Social enterprise & government perspectives on effective advocacy



Social enterprises can approach policy opportunities in two categories:

  • Broad organizational advocacy: Raising awareness for issues that affect a social enterprise’s target population and services offered.
  • Social enterprise specific: Issues to help advance awareness and operations of a specific social enterprise or respective industry

Example from the field:

As a nonprofit that offers work experience through social enterprise to proven-risk young people, UTEC addresses advocacy efforts to increase funding for reentry of 18-24 year olds, justice reinvestment work, and expungement. For individual enterprises, they also engage in specific advocacy, such as environmental issues related to their mattress recycling enterprise.


Engaging the Government Sector

Social enterprises might have considerable experience communicating with funders, donors, and business partners. Engaging the government sector might be new territory, especially for smaller or start-up social enterprises.

Often, awareness and recognition are the biggest hurdles for social enterprise. Aligning Social Enterprise as a small business is a great way to join a greater pre-existing structure. In California, REDF is working to help define social enterprise in small business legislation at the state level to help increase awareness and access in procurement opportunities. One additional strategy is to organize with other social enterprises to create a social enterprise inventory or directory. This makes it easier for government officials to identify social enterprises for future opportunities.

What are the best ways for non-profit organizations to get noticed by the elected officials in charge of making decisions?

1. Identify your allies

How do you identify your allies?  Start with who is philosophically aligned and who may have the contracting power.

  • Philosophically aligned: Many mayors or city departments will have appointed representatives for reentry or homeless services, or a workforce liaison.
  • Contracting power: Government divisions that Social Enterprises have successfully partnered with include Labor and Workforce Development, Mayor’s Operations team, Department of Health and Human Services, County/State Procurement, and Small Business Services.

2. Build influence

In order to activate government partnerships down the line, you need to get noticed and build the foundational relationships with government representatives.

3. Demonstrate responsiveness to government needs

 Following government press releases is a great way to understand what might be the priority in your city, county or state. Take advantage of opportunities where there is mission alignment. For example, a state of emergency on homelessness was declared in Los Angeles in September 2015. The mayoral appointed administrator led a series of convenings to strategize housing and employment services. Many social enterprises and REDF participated in these convenings and advocated for social enterprise as a way to provide personal supports and work readiness for the homeless population. In January 2016, social enterprise and alternative staffing agencies were included as an employment strategy! Social enterprises can organize and participate in larger policy forums to gain exposure, demonstrate effectiveness, and be recognized for their work in the community.

4. Follow the money

Build relationships with contracting agencies. Is there a separate nonprofit liaison in your government? Apply for the procurement or workforce requests for proposals (RFPs) released. Government has more freedom to engage contractors prior to an RFP being released.  You can write a concept paper, suggest specifications, or otherwise demonstrate that your social enterprise is the authority on the topic prior to the RFP process.

Example from the field:

UTEC was referenced by the Governor of Massachusetts in his inaugural address, and its executive director was appointed to the Governor’s Task force on chronic unemployment. These types of opportunities can emerge after building an organization’s credibility and influence with the government sector. At UTEC, engaging elected officials is part of its youth leadership development as well as its policy work. For more than a decade, UTEC has hosted youth-led city council candidate forums to engage with local leaders and highlight issues that affect young people, both essential to maintaining dialogue for years to follow.  That experience laid the foundation for UTEC’s 2014 gubernatorial policy outreach series, where they invited every single candidate to visit UTEC individually, for not only a tour and photo opportunity, but for engaged discussion with young people around the 3 policy areas that UTEC prioritized at that time. This introduced the candidates to UTEC, highlighted issues that affect their specific service population, and established their credibility as service providers and policy advisors.

Social enterprises should be ambidextrous and prepared to present the strongest case depending on their audience

Developing Relationships

When building relationships with policy makers, it’s important to remember that policy isn’t driven solely by elected representatives. Advisors, agency secretariats, and staff aides are also critical players who often have a lot of influence. It’s important to build the relationship with the whole team, not just one individual. Not only is this more effective in the short term, but it builds a long-term relationship with policy makers. Remember, today’s junior person is tomorrow’s senior person.


Positioning Social Enterprise for a Government Audience

As government gets more data-driven, social enterprises will be challenged to articulate their unique value proposition and communicate in common metrics and language. A shared language helps align the conversation.

Some sample key messages developed for government audience:

  • Social enterprises operate with a double bottom line of growing revenues and creating a positive social impact; they can offer the best of business and nonprofit functions.
  • Social enterprises are on the front line delivering an innovative, sustainable response to the issue of persistent joblessness facing individuals who have been in prison or experienced homelessness, young people who left high school without a credential, and those who live with chronic physical or mental health issues.
  • Social Enterprises contribute meaningful jobs to our workforce and generate significant revenue through consumers and business customers.
  • Although Social Enterprises partially cover their job training programs and support services through product/service revenue, many continue to rely on fundraising from public and private sources to reach sustainability.
  • Elected officials and government agencies can promote the social enterprise movement by supporting legislation and initiatives that offer preferential status in procurement to these groups and ensure access to resources and programs at the local and regional level that help businesses grow.

Consider using “workforce” or “employment” social enterprise with a government audience to distinguish from other social enterprises who may not be providing employment opportunities.

Example from the field:

UTEC adjusts their leading message depending on who they are meeting with. With the Secretary of Energy and the Environment, they lead with mattress recycling. With elected officials, they lead with the return on investment and positive social impact realized by serving a proven-risk population.

Remember, today’s junior person is tomorrow’s senior person

Capacity for Policy

When working with a limited capacity, it can be challenging to decide which policy activities to prioritize. Successful organizations will:

1. Prioritize specific opportunities that are winnable

  • Look for opportunities that have a combination of need and winnability
  • Identify what is most important for your population

2. Analyze the opportunity factors

  • Look at what’s going on outside the statehouse. Do certain issues have a lot of buzz at the moment?
  • Look for opportunities to build a broad based coalition. Who can be an ally?
  • Look for personal connections to influencers and decision makers who have the ability to drive either legislative or administrative action

3. Not compete with themselves

  • Be conscious of priority legislative issues
  • Identify which issue is the highest priority
  • Know that administrative and legislative issues are not usually in competition

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