Building Infrastructure and Effective Coalitions

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This spring and summer, I embarked on a journey to author a five-part blog post series about how to build momentum to advocate for Death with Dignity policy reform in your state. During the initial post, I talked about how to engage with your family and friends in conversations about hastened dying; in the second, I provided guidance about steps needed to learn more about the issue and build alliances. In the third post, I discussed the ABCs of ballot initiative and legislative campaigns.

In this blog post, the fourth in the series, I will talk about building organizational infrastructure and coalitions.

In our bureaucratic world, a serious journey into state-based policy reform calls for some sort of organizational structure. There are many options from which to choose, and there is not one structural model used in every policy reform effort. We used one structure in Vermont (a locally-established 501(c)(4) with the National Center as the fiscal agent / 501(c)(3) partner) and another in Washington–a coalition made up of four organizations with decision-making authority vested in a Washington State political committee. Another option is to find a local entity with an existing corporate structure and operate under its charter.

There are external and internal factors impacting your choice of structure. Externally, your state’s campaign finance rules, IRS limitations on political advocacy by non-profit organizations, your planned goals and activities, and the developmental stage of your nascent group. If you are in an early organizing stage, loosely bringing people together for conversations, you can operate without a formalized structure or operate under another group’s.

Internally, questions like group culture (hierarchical or consensus-minded), mission and focus, capacity to meet the legal demands inherent in formal corporate structures, and level of experience with nonprofit and/or political advocacy corporations will impact your decision-making.

For groups serious about policy reform activities, the Alliance for Justice’s program “Bolder Advocacy” has a thoughtful and thorough set of guidelines I recommend them for novices and experts alike, as the rules are not always straightforward.

There are several points in an advocacy cycle when knowledge of your state’s campaign finance laws and IRS limitations are important: when you begin to raise funds for the intent of advocating for policy reform, when you begin to talk to legislators about Death with Dignity, and when you start using words like “campaign,” “political campaign,” and “lobbying.” These are all key words suggesting that you are getting very close to an artificially-drawn legal line mandating specific organizational structure and reporting. A word of caution here: you can get in trouble fast in this arena, so be careful and seek professional consultation.

For ballot initiatives, the Secretary of State’s office is generally in charge of issuing guidelines, and there are specific points after which political committees must report. Generally, political committees are formed after signatures are filed or at the point which the ballot title language is being debated in the Courts. I can think of many exceptions to these rules, so an exact reading of language from the Secretary of State is important.

In my eight-year history with the Death with Dignity National Center, I have been personally responsible for or instrumental in forming ten different corporate structures to accomplish various policy reform or political goals. Undertaking political activity to accomplish policy reform requires a comprehensive understanding of various state and federal laws. It is achievable (as a professional social worker, I had no formal training in corporate structures, learning it all on the job), but it is not always easy to navigate.

Perhaps more interesting than building corporate structure is the process of engaging allies. If you want to have a successful campaign, you will have to build relationships across many issue groups. There are natural allies—the ACLU, secular/humanist groups, individuals from the Unitarian Church, and local affiliates of the American Women’s Medical Association and the American Medical Student Association.

Another way to think about allies is to consider which groups have common political opponents. These are more difficult alliances to build because the idea of having a common “enemy” is not really enough, in my mind, to bring non-similar groups together.

To strengthen alliances with these groups is too important to understand their policy reform agendas, asking what are they trying to accomplish. Lending a hand or volunteering with their policy reform efforts goes a long way to building an allegiance. For the alliance to be successful, it must be reciprocal. You are not only interested in how they can help your issue (Death with Dignity), but how you can help theirs.

In this blog post, I talked about corporate structure first, because it is an asset to have an established corporate structure when you are forming alliances with other groups. Having a formal structure, be it a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization or political committee (PAC), gives you legitimacy as you build relationships.

With that, I will say, “happy incorporating” or “happy allegiance-building,” and I will see you next time with the final installment of this series, Show me the Money!

Next up: Show me the Money (And be sure to read the first three posts in this series: So You Want to Pass a Death with Dignity Law in Your State, Engaging Allies and Learning the Issue, and The Basics of Ballot Initiatives and Legislative Advocacy!)

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