Unlocking the doors to the corridors of power

Posted on 09 May 2024

By Mattew Schulz, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Parliament House

A foremost expert in helping not-for-profits build better connections with government decision makers says that leaders can create a massive impact with the right strategy and tactics.

Angus Crowther, co-founder of Tanck, says his organisation – which equips organisations with the skills to increase their influence – believes not-for-profits are better served by building their capabilities in-house, rather calling in lobbyists with their own agendas.

Tanck co-founder Angus Crowther.

Tanck’s method involves helping organisations to:

  • understand key stakeholders across government, including ministers and their shadows, members and candidates, policy departments and agencies, central agencies, and the political parties
  • get a handle on the perspective of the politicians and public servants the organisation is dealing with, asking from their point of view, “What’s in it for me?”
  • keep communications concise, yet powerful
  • understand the power of local influence, by using electorate-specific and postcode- specific data
  • create a strategy that ensures government engagement is part of the organisational framework, and that is alert to threats and opportunities
  • understand the political environment, whether that means elections, budgets or other political cycles.

Speaking to an Institute of Community Directors Australia webinar recently, the highly experienced former political advisor said that his organisation framed its work as “government engagement” for good reason.

“We're very specifically using that term, as opposed to strategic communications, or corporate affairs, or government relations, or lobbying,” Mr Crowther said.

“We see government engagement as an alternative to these models that's more sustainable and more aligned from a values perspective with the social sector in particular.”

He said government engagement objectives for social sector organisations, as developed by boards and senior leadership, typically revolve around issues such as funding needs, government policies and legislative changes.

From there, an organisation must develop a clear process that will help it achieve those outcomes.

“It's how do we actually help you get a seat at the table? How do we broaden your participation and your influence with the stakeholders that matter to you, to your sector and to your mission and cause?”

Parliament House chamber
“It’s about building political will and convincing these people [politicians] to invest in your programs."

Often, social sector organisations were keen to improve their negotiating position with departments or ministers, yet were afraid of “stepping on toes”, and as a result were hesitant to knock on those ministerial doors.

He said one goal worth pursuing was to flip the relationship and seek to be positioned as a “trusted advisor” to unlock more favourable policy outcomes.

“For me, what it looks like in genuine terms is how do we position it so that if there's a policy decision that's coming down the line, the advisor and the minister's office pick up their phone and call you and say, ‘Hey, what if let's say hypothetically this thing is happening, what would be your response?’”

Tanck’s recent whitepaper Engaging for Impact: Best practices for purpose-driven government engagement outlined the top five obstacles for organisations struggling to make an impact.

These include:

  • not building a broad enough political network. The whitepaper instead argues for “champions across the whole spectrum”.
  • not investing in a whole-of-organisation approach. The whitepaper argues for building a team with skills, training and the support of the board, management and staff.
  • not viewing your work and your “asks” through a political lens. You shouldn’t expect an idea to be adopted simply because it is “the right thing to do”, but you should reframe your pitch for greater power and efficacy.
  • acting as your own worst enemy, especially as a result of “toxic idealism”, which can hinder advocacy and campaigning and mean many gains are lost.

Speaking to the Community Advocate after the webinar, Mr Crowther said not-for-profits could apply Tanck’s concepts to dealing with the lead up to elections.

“There is money that is deliberately put aside so that MPs have a little war chest that they’re allowed to play with on an electorate basis, to help them win that seat so that their party can win government,” said Mr Crowther.

“Sector organisations should be looking at what it is that they need and make a case through approaching an MP, knowing that going into an election that MP is going to have a pool of money that they can draw upon to make election commitments.”

He said the vast amounts of money held back by governments could potentially be tapped by NFPs and charities who do their research, ask the right questions and can demonstrate the impact their programs have at a local electorate level.

This means that the May 14 federal budget isn’t the “be all and end all” for NFPs, who have until the next federal election to plead their case.

“I tell my social sector clients, don’t believe this line that there’s no money in the budget for you,” said Mr Crowther.

“It’s about building political will and convincing these people [politicians] to invest in your programs.”

More information

Watch the webinar with Angus Crowther on replay ($88 for ICDA members, available until May 31)

Free Tanck whitepaper: Engaging for Impact: Best practices for purpose-driven government engagement

ICDA help sheets: How to do great advocacy

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