Health Care Agencies Encouraged to Make Advocacy a Core Activity

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Health care nonprofits can boost their effectiveness by telling their stories to the community and by playing a role in the public policy arena, local safety-net officials said Tuesday.

In other words, they told about 40 of their peers, agencies should not treat advocacy as a back-burner objective that only serves to drain time and energy from providing direct services.

In fact, said Mary Lou Jaramillo — chief executive of El Centro, which works to strengthen Hispanic families in Wyandotte and Johnson counties — outreach is at the core of what her agency does.

“We can do early childhood education, we can do domestic violence victim assistance, we can do emergency assistance,” she said. “But I believe the No. 1 thing at El Centro is education and advocacy – and then everything else comes.”

One key to success, Jaramillo and two other officials said, is involving all personnel in formulating and communicating the agency’s issue agenda. Even volunteers can write letters to elected officials.

Also helpful, they said, is using real-life examples from clients who are OK with making the information public – perhaps even creating a “story bank” with examples gathered during the course of business.

The advice was delivered at forum held at Saint Paul School of Theology to outline the lessons they learned during a year-long program co-sponsored by the Health Forward Foundation and the REACH Healthcare Foundation.

The program, which the two foundations are renewing for next year, provided a consultant to four nonprofits so they could build an advocacy framework within their organizations.

The consultant was Melinda Lewis, who also serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare.

Along with El Centro was:

  • Wyandot Inc., a community mental health center in Kansas City, Kan.,.
  • ReDiscover, a mental health agency with offices in Lee’s Summit and Kansas City, Mo., and
  • reStart, which serves the homeless from its offices in Kansas City, Mo.

Pushing a positive agenda for the Hispanic community has been a big part of El Centro’s activities throughout its 35-year history, Jaramillo said, and that has helped raise the organization’s profile to the point that it’s the go-to agency locally for information about immigration.

Even so, she said, the agency needed help institutionalizing that process. One of the things El Centro staff did while working with Lewis, Jamarillo said, was have the board set the tone by adopting a legislative agenda.

At ReDiscover, chief executive Alan Flory worked with Lewis to get feedback from staff, clients, board members and volunteers to come up with the agency’s top three advocacy priorities: improving clients’ access to mental health services, to housing and to physical health practitioners.

“That process is expected to engage more people (within the organization) – because they picked the issues,” he said.

Meanwhile, Flory is using the story of one client who, less than a month ago, killed himself before he could see a psychiatrist. The man’s grandmother, he said, urged the agency to use the example to highlight problems with the system.

“That story is something to tell our staff, ‘Wait a minute, what can we do to do something to provide treatment quicker? Is there something else we can do?’”

ReDiscover also established a speaker’s bureau for representatives to go out and talk about the issues in the community. They had their first engagement last week at a Rotary Club.

And by making an effort to engage policymakers, Flory said the organization arrived at a surprisingly easy fix to obtaining some housing dollars from the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

At Wyandot Inc., one idea that Mark Wiebe said they wanted to pursue is integrating advocacy into their clients’ treatment plans. He said that Medicaid reimburses for staff time dedicated to helping clients find purpose in their lives.

“Advocacy is something that would qualify for that,” said Wiebe, the agency’s public affairs director. “So I’m big on getting people to recognize that.”

For next year, the two foundations will select up to five applicants for the Advocacy Capacity Initiative. The program is only open to organizations currently receiving funding from either of the two foundations.

Applications are due by Oct. 26. The foundations expect to have the applications posted on their websites — or — no later than the end of this week.

The Health Forward Foundation is proud to partner with the Kansas Health Institute news service to provide weekly health stories about health and policy issues impacting the greater Kansas City region. This News Service is an editorially independent program of the Kansas Health Institute and the Health Forward Foundation and is committed to objective coverage of health issues.

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