For nonprofits the question to hire a lobbyist is an important but layered question. Advocating for policy on behalf of clients or funding for projects or ongoing operations can be important to the mission but there are some issues to keep in mind when making that decision.
The threshold question you must consider is whether there is an opportunity or threat big enough to justify hiring a lobbyist. Is your organization reliant on state programs or resources to achieve its goals? Is there some pressing opportunity or threat? And finally, how familiar are you with the process of legislating? Depending on your answers to these questions, you may want to take the time to interview several lobbyists to better understand how you could best take advantage of the knowledge of process, and strategic and analytic skills that a lobbyist can provide.
Often, the most important thing a lobbyist can do is help develop an effective strategy to make the strongest case possible for a position – much like developing the theory of a case, and arguments to lead a jury to the desired conclusion. The craft is in knowing the players, the politics, and the process for either moving legislation forward or making the most effective case to either stop or modify a threatening proposal.
Some “rookie mistakes” that we have observed organizations make when delving into state policy-making include: (1) threatening legislators if they don’t agree with a certain position; (2) not taking time to understand opposing or competing points of view; and (3) not seriously exploring compromise positions.
When hiring a lobbyist, as when hiring a lawyer, seeking out and interviewing several candidates will help your organization better understand the array of talents and expertise any lobbyist or lobbying firm brings to the table. Some individuals bring skills and connections tied to past work within the legislature, as staff or as a legislator themselves (note, there is no revolving door prohibition in Minnesota limiting who can leave office and begin lobbying). Others bring subject matter knowledge, technical skills associated with developing strategy, legislative process and drafting language. Some bring both.
Unlike hiring a lawyer, where confidentiality rules can apply regarding representation, in Minnesota, anyone who is paid more than $3,000 in a calendar year to influence legislative or administrative action must register and periodically report all lobbying activity to the Minnesota Campaign Finance & Public Disclosure Board (the “Board”). Organizations paying for lobbying services must also register and report their lobbying activity to the Board annually.
Many nonprofits worry that lobbying, like political activity, could affect their nonprofit status. Advocacy and lobbying for legislation is allowed. Working directly on behalf of, or against, a candidate or ballot question is not allowed. Lawyer lobbyists can help ensure compliance with all lobbying, ethics and reporting laws.
Finally, remember that legislators strengthen their familiarity and trust by working with organizations and individuals over time. The most effective entities at the state capitol work to establish relied-upon expertise and trusted relationships with legislators and staff, with or without lobbyists.
The process of legislation is, in most cases, rewarding and interesting for those who delve into it. Our nonprofit clients find lobbying to be essential in enhancing their mission and serving clients. We recommend that you search carefully at the outset and then work closely with your chosen lobbyist to optimize your return. NANCY HYLDEN AMY KOCH