Spitfire Strategies

Putting the Stimulus Package to Work for Communities

Annabelle Gardner

By Annabelle Gardner
Director

Community-based organizations are working around the clock to support communities hard hit by COVID-19. Last week, Congress passed the largest federal stimulus package in U.S. history — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act — which represents an unprecedented opportunity for community-based organizations like yours to advocate for federal, state and local dollars to support your communities during these challenging times. The Act includes essential measures like stimulus checks for millions of Americans, small business loans to keep people working and an increase in unemployment benefits to support those who have lost their jobs.  

This legislation, along with future legislation that is passed to address this crisis, are also an opportunity for your organization to push for bold policy changes that just weeks ago seemed to be years in the future — like paid sick leave so caregivers can support their families and keep their jobs, universal basic income that gives people a buffer so they never have to choose between rent and food, and zero percent interest on student loans that make college more accessible.

A lot is moving. Quickly. We know as community-based organizations or coalitions you are trying to understand how to meet the needs of the people you serve now, and look ahead- one month, three months into the future. Spitfire convened a (virtual!) panel to help community-based organizations make the most of this opportunity and ensure stimulus dollars make it to the individuals and communities who need it most. 

Here are 7 key takeaways from the panel that your organization can put to work TODAY to support your mission and meet your community’s needs. 

Embrace advocacy. 

“Nonprofits have more freedom and flexibility to advocate than they think,” said Allen Mattison, a lawyer in DC who spends his whole day advising nonprofits on advocacy issues. In fact, IRS regulations allow 501c3s to spend a percentage of their budget on lobbying efforts, not including advocating to administrative agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Small Business Bureau. Allen noted that organizations should pay attention to whatever rules accompany their grant dollars.  

Visit Boulder Advocacy for more resources about nonprofit lobbying. 

Consider all levels of government. 

Enacting the CARES Act will be a huge undertaking, requiring collaboration between federal agencies, like the IRS (which will distribute stimulus checks to millions of Americans) and the Small Business Administration (which will distribute loans to an estimated four million nonprofits), state agencies and localities. Panelists urged organizations to consider different levels of government and choose the one that your organization could have the most influence on so your advocacy can be as effective as possible. 

As you can imagine, enacting the law at every level will take time. Panelists urged organizations not to rely on stimulus package funding to address urgent needs like payroll and keeping the lights on. For urgent needs like these, panelist Barbara Chow, Director of Education at Heising-Simons Foundation, suggested reaching out to community foundations and local agencies who have more flexibility and can move funding quickly.

Know your audience.

Once your organization has determined what level of government to prioritize, you need to identify the decisionmakers holding the purse strings. For example, $150 billion of CARES Act funds will be distributed to states and localities to help address large budget holes in healthcare, education and more. How these funds will be distributed across your state will most likely be decided by the Governor’s office. Once the Governor decides how much each state agency will get, heads of regulatory agencies — like the California Department of Health and Human Services or the Georgia Department of Education — will draft policies to determine how the money will be used at the local level. If you can’t reach the right decisionmakers directly, think about who you know that can help you get that meeting. For example, Allen suggested engaging your board who may have connections or expertise that can help. 

Knowing your audience also means understanding what drives them. “Research and data aren’t enough to convince legislators to take action on your issue, if it’s something they don’t already care about,” explained panelist Ed Hunter, a public health policy consultant who previously led the de Beaumont Foundation. Instead, Ed suggested identifying how you can use stimulus funding to reinforce your Governor’s or the head of a regulatory agency’s existing priorities, rather than starting from scratch. 

Be solutions-oriented.

As panelist Jim King, President & CEO of Fahe shared, legislators and administrators are looking for problem-solvers — organizations that can help meet the needs of communities during this critical time. When you reach out to decisionmakers to advocate for stimulus funding, be solutions-oriented.

“I’d start by thinking about what your organization is really good at, which may need to shift based on current realities,” said Jim. “We thought affordable housing was what we’re really good at, but at this moment our competitive advantage is that we have boots on the ground in dozens of communities in Appalachia and have critical intel about what communities need.” 

Be clear and specific.

It’s important to make clear, specific asks when you’re approaching decisionmakers to advocate for stimulus funding to support your community. “Don’t just ask for money for education,” explains Barbara. “Instead, be specific. Ask for a certain amount of funding for a specific program.” The more specific you can be, the more likely decisionmakers are to say yes. 

Identify opportunities for collaboration across your sector.

Legislators and other policymakers are going to be inundated with requests for funding by organizations doing similar work across a myriad of issues. Barbara recommends identifying allies in your sector and coming together with a unified ask for decisionmakers. For example, criminal justice advocates in New York have been working together to push for Governor Andrew Cuomo to release as many people as possible from jails and prisons to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities.

Tell stories of the real impact on people and communities.

The pandemic is shining a light on major gaps that exist in our public programs — from healthcare access to school funding to a lack of internet access in rural communities. Decisionmakers want to hear real stories about how the pandemic is impacting their constituents. Identify what stories your organization has to tell and connect these experiences to the larger systemic challenges your organization wants to solve. Remember to include stories of hope that inspire action and reinforce that change is possible, for example when farmworkers have the protections they need to safely do their jobs, it will help all of us have access to good, safe food, especially during this time of crisis.

Be visionary.

Now is the time for your organization to think big — not only about how we can ensure stimulus funding helps communities hit hard by the pandemic — but how we can emerge from this crisis a more healthy, just and sustainable society. Think about how your organization can start using this conversation to push for broad, systemic change, and get people thinking upstream. What can we do today that will make our communities more resilient tomorrow? 

Need ideas for how to advocate for stimulus funding for your organization? Have other communication challenges in the age of COVID-19? Drop us a line at info@spitfirestrategies.com. We’re in this together!

Additional stimulus package resources:

Panelists included Barbara Chow, Director of Education, Heising-Simons Foundation, Allen Mattison, Attorney, Trister, Ross, Schadler & Gold, Jim King, President & CEO, Fahe and Ed Hunter, Ed Hunter Strategies. To watch the full webinar visit here.

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“This has been a tremendous eye opener. It shows us how to pull the aspects of communications skills, from the message, to the audience. It forced us to identify our strengths and our weaknesses in an effort to become more strategic in how we prepare our messages and communicate them.”

- Training Participant

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