Research shows that nonprofits are among America’s most trusted information sources. And while they may be well positioned to help those they serve participate in civic engagement, Lindsay Torrico says we often don’t know how to do that. Lindsay, senior director of policy and advocacy at United Way Worldwide and 2019 NGen Leadership Award finalist, wants nonprofits to become more comfortable with encouraging greater community engagement. She’ll share tools and knowledge to help nonprofits do that during her Upswell workshop, “How to Be the Expert in the 2020 Elections.”
Lindsay’s appreciation for community and advocacy comes from her grandmother, who reminded her that the life she enjoys is the result of the struggles of those who came before her. Community-driven solutions are top of mind for Lindsay right now. We caught up with her to find out why, and to learn more about her.
Q: If you could have dinner with any living person, who would it be?
LT: I guess the person who immediately comes to mind is Michelle Obama, which is probably an obvious choice for so many people. She has been someone with so much class and grace and professionalism who has inspired so many people to have a voice, and to make their voice heard in the political process. I would love to hear more about who she is as a person and where she sees the real needs and challenges of this country right now. We’re at a different point in this country than we were when she was first lady, so I’d be curious about where she sees the opportunities to help restore our democracy and bring civility and mutual respect for one another back into our political system and discourse.
Q: What one change can changemakers make to have a bigger impact in the communities they serve?
LT: This is really top of mind for me right now. I believe today’s changemakers must focus on community-driven solutions. This is what my workshop is all about. As nonprofits, we often start with what we think communities need, and what we think the right strategies are, but I think we need to be much more focused on authentic community engagement. That means starting with the community first – before the nonprofit develops their strategic plan and key priorities. And there are pain points. I had a recent conversation with a United Way that wanted to do something as simple as have someone from the community sit on their board. It caused so much internal tension between the current board members, who do not see community members as having the same level of expertise or education. Having people that you serve be part of co-creating the solutions is exactly where we need to move as a sector.
Q: What are you an expert on, and is it because of training, lived experience, or both?
LT: I would say helping nonprofits build their capacity to do policy and advocacy work, and that’s mostly a result of lived experience. Over the last eight years, I’ve been fortunate to work with United Ways all across the country. I have heard about the challenges they are facing in their communities and try to help them navigate who their decision-makers are, which organizations they should be working with, which policies they should advocate for, and what tactics they should employ to move forward. So a lot of it has also been learning from organizations on the ground about the best practices for creating social change.
Q: What has had the biggest impact on the person you’ve become?
LT: The person who immediately comes to mind is my grandmother. She passed away several years ago. She grew up in a time when she had to fight to have a seat at the table. She was an educator and the first Black teacher in the Philadelphia school system to be appointed as English Department Head. I think if she had grown up today, she would be a governor or congresswoman. She taught me a lot about honoring the people that came before you, and that all of the privileges and advantages that I have are the result of someone else fighting to make their voice heard. So that has really shaped me. She also taught me about perseverance. That social change takes time so you have to celebrate the small wins along the way and keep at it. It’s a journey. You can’t get discouraged or fatigued along the way because there are real lives at stake. So you’ve got to recognize the past, the people that came before you, celebrate the small wins and stay in the fight.
Q: What’s one thing that every person in the social sector should know about?
LT: One of the things I’ve shared with our network of United Ways is that the work around community and civic engagement isn’t just the right thing to do. It can also support the bottom line of your organization. There’s a moral case, yes, but there’s also a business case. And when I talk to our network, I don’t just talk about the flowery, “this is good” work. I also try to acknowledge that they have limited resources and capacity. I try to also make the case that civic engagement and advocacy actually have the potential to help you raise more dollars for your organization and your work. And we’re starting to see proof points for that, with corporations, foundations, and more donors who want to make a meaningful impact coming to the table and realizing we need to save our democracy and scale our impact through advocacy.
Advocacy and civic engagement can be a critical recruitment tool for bringing more people into your organization. There have been studies that have shown that millennials, in particular, respond more to advocacy that they do to volunteerism and to fundraising. So I think the rise in interest in civic engagement is something nonprofits can leverage so they can raise additional funds to make an even greater impact.
How to Be the Expert in the 2020 Elections is happening Thursday, November 14 from 2:30 – 3:45pm.