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Joint Policy Institute

by Mary Erin Casale

Building Relationships, Enhancing Capacity and Taking Action Togetherjpi

A little over two weeks ago, nearly 100 nonprofit professionals gathered for a conference hosted by our partners at the National Council of Nonprofits and the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.

This first-ever Joint Policy Institute was designed to strengthen relationships between nonprofit and grant-maker associations, to expand knowledge of state and local policy issues affecting nonprofits, to feature successful policy partnerships, and to increase staff and volunteer capacity to take collective action. That was a pretty tall order for the last week of summer, but Jennifer and I were up for the challenge.

Day One

img_8870Straight from the airport, we jumped in and got to work. Seated at our table were some of our colleagues from Minnesota, both nonprofit and grantmaker associations. We were also seated with longtime MANP friend Barbara Edmonds from the Maine Philanthropy Center. That first session was an overview of the state and local policy landscape, along with what trends they were anticipating. The panelists included Ruth McCambridge from Nonprofit Quarterly and Shena Ashley from the Urban Institute. Topics ranged from how to appropriately collect and use data to influence policy makers to how our workplace culture sets us apart. We were to spend more time in smaller groups identifying key regional policy issues, where we learned what we had in common with Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey.

Day Two

We started bright and early and focused on strengthening capacity and impact. Our first activity was an exercise to share effective policy tools. We are a network of organizations that highly encourages learning from each other’s successes and failures. Personally, this session inspired me to find ways our phenomenal education program can be used to strengthen our relationships with legislators. We also spent time that morning addressing how we can answer common questions (and correct misconceptions) that state and local policymakers have about nonprofits and philanthropy.

img_8863That afternoon, I was fortunate enough to lead a breakout session with Alison Leipsiger from Forefront. Our session focused on funding an advocacy program. Both Alison and I wanted to make sure that we emphasized the time needed to educate funders about the necessity of advocacy programs and (unfortunately) the opportunities that arise during a crisis environment. I described MANP’s Advocacy Network and how our members find value in supporting our legislative, education AND awareness building programs. Alison spent her time on how Forefront successfully pulled together a Nonprofit Impact Awareness Fund when the Illinois state budget impasse seemed like it was never going to end. We fielded a lot of questions and ended up having a major discussion about the challenges faced in funding our work.

Day Three

This was the final day of the conference and we began the day with a panel of legislators from Chicago’s State Assembly. (Sidebar: you never know where those state legislators from IL might end up!) I’m always curious to learn about other state capitols and legislative agendas in comparison to Maine’s somewhat quirky (term limits, clean elections, etc) environment. Illinois has its own ‘quirks’ (see Blagojevich, Rod) and the legislators addressed the current budget difficulties and how nonprofits can best connect with policy makers. We were able to close out the morning with a policy deep dive to strategize solutions to address key policy challenges that we identified in our work on day two. I’m eager to see how we move beyond the conference and what MANP will do with the wealth of ideas that were shared.

The little things…

It was clear that the planning committee put serious thought into every detail of the conference. From ensuring that the sessions had engaging speakers, to leaving the right amount of time for interaction by participants to the play-doh and candy on the tables, there wasn’t a detail that hadn’t been addressed. Too often we only comment on what didn’t work, but I know I left this Institute focusing on how everything did.

img_8867And we did schedule in some time for fun. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the intersection of creativity and urban design found in Millennium Park. It’s more than just “The Bean”, which I learned is really called Cloud Gate. Smack dab in the middle of the city, you’ll find a visually arresting amphitheater, spacious public gardens and the coolest water fountain/video sculpture you’ve ever seen.  (Seriously, it was incredible.)

I left feeling inspired, engaged and ready to work. Big congratulations to the National Council of Nonprofits and Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers on an outstanding event!

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