Advocating for policy and system changes is a critical way to meet a nonprofit’s mission but often difficult to prioritize when an organization is also responsible for responding to immediate community needs.
Since Luke Elzinga joined Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) as communications manager in 2014, he has worked toward creating a full-time advocacy role that can address root causes for food insecurity. At the start of the year, he finally achieved this goal, allowing him to focus his attention on elevating community members’ experiences and educating elected officials and other stakeholders on why policies must provide greater support to address poverty in our community.
Here is how HealthConnect Fellow Elzinga arrived at this opportunity:
As communications manager, Elzinga worked to dispel misunderstandings about hunger, highlighting how DMARC’s pantry users are often families with working caregivers, seniors on fixed incomes, or people with disabilities – those living in neighborhoods throughout central Iowa. He also elevated conversations about how issues intersect, thus driving individuals and families to experience poverty and, as a result, to experience the symptoms of poverty including food insecurity.
When DMARC launched its data dashboard, the information further confirmed these connections. In particular, the organization noticed a relationship between a reduction in SNAP food benefits and double-digit increases in food pantry visitors. While DMARC wanted to be able to offer visitors a five-day supply of food per month, it couldn’t because of the increased demand. The organization recognized that the need for food access was becoming too great to address through direct support of providing food alone; more needed to be done to tackle root causes of why people lacked the food they need and were experiencing poverty.
At the Closing the Hunger Gap conference, Elzinga found colleagues across the nation who were also focused on moving from a charity to solidarity model that focused on addressing the conditions driving food insecurity. The conference confirmed his desire to move beyond talking about root cause issues to advocating for policy and system changes.
“There was so much inspiration from realizing there are people across the country who are thinking about how we need to move this sector from providing more and more food to making changes in policies that will help people not experience food insecurity,” he said.
One participant, in particular, helped Elzinga understand how to make a case for advocacy with organizational leaders by talking about the financial impact. While Elzinga and DMARC’s CEO agreed that advocacy was the right thing to do, they also knew the board needed to buy-in to the approach.
Elzinga made the financial case by talking about the increased strain on resources to serve more people and how the demand was tied to a loss in public benefits. He also shared a report that showed millennials wanted to give to nonprofits that are justice-oriented and working on systems change.
“It was really helpful to say, ‘Look, if we want to get younger supporters, we can’t just talk the talk, we need to walk the walk,’” he said.
While leaders agreed with the importance of advocacy work, they also had some concerns about the extent to which a nonprofit could advocate and the potential political impact it could have. To address those concerns and to ensure the work was not just owned by one staff member, DMARC formed an advocacy committee among board members. The committee was intentionally co-chaired by board members identifying as a Republican and Democrat, providing bipartisan perspectives on issues.
“We need people on both sides of the aisle on this committee, not just because nonpartisanship is important for nonprofits,” said Elzinga, “but looking at the political reality of the state, in order to get policies passed, we need Republican support.”
In 2018, about two years into working on advocacy, Elzinga’s job title changed to include “advocacy manager.” In addition to leading communications, Elzinga was developing policy agendas, meeting with Legislators, and educating decision-makers on food insecurity in their districts. DMARC’s incoming CEO understood Elzinga’s desire to move into a full-time advocacy role but had other pressing priorities to staff the warehouse and operations teams, respond to changes through the pandemic, and to expand DMARC’s space with a new headquarters on Army Post Road.
To sustain himself, Elzinga had to remember to be patient, to set expectations on what he could accomplish between managing two roles, and to rely on staff to complete some tasks. He also chose to keep his position hourly, ensuring that he worked 40 hours most weeks.
“It can be discouraging at times, because [creating an advocacy role] can be a really slow process,” he said, “but I knew the organization was willing to move in that direction. These changes do take time.”
Inspired by an approach he heard about at the Closing the Hunger Gap conference, Elzinga worked with advocate Tara Kramer to develop the Storytellers Roundtable to support food pantry visitors in sharing their experiences. In a half-day workshop, DMARC gives participants an opportunity to tell their stories and provides training for presenting to media and decisionmakers.
This training has led to a stronger advocacy presence at the Iowa Capitol, allowing DMARC to connect leaders with both data and people who use SNAP to prevent bills that would lead to greater restrictions. DMARC also added a board position for an individual who uses its pantries to ensure its decision-making processes includes the perspective of those who experience food insecurity.
Elzinga’s journey into advocacy is just beginning the most exciting phase as he imagines what’s possible in his new full-time advocacy role. He especially looks forward to moving beyond engaging people with lived experiences in telling their stories about food insecurity to helping create opportunities for them to advocate and make decisions regarding the policies and practices that affect them. He is launching a community advisory board of DMARC pantry users to begin that next step. Community involvement in advocacy efforts can also help change perceptions about individuals who use benefits and reduce stigma for those accessing these resources.
“We’re trying to change the dominant narrative on food insecurity,” Elzinga said, “because we’re not going to be able to change policies until we change mindsets.”
Read DMARC’s announcement about the advocacy position and learn more about its advocacy efforts:
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