How to win political friends and influence powerful people

Posted on 09 May 2024

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

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Winning influence means doing your homework say the NFP sector's foremost experts.

Not-for-profits wanting to win the political and influence game can boost their negotiating power with the advice of the sector’s canniest political thinkers.

To compile this article, the Institute of Community Directors Australia (ICDA) has drawn on the expertise of well-connected operators who work at the political frontlines and behind the scenes:

  • Senator Raff Ciccone (an ICDA diploma graduate)
  • Per Capita executive director Emma Dawson
  • Alannah and Madeleine Foundation chief executive Sarah Davies
  • Mental Health Coordinating Council CEO Dr Evelyne Tadros
  • Community Council for Australia chief executive David Crosbie

Building political connections is a long game

Senator Raff Ciccone, ALP, Victoria

Senator Raff Ciccone is well-versed in the political sphere, having risen through union ranks and local politics to become a senator for Victoria in 2019. He holds a raft of important roles in the Albanese government, and also sits on the ALP’s national executive.

Sentator Ciccone also happens to be a graduate of the Institute of Community Directors Australia’s governance diploma, and he says it is a valuable part of his political toolkit.

As someone who regularly meets constituents who have causes to spruik, the senator was happy to share suggestions for not-for-profit leaders who want to approach him or other local, state or federal representatives.

“Around this time, when we’re leading up into a budget – in my case the federal budget or in the [Victorian] state budget around May – we do get approached by a number of community groups who want to come and talk to us about how they can get funding, whether it be for their organisation or others … and the problem that we find is a lot of people lack the understanding of what the budget process is, and when it commences.

“Most of the time [when my office has been approached] the budget processes have already commenced in October the previous year. So it's important to really have community organisations understand that in order to go and talk to government, or government representatives, MPs or senators, that they also need to start having those conversations a lot earlier in the piece, so they're not disappointed and don't go back to their boards or their organisations saying, ‘Look, I think we've missed the boat for this year's funding.’

“Now at times, governments will have money allocated just in case there's any last-minute incentives or initiatives that organisations might [bring] to the table. But generally, we prefer that organisations do come to us as soon as possible before the budget process starts.

“My advice to anyone would be to go and see your member of Parliament or government representatives very early in the piece, before that budget process starts for the next financial year, which is generally around October.

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Victoria Senator Raff Ciccone suggests understanding the politician you're working with will pay dividends. Picture: Supplied.

Start your 2026 budget pitch now

Senator Ciccone suggested now would be a good time for organisations to start planning their requests for the 2025–26 budget. And he said that it would pay organisations to do a fair bit of homework.

He said that all politicians were busy but he encouraged constituents to reach out to their representatives.

“We spend half the year in Canberra for Parliament, and then the other half either in our communities or in committee work which involves either travel back to Canberra or interstate.”

He said NFP delegates should come well prepared.

“It's important to come to government with proposals, with ideas, with [suggested] decisions. I think government departments really enjoy engaging with organisations that are innovative, putting forward ideas, and challenging them, as well as ideas that others have not already thought about as well, and there's always reward for doing that.

“My strong advice to anyone would be to make sure that you come to government with proposals that [include] funding, that are easy to understand, and that have a benefit to the community, because we do want to see a community that flourishes and a very strong not-for-profit sector.

Senator Ciccone suggested organisations seeking support should provide to representatives a powerfully worded one- or two-page summary document “outlining what the objectives are, what the proposals are, and the funding [needed].”

That document should articulate the benefits to the community, to your organisation, and to staff and volunteers, in a coherent way that “grabs someone’s attention, but also relates to their interests.”

“It's important to have organisations build a relationship with MPs ... it is always important to try and reach out in a more informal way if you can, or through other contacts that you might have to give you and that organisation a bit of an informal introduction.
Senator Raff Ciccone

Understand your audience

Delegates should brush up on the politician they were dealing with.

“Do your homework on the individual that you're talking to. It doesn't always have to be about work. It could be simple as the football club that they support [Senator Ciccone is a Collingwood supporter – ed.], or activities they might have done outside of politics.”

Using himself as an example, he mentioned his new baby boy, who was in the office on the day Community Directors Intelligence spoke with him.

“I've got a newborn child, and I'm sure there'll be a lot of people who can relate to the challenges that newborn parents – and parents more broadly – have with workplaces,” he said.

A well-prepared delegation will have done their research not only on their issue but also on the individual they’re meeting with, he said.

“Half the task is about the proposal, but the other half is really about stakeholder management and being able to engage with individuals and getting them to understand your point of view.”

Asked how organisations could avoid tripping themselves up in the process, Senator Ciccone stressed the value of building a relationship and using existing contacts.

“It's important to have organisations build a relationship with MPs. We get requests all the time, and by and large, we do meet with most people, even if there is no relationship there, but it is always important to try and reach out in a more informal way if you can, or through other contacts that you might have to give you and that organisation a bit of an informal introduction.

“I think that it’s always good to have someone who knows the individual senator or MP to say, look, I've either had a dealing with them in the past, or I've been on their board, or know someone there, and that really does help.”

Senator Ciccone said networking extended beyond the political sphere to other like-minded not-for-profits, local councils and others.

He urged organisations to “be persistent” and to “be strategic” in the way they worked with politicians, and to accept there was never a guarantee of winning funding and support.

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Emma Dawson is used to taking centre stage when it comes to advocating for social change.

The powerful need NFP solutions to the nation’s problems

Emma Dawson, executive director, Per Capita economic think tank

One of the country’s foremost social sector economic commentators believes the not-for-profit sector has a powerful opportunity to insert itself into the political equation by offering solutions from the front lines.

The former senior political advisor with skills in media, inclusion, digital infrastructure and strategy recently spoke to Community Directors Intelligence for the Not-for-profit Agenda quarterly webcast.

Ms Dawson has more than two decades’ experience in research, public policy, strategy, and advocacy across diverse public and private sector organisations, and she is well aware of the difficulties NFPs face in influencing the debate.

“It’s a particular challenge because it's increasingly an expensive business, doing business with government. I think not-for-profits are well regarded by the government and by policymakers and they have a reasonable amount of access. But it's expensive travelling into Canberra, putting together packages to try to persuade government ministers and cabinet ministers and the all-powerful departments of treasury and finance that your cause is the cause that should be supported this time around.

“I think the sector does an amazing job, but they're often at a disadvantage compared to private business that has a lot more money to throw around at this stuff, and a lot less concern [than NFPs] about not ‘wasting’ money on such activities, when funds could be going directly to people that need help.”

Demand is high for NFP services

“But I do think that what we're seeing is – to borrow the words of Justice Lee, in an infamous recent court decision – a bit of an omnishambles across the country at the moment.

“There are more people than ever calling on housing and homelessness services, calling on food banks needing help for relocation, for services needing support in the case of domestic and family violence.

“We're seeing terrifying spates of violence against women across the country, a lot of social dislocation, social polarisation over the appalling situation in the Middle East.

“A lot of those things are really having an impact on non-profit organisations and community-based organisations,” Ms Dawson said.

“Nonprofits and community organisations [should] go to Canberra with a sense of what they can do to help as much as what they need from Canberra."
Emma Dawson, executive director, Per Capita

NFPs should offer the answers in lobbying efforts

Ms Dawson said the fraught political times meant NFPs were in a position to help government achieve its aims.

“I think it's really important for the sector not to be seen to be exploiting the times of troubles but rather recognising that there is an opportunity here to demonstrate a strong partnership with government in addressing those issues and being a trusted partner in directing where government can best intervene.

“Often when times are particularly conflicted – as they are at the moment – it can be all too easy for governments to be performative about these things and respond to whatever is on the front page of the tabloid newspapers today.”

She said community organisations should push for more substantive solutions.

“Nonprofits and community organisations [should] go to Canberra with a sense of what they can do to help as much as what they need from Canberra. That creates a much more symbiotic relationship [in which NFPs] really offer that expertise from the front lines of community organisations.”

She said politicians and political staffers often did not have that expertise or knowledge.

“There are a lot of people in Canberra really struggling with what to do. Not only in terms of our social cohesion, but in terms of the sort of rampant runaway cost-of-living crisis that is really affecting those of the lowest end of the income scale, as it will after decades of neglect of the infrastructure that keeps those people safe and secure.

“One of the key things that organisations can do, particularly in the middle of such pressing cost-of-living crisis, is to offer solutions.

“It's important to go to Canberra to talk about the problems that need to be addressed and what we want from government, but trying to frame that in a way of ‘If you support us to do this, we can help you to do that’ is often a much more constructive way to approach…the very pressured and very harried ministerial staff that you'll meet with, before getting to the relevant minister themselves.”

She agreed with every other expert we approached for this piece that resource-poor organisations should aim for brevity in their persuasion.

She described the best communication for delegations as “short, sharp, pithy requests that are clear about what's needed, and that use data in a really concise and pointed way”.

Ms Dawson stressed that information should be relevant and as up-to-date as possible, and should illustrate the trends that an organisation is drawing attention to.

It was not enough to simply argue that “the challenge with this particular sector is acute” without demonstrating a trend over time. That could “demonstrate the impact that government policy spending, or the loss of spending or regulation, is having on that sector”.

Ms Dawson said her experience demonstrated the value of good research, presented well.

“The one thing I consistently hear when I meet with ministers and their staff or key departmental figures is the research and the detailed reports are very important, but when it comes to the pointy end – particularly around budgets and around election asks – short, sharp and to the point is what's needed.”

Ms Dawson gave the example of Per Capita pitching a proposal about social work education to political decision-makers.

“We did work with social work educators recently and produced a long, detailed study of international comparisons around paid placements, and rationales for consideration of options, and that was disseminated amongst all of those educators. But the document we took to Canberra was four pages long and had a preferred option, and some very clear justification for why it should be adopted.

“Sometimes it's doing that two-stage approach: you do the detailed work and it often feels heartbreaking to not include a lot of that detail in your final pitch to government, but the clearer and more simple you can make the message, the more likely it is to cut through at a time of very, very noisy competing advocates and lobbyists in the capital.”

Timing is crucial for political pitches, and the budget is your launchpad

Ms Dawson said the timetable for political approaches was important, but “often tricky to navigate in the political cycle”.

She noted that for federal budgets, pre-budget submissions needed to be lodged by January 25.

“Then it's about understanding how that cycle works. The budget is the biggest signal of where a government's going to go. Following a budget, particularly heading into an election year, you can see that very much as a kind of signpost to where we should be concentrating our efforts in the lead up to the election.”

She gave the example of announcements to do with the “Future Made in Australia” proposals, in which NFPs needed to ask: Where will those investments be made?

“That may sound like something that doesn't have a lot of relevance to the non-profit sector because it's about industry policy. But of course it does, because we know that where we choose to make investments will have an impact on all of the surrounding social infrastructure in a region or may disrupt or displace investments elsewhere.

“So it's important to make those connections, and then think strategically about the pinch points.”

She was referring to the political timetable in which parliamentarians returned to Canberra in May to consider the budget.

Then parliament has a long winter break, during which time community organisations can do their best work in electorates.

“That's a time [for politicians] to be able to engage with communities, to hold meetings and events that politicians will be able to attend, because parliament is not sitting.”

Ms Dawson said NFPs should also be ready for the months in which the sitting government and other parties established their election agendas.

NFPs could use these months to engage with stakeholders to gather input to feed into policymaking.

“How do we as a community try to influence that election agenda from being less combative and more constructive, more about the future we want rather than re-prosecuting arguments from the past?” she said.

She nominated the end of October and early November as the next milestone in the political cycle, marked by the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook.

“And then we're off and running to an election campaign,” she said.

“It's going to be important to use the budget as a springing-off point for identifying where do we want to put our energy. It would be nice to ask for everything, but let's be mindful about the election context and really focus on what we need between now and that election, which will be sometime in the next 12 months, early next year.”

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Sarah Davies of the Alannah and Madeleine Foundation, pictured at the recent Technology for Social Justice conference. Picture: Hamish Appleby

Advocacy can open the door to power

Sarah Davies AM, CEO, Alannah and Madeleine Foundation

The head of Australia’s most prominent charity working to protect children from violence has a long history of working with political leaders, captains of industry, and the members of Philanthropy Australia, the organisation she led for five years.

Sarah Davies has a well-honed sense of the arguments that will sway those in power and those who hold the purse strings. She spoke with Community Directors Intelligence on the sidelines of the recent Tech for Social Justice conference in Melbourne.

Ms Davies had just delivered a passionate keynote address in which she called on the sector to better align its strategies and tactics when it comes to protecting children from the worst excesses of social media.

She left delegates in no doubt about her current organisation’s goals, arguing: “It’s government’s responsibility to ensure children’s digital rights are upheld and realised; it’s tech companies’ responsibility to prevent their services and products being used in ways that violate these rights.”

She believes that people in the sector with a strong for-purpose agenda should not just think about social change, “we actually have to inherently understand the trajectory of that change”.

Summing up the sector’s mission as “reform and transform”, Ms Davies stressed that “systems and policy change requires a level of advocacy in order to get into those power structures”.

Deciding to advocate and to take a stand was necessary, but it was not enough, she said.

“You've got to have a whole heap of other things. You've got to have evidence. And evidence comes from your experience on the ground in designing and running programs, in alleviating need, in helping individuals build their capability, in helping communities build their capacity. You have both the empirical evidence-based data, but you also have the lived-experience stories.

“If you need to move people’s hearts and heads, you've got to have all the levers that move the heart and you've got to have all the levers that move the heads. And increasingly what we've learned in the last five to 10 years is you've also got to have the levers that move the dollar allocation too.”

“I think if we can build a level of awareness and understanding, that advocacy will burst out of the gates.”
Sarah Davies, Alannah and Madeleine Foundation

Ms Davies described a meeting she’d had with a federal minister in the past fortnight.

“It's the first time we were able to get in front of that minister. We had 45 minutes.

“The first thing you do is you research the hell out of what matters to that minister, what are their policy agendas? Where are their pain points? And then [you] frame up what you need to achieve as a win-win for them, in terms of how it supports their policy objective, or their electorate objective, or their reform objective.

“The second thing is being really clear about what your asks are. Because ministers know that when they get people from our sector in front of them, we're there because we want something to be different.

“[That means] being really clear and precise about what the asks are, and specific about the cost benefit of that ask not being delivered or delivered.”

She said her organisation presented that ask with a “human touch”, as “an opportunity for the minister … to get involved in a personal sense, whether in their electorate or around their passion or around their portfolio”.

Ms Davies said that advocacy was increasingly accepted in Australia as “a legitimate change mechanism”.

“In the last five to six years, for example, we've seen a big shift in philanthropy and philanthropy’s appetite to actually fund advocacy and advocacy-related activities.”

While not specifically calling out the former Coalition government’s attempts to restrict advocacy in the sector, Ms Davies said charity and NFP advocates should feel emboldened.

“We've got a history in the charitable sector of … it being not supported, not funded, not understood, not valued.

“It has now been proven that advocacy is absolutely a genuine charitable purpose, where it meets your purpose in your constitution, so we've got some firm ground to stand on.”

Referring to her foundation’s campaign to better protect children online, she said she believed that the sector’s silence on the issue was largely a result of a lack of awareness.

“I think if we can build a level of awareness and understanding, that advocacy will burst out of the gates.”

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The Mental Health Coordinating Council's Dr Evelynne Tadros with her principal policy advisor Corinne Henderson appearing before a NSW Parliamentary inquiry into mental health services.

Know your audience, ask your stakeholders

Dr Evelyne Tadros, chief executive, Mental Health Coordinating Council

The Mental Health Coordinating Council (MHCC) has found itself in the thick of a huge mental health challenge in Australia. Its chief executive, Dr Evelyne Tadros, spoke to the Institute of Community Directors Australia recently for the Not-for-profit Agenda newscast.

Based in NSW but with national interests, the peak body represents more than 80 community-based mental health organisations.

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Dr Evelyne Tadros knows the frustrations and rewards of good advocacy.

Dr Tadros is experienced in pushing for better policies and funding for the sector, and she noted that her organisation has recently responded to – or is responding to – to 10 separate NSW and Commonwealth reviews, commissions and inquiries.

While having to repeatedly argue the case is frustrating, the MHCC continues to keep the issue of mental health at the forefront of politicians’ minds. It appears that patience and determination are key ingredients for successful advocacy.

The MHCC backed its push for additional funding and reforms with papers such as a NSW pre-budget submission and a detailed response to the recent NFP Sector Development Blueprint. Its recently published “workforce solutions” paper suggests improvements to staffing, training and conditions for the sector.

Each submission clearly spells out the organisation’s mission, vision for improvements, and specific calls for funding and reforms, backed by evidence.

“We know what works, and certainly more investment in the mental health system is going to make a difference. In our various submissions to government and in our inquiries, we are advocating for considered investments.”

Dr Tadros appeared last year before a NSW parliamentary inquiry that examined outpatient and community mental health care in the state, highlighting workforce challenges, the urgent need for more community-based psychosocial support packages and the importance of extended funding cycles, instead of short-term contracts.

Ahead of the state and federal budgets, Dr Tadros is once again hoping that Australia’s governments will avoid “kicking the can down the road” but will instead start investing in solutions to fix problems in a service system she describes as “challenged on a daily basis, not just for consumers, but for carers and the workforce”.

Could you give us your whole proposal in 20 minutes?

Dr Tadros said appearing before inquiries and responding to inquiries was a worthwhile endeavour that enabled her organisation to “voice the challenges that our workforce and our members experience”.

“It's important for those that are on the [parliamentary] panel and it helps to highlight the opportunities and our recommendations.”

Dr Tadros said advocates must have a thorough understanding of their messages and how to deliver them.

“I think being clear about the key messages that you're going in to ‘sell’ [is essential] because often with parliamentarians and politicians, you've only got 20 minutes.

“So what can you sell in 20 minutes?

“If you've got your top three key messages that you want to get across, that's important, but also have your evidence base and make sure you know your stats, and your data, your stakeholder engagement and feedback.”

She said it was essential to demonstrate that an organisation has engaged with its members and stakeholders in developing any proposals, while also remaining open to suggestions from politicians and public servants.

“I think it's really important to know the audience that you're working with. So, are you working with the Treasurer who's going to have the fiscal responsibility of making sure budgets are balanced and reflect return on investment? Whereas if you're talking to someone in the homelessness space or in the mental health space, you may need to make a different kind of connection.”

“One of the real arts of politics is to make people feel heard and acknowledged but without making actual commitments that may cost time or money or require change."
David Crosbie, chief executive, Community Council for Australia

Watch for empty words in consultation

David Crosbie, chief executive, Community Council for Australia

One of the NFP sector’s most vocal advocates has warned leaders not to be taken in by empty consultations, but instead to be forthright in their demands.

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David Crosbie. Picture: Hamish Appleby

Writing for the Community Advocate recently, David Crosbie said politicians had a history of weaselling out of commitments.

“One of the real arts of politics is to make people feel heard and acknowledged but without making actual commitments that may cost time or money or require change.

“I don’t know how many times I have made representations to government ministers, assistant ministers, and senior government officials about the folly of the current Australian Taxation Office (ATO) determination to force every not-for-profit in the country to provide an annual return.

“And yet this folly is unfolding and will undoubtedly create concern for many local community organisations that pose no threat to our security, don’t have access to significant amounts of money, are not avoiding their obligations, and are generally focused on promoting community wellbeing.”

He also cited changes to industrial relations laws that cramped the ability of charities and not-for-profits to use fixed-term contracts.

“We made our case to ministers, assistant ministers and senior government officials before the new IR requirements were passed through the parliament. Our efforts to provide more exemptions for charities on fixed-term funding contracts failed. Now many charities are having to restructure their staffing arrangements, in some cases meaning additional costs and higher risk.”

Both policies – on annual returns and on industrial relations –would harm the sector through increased costs, complexity and unreasonable risks, he wrote.

“Our concerns with these two legislative changes were listened to and acknowledged. But nothing was changed.

“It is clearly time we stopped accepting acknowledgement as an end in itself.”

He said that proper consultation should be “a forerunner to investment and partnership in meaningful change, not another report that sits on a dusty shelf with more recommendations to add to the 160 from major inquiries over the last 30 years – of which only 21 have actually been implemented.”

Mr Crosbie said he believed the sector would face a true test of consultation in coming months as several major reviews are released, including the NFP Sector Development Blueprint, a Department of Social Services (DSS) study of community sector funding, and the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into philanthropy.

Mr Crosbie said his main fear was that the results would be so vague and “vanilla” as to do little to improve the lot of NFPs and charities, and by extension their beneficiaries.

He said it was up to charities and not-for-profits to be more demanding.

“All too often charities and community organisations gratefully accept breadcrumbs, don’t rock the boat, and fail to assert their value.

“We are champions of change, and yet when it comes to changes that may benefit our organisations and the communities we serve, we are often underperformers,” he said.

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