Knowing Who You Know

As Washington's policy environment becomes more combative, knowing who you know on Capitol Hill and within government agencies can be the crucial factor in whether you succeed in changing public policy.

A nonprofit CEO, frustrated by his lack of access on the Hill, once told me, "We don't know anyone in politics--not a soul."

After engaging in policy power mapping of the networks within the organization, we discovered that a board member had worked for a member of Congress in the past. That member turned out to be the Speaker of the House.

When I asked the board member why he had never shared this connection, he answered, "No one asked." This nonprofit, which had been convinced it had no access on the Hill, found itself meeting with the Speaker of the House in the U.S. Capitol.

In another organization, a program manager said, "My uncle's a U.S. Senator. Does that count?"

The cliché "It's not what you know, but who you know," is very real in American politics. A massive $3 billion-per-year lobbying industry is premised upon it.

Nonprofits that cannot afford the $20,000 per month it costs to rent a lobbyist's network should take the time to power map their own. Every organization I have worked with had an amazing, hidden political network that it had simply never tapped.

So, how can a nonprofit power map its own political network?

Here are five steps to get you started:

1. Pick a Clear Policy Goal

First, know what you hope to accomplish. Only then will you know who can help you. For example:

"We want to get our health care nonprofit approved under a health care regulation."

2. Targeting Your Champions

Figuring out who you should work with is the next step. The general impression about targeting champions in Washington is that you go a mile wide and an inch deep -- get as many members of Congress on your side as possible. However, the reality is that most nonprofits would be wiser to do a less high-profile engagement, one with no more than six champions. Going in deep with the right champions, in a focused manner, yields better results.

If you are a large organization, like NPR or Planned Parenthood, your efforts are so public that you need to win over as many champions as possible in a very public campaign.

For the bulk of nonprofits, however, their targeting of the Hill can be accomplished by creating a Venn diagram. This diagram would show the congressional members who are in leadership on the appropriate committees and those who overlap with your program's site locations and then overlap this with those who have some expertise in your area.

Once you know who you need to help your organization, you will be required to find out if any of your contacts is acquainted with these people.

3. Do Preparatory Work on Your Targets

Prepare a short biography, including their schools, religion, and any other interesting networking details. The more unique information you can discover on their biography will be useful.

4. Online Survey

Put together a 15-minute online survey (try and send it to your board, staff, and volunteers for completion.

Your text should explain the overall goal, list the people you need to reach, and ask if your contacts have any connections to these people. If they do have connections, ask them to explain how they may be able to utilize their connection. You might say, "Please be creative, strategic, and thorough as you consider any connections you might have to these people."

The bulk of your survey should be specific, but you can conclude with an open-ended question such as:

"If you had an emergency, and needed the help of a federal elected official, who would you call? Why?" Or, "Is there anyone in the political world you know well and would like to talk about?"

5. Connect the Dots

Once you've reviewed the online survey results, prioritize those contacts who really seem to know your targets and set up interviews with them. It is worth investing some time to call all of those who have stated they have excellent contacts. Once you finalize details of all potential targets, you are ready to strategize and decide what tactics to use to set up meetings.

Tapping into the right political networks is the most crucial strategy for nonprofit success in the public policy arena.

Rich Tafel is Founder of Public Squared (, a program that trains nonprofits on how to engage in advocacy. He can be reached at

Laurie Moskowitz is the founder of FieldWorks, a grassroots political consulting firm and a campaign strategist working with Democratic candidates, advocacy groups, and corporate citizenship efforts. In 2000 she ran the National Coordinated Campaign for the DNC/Gore Campaign.

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