by Aimee Edmondson, NFOIC contributing writer
You’ve formed your own FOI group, created a cool logo and you are ready to try to save the world, or open government at least. But what’s the next step?
Veterans of the FOI game offered tips on sustaining that fledgling FOI group at the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s 2008 FOI Summit in Philadelphia on May 9-10.
“You need a broad coalition with a narrow mission,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard, past president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
Advice and insight from Friday's panel, Coalition Care and Feeding, included the following:
Don’t just be a press organization. Make sure your FOI group comes from a wide range of interests, from public officials to the League of Women Voters to neighborhood coalitions to labor groups and even sportsmen alliances.
“Coalitions are more effective than just one industry group,” said panel moderator Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. The Maine coalition was formed in 2000 and Leary and other open government advocates knew from the local political climate that they needed more than media groups and broadcasters. For example, certain death for a bill in Maine can come if it’s perceived as a “press bill” or a “Portland bill,” when the rest of the state is rural.
Leary’s group also sought out people and organizations that might oppose them. This includes municipal groups and various public officials.
“If you are working with them you can accomplish a lot more than fighting all the time,” he said.
Try to make membership in your local organization more valuable. For example, annual dues may be $35 a month, but people want something for that money. Put out a quarterly newsletter. Create a listserv where members can share stories and issues.
Create a presence on the web and update the site regularly. Track bills and post legislative updates on the site. Your group may be a 501(c)(3), so you won’t be endorsing candidates. But you can create an open government pledge and ask all candidates to sign it. If they don’t, put that information on your website. Thank those who did sign it for their dedication to open government.
“You don’t say ‘don’t vote for people who haven’t made the pledge.’ You put the information out there,” Earl-Hubbard said.
The site doesn’t just have to be a place to get information about the law. It can be a place people can find other people interested in the same issues. It’s classic social networking.
Joey Senat even uses Facebook to generate interest in his organization, Freedom of Information Oklahoma Inc. The associate professor at the School of Journalism & Broadcasting at Oklahoma State University created the page and saw more than 60 people join up rather quickly.
“College students live on Facebook,” he said. But joiners also include some professionals and alums.
Write opinion pieces for your state’s newspapers. This offers great exposure for the organization and will likely bring callers, emails and website traffic from people who want more information.
Create a citizen’s pocket guide to state sunshine laws. It could be distributed around Sunshine Week. Senat said he modeled Oklahoma’s after Virginia’s. High school students, newspapers across the state and the League of Women voters have requested the guides.
“It gives us publicity. The biggest problem in our state is educating the public that these laws exist…people don’t have a clue,” Senat said.
Hold town hall meetings. Washington State’s group even gets those events filmed and aired on local government channels.
“We used the politicians’ playbook. You want people to know who you are,” said Earl-Hubbard, a First Amendment attorney in private practice.
Have a large and varied group of board members, and hold meetings via video or telephone conference. It’s hard for people to drive hours and hours across the state for a once-a-month meeting.
Spread out the work. Have a president and at least two vice presidents, so leaders don’t burn out. But also have "worker bees." You’ll want some big names and heavy hitters on your board who will garner attention for the organization, but you also need people who have more time to work. Lawyers who are trying to build their practice are good worker bees, Earl-Hubbard said. Newspaper publishers may not have time to drive “to some little town and give a presentation to a local school board.”
Pick a spokesperson and have a backup for them so someone is always available to talk to the press. Make it easy to get a quote from the coalition. To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, it probably shouldn’t be a newspaper publisher.
Reach out to the academics in your state or through NFOIC. They are in a good position to talk freely on these issues without appearance of conflict.
Move your organization ahead slowly and steadily. When you are starting out, set a few specific goals and work at them.
“Don’t try to do too much,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, which was created in 1994. “Be consistent and persistent. The longer you are around, the more folks will end up coming to you. They know you are there.”
Conduct a compliance audit. What good is the law if public officials are not following it? Leary said an audit in Maine showed 75 percent of requests to local law enforcement agencies were not filled that should have been. As a result, lawmakers passed emergency legislation requiring police chiefs to get training about the law.
“We followed up by providing trainers,” Leary said. “It was the start of good relationship.” And it led to solid right-to-know legislation.
Lobby. Groups with 501c status may spend part of their funding on lobbying. (See this article from OMB Watch for more specifics on regulations for lobbying by nonprofits.) “All the IRS cares about is how much of your money you are spending on lobbying. They don’t care about your time.”
Expenses would include postage and mileage. Make sure you talk to a tax lawyer first.
Give out awards. Oklahoma gives out the Black Hole Award to the agency that has performed the most abysmally. The Sunshine Award goes to the best. There are also honorable and dishonorable mentions. These go up on the website during Sunshine Week.
Be willing to compromise. There is no such thing as a perfect sunshine law, for example. Manheimer, an attorney, has gotten calls where hostile and angry people want her to take a “ridiculously hard-line” position on the part of the foundation. She tries to make sure her organization comes across receptive and willing to compromise. “I will tell my more adamant contemporaries, ‘Back off a little.’”
Keep up the momentum. Senat said the Oklahoma group was active when it started, but suffered through a lull.
“We’d have two board meetings a year and we’d sit around and complain about issues that we needed to deal with. We’d come up with projects and nothing would get done,” Senat said.
As president, he presented specific goals and actions. It is too important not to get organized, he said.
“We are dealing with people in small towns, and these people get pushed around,” Senat said. “We needed them to know that there was somebody out there on their side.”