Where was Walter Pidgeon when I needed him? Several years ago, a friend had a grand idea. He had come into some money and was interested in starting a nonprofit with a two-fold mission: to rescue persecuted people from the Sudan, and to lobby Congress on behalf of the persecuted. He wanted to affect legislation and regulations.
Knowing I worked in and around nonprofits, my friend asked for advice. My advice was well-intentioned but wrong—I told him to go and talk to a lawyer or two and find out what the law required. The first part, rescuing people, seemed simple enough. It was the unabashed lobbying that concerned me.
He did just as I suggested, with a vengeance. But the more lawyers and advisers he contacted, the more confused he became. Some talked around obscure sections of law, while others advocated the necessity of multi-level this-and-that. Eventually, he shelved his idea, convinced that marrying action and activism was an invitation to disaster.
What my friend needed was a comprehensive resource explaining how to make that marriage work. And what he lacked then is now available: an easy-to-read, no-nonsense manual for nonprofits seeking to work effectively in the legislative arena.
Working with six co-authors, Walter Pidgeon Jr. brightly illuminates the “legislative labyrinth.” The book proceeds carefully through the process, from legal pratfalls to practical obstacles. Pidgeon and his colleagues aren’t armchair quarterbacks in the nonprofit realm. Pidgeon is the current president and chief executive officer of the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America and the Wildlife Conservation Fund of America. Likewise, his co-authors have decades of professional experience in and around nonprofits.
Meticulously indexed, The Legislative Labyrinth not only provides intriguing reading for those interested in government affairs, but stands as a ready reference for anyone hip-deep in the process. Chapters on grassroots activism, media campaigns, and coalition-building nicely complement those on the legalities of lobbying and the need for strategic planning.
Most helpful, however, is that Pidgeon and his fellow writers have not simply provided a dry presentation of theoretical and legal information. Their work is replete with real-life examples of successful efforts.
Far from urging paralyzing caution, Pidgeon extols the benefits of nonprofit activism. In his preface, he writes, “Words such as lobbying, special interest groups, right wing, and left wing are used in a negative context to fuel the idea that groups working on behalf of their constituents to pass or defeat legislation are doing bad things. In reality, it is this very thing that keeps our democracy alive.”
Most welcome is Pidgeon’s advocacy of strategic planning. All too often nonprofits simply drift in and out of legislative activity and are subject to the whims of other forces. Pidgeon correctly states that the first hurdle for an organization is to “find your niche and primary focus.” Indeed, the authors go even further, promoting the need for nonprofits to work within coalitions as a way to increase their effectiveness and chances for success.
“Power is what it is all about. Coalitions simply provide a better chance of getting bills passed,” says Pidgeon. While this may seem intuitive, most nonprofits operate like lone rangers, unwilling to admit that perhaps others in their field have skills, contacts, or resources that can add effectiveness to a campaign. Shared success is still success, but lonely failure can signal the death of an organization.
As with other sections of The Legislative Labyrinth, Pidgeon is not content merely to outline theoretical solutions to potential hurdles. While providing examples of successful planning models, he includes easy-to-understand tools for organizations desiring strategic, rather than reactive, operation. For instance, adding to the book’s usefulness is the accompanying CD, which contains, in document format, nearly every exhibit found in the book. Included are examples of materials that were successfully used in various legislative campaigns.
Pidgeon writes that the goal for The Legislative Labyrinth is to “provide a guide for [nonprofit] leaders on launching or refining a government affairs program.” By any reasonable measure, the book is wildly successful. No one charting a course through the legislative wilderness should be without Pidgeon’s well-crafted map.
Michael Quinn Sullivan is the director of medica and government relations for a Texas-based nonprofit.