LGBT conservatives and allies—with the goal of educating Republicans on Capitol Hill about gay and AIDS issues. The November election threw progressive groups into a tizzy, and no group was more concerned than advocates fighting against the spread of AIDS. I found myself tasked with translating between progressive activists and GOP lawmakers, none of whom had much respect for the other side.

What I learned back then still has resonance today. Over the years, I’ve worked with dozens of social change organizations seeking to accomplish policy goals through conservative governments, and many have met with amazing success. For organizations facing this challenge today, here are 10 strategies that can help.

1. Change your mindset.

Somewhere in your organization’s mission or values is a commitment to diversity. This usually translates along the lines of race, gender, and sexual orientation—all of which are important—but the real dividing lines in America are ideological, and we’re losing the ability to cross boundaries around politics.

When meeting with people on the other side of the aisle, start with the premise that you share similar goals but see different ways of getting there, as opposed to thinking you’re on the right side of history and they are evil.

The AIDS crisis in Africa was ignored for years even under a Democratic president, so in 1994, most AIDS activists couldn’t imagine making progress under the new Republican-controlled Congress and White House. Nevertheless, a few nonprofits set up Congressional trips to Africa to educate staffers on the epidemic and its dangers. Rather than assuming that government leaders would ignore the problem, the nonprofits created an opportunity for them to see the problem from a new perspective, first-hand—a strategy that ultimately lead to a bipartisan coalition later known as PEPFAR. PEPFAR saved millions of lives as America’s largest humanitarian effort since the Marshall Plan.

2. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Engaging in advocacy requires nonlinear thinking. The political arena is an ecosystem. Advocates must be crystal clear about what they are seeking to accomplish and completely flexible on how they get there.

Most leaders feel that once the strategy or path they are on fails them, the quest is over. They lose heart and retreat. Instead, start with a hypothesis about the best route to your goal, then let go of that original plan as new information and networks emerge. Constantly be on the lookout for faster routes to where you want to go, and think of all strategy as temporary.

In the mid 1990’s, a coalition of LGBT groups was seeking to gain some type of visible support for gay rights from Members of Congress. Our original strategy was to get them to support a federal non-discrimination bill, but after numerous complaints that signing such a bill wasn’t the proper role for government, we changed our request, asking Member offices to sign a pledge saying they would not discriminate against gay staff in their office. By 1994, more than 52 GOP Members and 172 Democrats had signed pledges—a milestone at the time.

3. Map your assets.

You may not be a Republican, but you have allies who are. Look within your organization, on your board, and among your donors for people who have strong relations with the staffers you need to engage, and then map them out to get a clear picture of your potential network and reach.

At one health care nonprofit, we conducted a simple online survey of all staff, board members, and strategic partners. We asked questions like: Do you know any Republicans working on the Hill? Do you have connections or clients in the following geographic areas? Just asking moved people beyond their initial thinking of “We don’t know anyone.”

What you find may surprise you. After the survey above, an employee in one of the regional offices contacted me to tell me she was the niece of a GOP senator, but hadn’t told her team about it for fear that they might give her a hard time. In a different instance, during the AIDS crisis, programs with pharmaceutical partners used those companies to open Congressional doors to Senators who employed many workers in a number of critical states.

4. Focus on your top 10.

While there are times when a full-blown national campaign is necessary to make progress, most successful efforts focus on finding the 10 or so key players in Washington DC that can make it happen.

To find them, first identify the House committee that has jurisdiction over your issue, then look to see if there’s a subcommittee with an even greater focus on your issue. From this pool, find two Republicans and two Democrats to champion your issue—maybe they appear in your asset map, or maybe they represent a critical geographic region or have spoken about your issue. Repeat this process on the Senate side, and then look for two allies within the executive branch—usually, they are in the agency you're focused on, but sometimes they are in the White House.

5. Move right to left.

As an advocate of a nonprofit or social venture with connections on the Democratic side of the aisle, it is important to line up your Republicans allies first—even when Democrats control Congress. Many progressive groups launch their agenda with 40 far-left cosponsors, but the partisan reality is that a conservative Member would face criticism and even a primary challenge simply by being on the Democrat’s bill. Democrats face less risk of signing onto a GOP bill that achieves a progressive goal. In some cases, progressive advocacy groups introduce bills they know can’t pass in an effort to raise money or signal to their constituents that they are doing something. The reality is their effort arrives dead on arrival.

Start building your coalition of supporters by going as far to the right on the political spectrum as you can, and move left. When we were working on AIDS funding in the 1990s, Rep. Tom Coburn (R-OK) was an unlikely champion. He was later known as “Dr. No” for his opposition to funding increases. But he was also a doctor, who knew the power of early and effective treatment. Once he was on board, he made it safe for fellow Republicans to support our agenda, and in the end, democratic support was a nice but unnecessary addition. As conservative allies see your organization marry up the various parts of Congress from right to left, they will recognize you are doing your homework and give you even more time down the line.

6. Move Hill to White House.

Thanks to celebrity-like coverage and the growing use of executive orders, most organizations I’ve worked with believe the President and executive branch of government are more powerful than they are. Meanwhile, Congress is much more powerful than advocates think. Though agencies like the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services are part of the executive branch, for example, Congress governs them. One of the best ways to access an agency is to get a Member of the House or Senate to request that the agency meet with you. An education group I worked with had been trying for years to meet with the Secretary of Education, but we didn’t achieve a meeting until our Hill champions requested that the Secretary hear our proposal.

7. Create a win for everyone.

Every great negotiator creates wins for all involved, and policy strategy is negotiation strategy on steroids. An obvious win for politicians is something that helps them get re-elected. How does winning their support make them look good? Will your agenda create new jobs or save government funding?

Many Republicans are very frustrated with their pop culture image as self-interested politicians who don’t care about the issues many nonprofits are tackling. Supporting your cause can be a tangible way for them to show their compassionate side, which might also help in their re-election. Ask for their help in identifying how your agenda aligns with theirs, and couch it in terms the benefit everyone.

8. Speak morally.

While you want to create a win, it’s worth remembering that politicians are motivated by more than just re-election. As hard as it is to believe, most staffers on Capitol Hill went there to do good and want to work toward positive outcomes. Appeal to this sense of purpose using language that resonates; Republicans speak in moral and spiritual terms more than most Democrats do.

The creation of the US response to the AIDS crisis in Africa (see “Change your mindset,” above) hit a brick wall when the head of USAID at the time argued that Africans were too primitive to successfully adhere to drug regimens. Though we knew this was untrue, it put our entire advocacy strategy into a tailspin.

In a critical meeting with GOP Senate staffers, we asked, “Why did you come to DC?” They responded from the heart, “To do good.” We made the case that America had a moral and spiritual responsibility to do good by responding to the crisis. Their support following that meeting probably didn’t help any of them win their next election, but each person spoke about the positive impact it had on their lives.

9. Articulate your plan of action—succinctly.

The average Hill staffer holds about 12 meetings a day. They are overworked and overwhelmed, which means that as they sit across from you nodding and smiling, they are quietly hoping your meeting won’t be actionable.

Before you engage with Republican leaders, spend time making your pitch actionable and clear. Instead of using your meeting to talk about the importance of ending income inequality, you might specifically demonstrate that your program lifts individuals in their district out of poverty and into the workforce, and then offer case studies of real people and summary of how much your program saves the government.

As above, take the time to frame your message in a way that will resonate. Having a constituent make the case is a powerful way to start. The advice I gave in a 2010 article on “speaking Republican”—with examples from issues like lifting the ban on gays serving in the military, immigration, and health care—still stands today.

10. Hire a lobbying firm.

I put this last, because it can get very expensive, very fast—a decent lobbyist starts at $10,000 a month, and most require a yearlong engagement. But lobbyists can ultimately save you time and money by getting you to the right person quickly.

That said, citizen advocates can do a lot without them if they follow the steps outlined here. Hill staffers know nonprofits don’t have big budgets to pay world-class lobbyists, and many will be sympathetic to your effort even when they don’t align to your cause. A nonprofit or social venture that can present its own case can sometimes have more impact than a “hired gun.”

One prominent Republican Hill staffer told me that when a nonprofit leader came into his office last month with a lobbyist, he shoved his card into the hand of the nonprofit leader and said, “Here is my business card. You can call me directly anytime you want. I’ll respond directly to you.” He was, he told me, trying to communicate that the nonprofit didn’t need to pay a high-priced lobbyist to get the next meeting. No lobby firm will tell you this, but advocacy can carry more weight if your organization is doing the meetings.

In this time of hyper-partisan political partisanship, advocacy has never been more challenging. Most progressive causes will give up. But true advocates with the right strategies can make progress where others won’t—and those we seek to serve are counting on us to try.

Rich Tafel is the managing director of Raffa Social Capital Advisors, which provides strategy social entrepreneurs and their investors. He has engaged in policy strategy on issues including LGBT rights, AIDS drug access, poverty, education reform, and the PEPFAR program for clients around the world. He can be reached at

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