Making It Happen: A former Pennsylvania legislator speaks to the value of civic engagement

posted on: April 12, 2011

Note: the video in the blog post has been edited and reposted 4/13/2011 to address a typographical error.Last month NCRP released its sixth report on the impacts of foundation-funded nonprofit policy and civic engagement, Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities: Impacts of Advocacy, Organizing and Civic Engagement in Pennsylvania. Former state legislator Kathy Manderino was the keynote speaker at our packed Philadelphia event, which was cosponsored by Delaware Valley Grantmakers.

In her speech, Manderino shared with local grantmakers her perspective on the value of nonprofit advocacy for legislators. She started out by affirming the importance of civic engagement, noting that every type of human interaction has its rules of engagement. “The rules of engagement for us as a civil society are made in the political arena. … If you want to make sure the rules and the playing ground are fair, then you’ve got to get in there and play ball.”
She elaborated further, noting that whose voices are heard and what messages are presented in the legislative arena will determine policy. “If your voice … is not a strong enough voice in that process, then the information that’s coming through that process to educate the decision makers … is skewed. It’s skewed in a way that is not helpful to your objectives you are trying to reach. … That’s why it is so important to opt in and not opt out of the political process.”
Manderino expressed frustration about the many informative reports and studies that came across her desk when she was an elected official but were never used. These reports could have been the basis for making policy change, but there was no one outside the legislature “making it happen.” She explained, “They just sat on a shelf and we didn’t do anything for them. Because the missing ingredient was the coalition, the advocacy, the somebody whose charge it was to pick that up, shop it around, make it happen. That is absolutely a missing piece of what it is we all do.”
On the other hand, she noted, when that activism piece is in place, the impacts are impressive, as in NCRP’s example of Lydia’s Place, a nonprofit that helped end the policy of shackling pregnant female prisons inmates while they were in labor. Manderino commented that, as in this case, not all policy reforms come with a big price tag. Sometimes they even result in cost savings.
She concluded by warning about the lack of resources for nonprofits to apply the external pressure needed to ensure fair and wise policymaking.
Addressing the foundation leaders in the room, Manderino said, “When I talked to nonprofit leaders, they understood the importance of being involved in the public policy arena and the advocacy. … But they seldom got around to it. And the reason they didn’t get around to it, quite frankly, is I believe a capacity issue. Nobody is funding them to make this a priority. That’s where you can make a real difference, and really see those reports that you commission and those activities you support really, really go the next nine yards, by … setting a higher priority, for you and for those organizations, on the ongoing advocacy piece.”
I couldn’t have said it any better. But hearing it from someone who has been on the inside of the policymaking process really drives the point home. What are you doing to help “make it happen” on the issues you care about? Let us know in the comments section.
Lisa Ranghelli is director of NCRP’s Grantmaking for Community Impact Project.