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On August 5, 2021, we were fortunate to host a Zoom conversation with Kathy White, Deputy Director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute and Mark Newhouse, SVP Denver Partner, to discuss strategies social mission organizations can leverage to change state policy for the betterment of our communities.

We learned that your organization’s approach can sometimes depend on whether you are trying to change a cultural or societal norm through your proposed legislation or if you were simply trying to update or alter an existing policy. These two goals require different approaches – one narrow and one more broad.

Policy that changes societal norms

One example of a norm change that community members were attempting to tackle was in relation to the undocumented community with the support of the Left Behind Workers Fund. Their goal was to alter the historic assumption that undocumented individuals are unworthy of public assistance.  These community members had partial success and they believe it was the result of three factors:

  • They were able to provide evidence that their privately funded solution for assisting undocumented workers (the Left Behind Workers Fund) was highly successful. 
  • Legislators knowing that the effort was truly led by, and centered in, grassroots community organizations, gave the requests credibility.
  • The advocates focused on one specific issue and idea.  They did not broaden the “ask” or make it a part of other legislation.  They knew that including too many policy changes would make it easier for legislators to dismiss it.

Policy that alters existing legislation

For efforts not requiring a norm change, often the big tent approach can be more successful.  One of the event attendees, Sue Sava of the Public Education and Business Coalition, shared how their bill SB21-185, an effort to bolster teacher recruitment in Colorado, which originally was a $3 million request morphed into a $13.3 million/annual bill as legislators decided to add back funding for several education programs that had been cut during the pandemic. So, in this instance, casting a wider net resulted in successful advocacy for their proposed legislation.

Our learning and takeaways

Beyond a better understanding of the degree of focus needed for legislation, we spent some time discussing some of the questions that might arise as a pushback to proposed legislation such as: Why is policy change even needed?  Can’t the private sector pick up the slack?  

The suggested answer to this line of questioning was to help legislators understand that charitable initiatives simply aren’t sustainable. Having efforts that are too reliant on individual generosity is not a long term solution. Changing policy is what can result in systemic, sustainable change.

In the end, we discerned that the best way to influence policy is to:

  • Have experts in the room who are doing the work – proving feasibility of the idea.
  • Clearly illustrate how the community actually wants this change.
  • Come armed with data in order to show that the solution will have a clear public benefit. 
  • Engage with a lobbyist who deeply understands the Colorado legislative landscape in order to have a partner in your effort with strong legislative experience. 

Yet, in the end, harkening back to the well-known “sausage making” illustration of the legislative process, moving policy is rarely a straightforward path.  Even with all of the pieces in place mentioned above, policy efforts can get derailed.  That’s when we, as community members, need to pick up the pieces and try again.