Maggie Williams

Co-founder, Lead Teacher, The Advocacy Institute

How old is your organization? We officially formed as an organization in July of 2013. We started doing pilot trainings as the Advocacy Institute in July of 2011.
What sector do you work in? We support social justice organizations with their legislative strategy. We are a capacity building organization and work closely with our movement partners to help them win and implement their legislative campaigns.
How long have you been working in this sector? I started working as an advocate on criminal legal issues and electoral issues when I was in law school, around 2002. When I graduated, I worked at The Bronx Defenders and the Correctional Association of New York on policy issues impacting incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.
How long have you been with your current organization? I’m one of the co-founders — along with James Schaffer — and have been with The Advocacy Institute since July 2011 when we held our first pilot training for grantees of the North Star Fund and New York Foundation.

What was a lesson you learned on the path to becoming a leader?
When I worked in Albany, I learned how bills were negotiated (really), how power works behind closed doors (really), and how issues pertaining to people’s survival, humanity and dignity could be leveraged to advance the careers of those in government. I learned how to maneuver in an environment dominated by racism, sexism, and homophobia.

More importantly, I learned that building relationships — quickly, authentically, and across lines of difference and lines of power — is a critical component of winning legislative campaigns. We often hear how a staffer or elected official “became the champion” and helped advance a campaign — overcoming bureaucratic obstacles. Those insiders “becoming champions” are either personally invested in an issue or have meaningful relationships with those impacted by and working on an issue. Knowing the staff who draft and negotiate bills matters. Knowing what motivates those in government on an individual and personal basis matters. Relationships matter.

What were some of the components of building a nonprofit?
In preparation for the pilot training, James and I developed visuals with input from government insiders: infographics explaining how the state legislature and executive branch work, what the timelines are for the legislative and budget process, and an organizational chart showing hierarchies and different types of staff. These creative and data-dense infographics became known as our maps and have remained the backbone of our curriculum.

Based on the response to the maps and pilot trainings, we knew that we were onto something. We also shared the dream of making our data and our maps accessible, beautiful, and interactive (online)! In July 2013, two years after the pilot training, James and I formally created The Advocacy Institute (AI) and started building an organization and team that could provide on-going trainings and tools to organizations running social justice campaigns across New York.

What were some of the challenges?
The creation of The Advocacy Institute also overlapped with the formation and rise in power of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in Albany. Much of our approach from 2013 to 2018 involved teaching folks how to navigate the IDC, the power and race dynamics behind it, and the ways that its formation served the Governor.

We spent those years honing our curriculum and expanding our reach from New York City to include Long Island, the Hudson Valley, and Western New York. We gathered feedback from our members, learned even more about the obstacles to legislative campaigns – especially those obstacles that can exist within nonprofits with their own bureaucracies and hierarchies.

How important has data collection become in recent years to nonprofits?
Over the past eight years, we’ve learned how valuable the information we provide is and how organizations are often engaging in redundant efforts searching for and cleaning the same sets of data: who works for an elected official, what issues they work on, how to contact them, and where they are located . This data is critical to running legislative campaigns and also, is constantly changing as elected officials lose elections, change roles, and staff transition.

Recently, we merged our beautifully designed static maps with our online data to create our Interactive Maps. Users can filter elected officials by committee, region, race, gender and access basic information regarding their offices, staff, and district. So far, these maps have been incredibly well-received and are serving advocates as they plan and execute their campaigns. We’re excited to create more tools like the Interactive Maps in the coming years and make more crucial government data accessible and user-friendly.

Describe a key event that has impacted your work recently.
So many of the legislative victories of the 2019 session were led by AI members (past and present)—tenants’ rights, farmworker justice, voting rights, climate change, DREAM, drivers licenses, LGTBQ rights, and criminal justice, to name a few. This was a truly a significant legislative session.

And we’re still assessing the impact of the shifting landscape in Albany. A democratically controlled Senate means advocates also need a more thoughtful Assembly strategy. We know we can no longer take the Assembly passing AI member bills for granted. We’re all still figuring out the Senate majority –- how to maneuver a conference of thirty-nine that’s grappling with wanting to remain in the majority and wanting to do right by regions across the state. And, there’s the Governor, who always wants the credit for the win, and is often the most conservative force in negotiations. He no longer has the IDC and Senate Republicans to hide behind and is navigating a new era with a strong Democratic majority in the Assembly and Senate.

What is the single greatest challenge you face today in your sector?
One of the most significant challenges our sector faces is how hard it is to secure multi-year general operating dollars to support not only programs, but also legislative advocacy and larger systemic change.

It is critical that we fund larger systems change work — especially when led by those directly impacted by injustice. It is critical that direct service organizations are resourced to provide the services that make up so much of the social safety net and to advocate for policy changes that impact the communities they serve. And, it is critical that nonprofits become bolder in advocating to increase revenue streams to the sector.

There is a lot of misinformation about whether or not nonprofits can lobby — they can! The IRS limits how much and it’s best to get legal counsel to assess the limit for your organization (Lawyers Alliance of New York is a great resource). There is also misinformation about whether foundations can fund lobbying — most of them can as long as their grants to organizations are for general operating.

At The Advocacy Institute, we work with the philanthropic community to support more foundations understanding the challenges and long-term nature of legislative campaigns. We also encourage the philanthropic community to consider making more multi-year general operating grants.

In what ways would others say you are a trailblazer?
At AI, we’re trailblazers because we pool powerful intel from government insiders, use cutting-edge technology (check out our interactive maps!), and run engaging and authentic trainings where advocates get to build meaningful relationships with each other.

We provide a unique and comprehensive set of training and tools and strategic consulting support to legislative campaigns. We support advocates in being in their full dignity when they do this challenging work. We’re not on the frontlines, but we are providing integral support to the organizers, members, and advocates who are — making their work more efficient, effective, and sustainable. We’re helping to advance policies for justice and dignity across New York.

If you were just starting out in your sector today, what advice would the person you are today give to the “newbie”?
My advice to folks starting out in legislative advocacy is to find amazing mentors — ideally folks who can share strategies for how to navigate difficult situations. I also recommend that folks build authentic relationships with elected officials and staff inside government. It’s not always easy to do. And, it can make a world of difference in understanding what matters to those in government and why they make the choices they make.

Lastly, I’d recommend finding some resilience practice — something that brings you joy and helps you feel more centered and grounded. It could be meditation, exercise, walking outside, singing, dancing, or cooking…whatever brings you joy. Find ways to do that activity intentionally and make space for it in your life.

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