CDFI Connect Q&A: Cheryl Neas on How to Visit Washington

  • The CDFI industry visits the Hill on May 21.

April 21, 2014 (CDFI Connect) — OFN has begun final preparations for Advocacy Day, May 21, the CDFI industry’s biggest annual Washington event.

Advocacy Day connects CDFI representatives and leaders with members of Congress and with key officials at government agencies that shape policy affecting CDFIs.

This year’s agenda includes support for the CDFI Fund, housing-finance reform, New Market Tax Credit allocations, and CDFI-related programs at the Small Business Administration and the Federal Financing Housing Agency.

Cheryl Neas, senior vice president and acting director of public policy, spoke recently with CDFI Connect about just how to pull off such an event.

Why, to begin with, is Advocacy Day important?

It's the CDFI community's day in Washington. It connects CDFI representatives and leaders with members of Congress and key officials at agencies that shape policy affecting our industry. We make a splash by being physically present in Washington as our Members tell their stories directly to people who have great sway over public policy.

How does it work?

You register, you save the date, and you come to Washington, where OFN's seasoned Public Policy staff will guide you through the day.

It's a little scary to a lot of people, isn't it, going into the hallowed halls of Washington, D.C., and talking face-to-face with the government?

It helps to keep in mind that we live in a democracy and that Washington, after all, is there to serve the people. For somebody whose first time it is on the Hill, we'll give them a buddy, either an OFN staffer or another advocate. We hold conference calls ahead of time so people know what to expect, where to go, and so on. Meetings are set up in advance. We develop talking points for our Members ahead of time. We strive overall to make it as streamlined as possible.

Is it a fleeting experience?

No, because you'll see the impact of Advocacy Day unfold as legislation is created going forward and as policy is shaped. It's a single day, yes, but one effect of Advocacy Day is that we're able to use it as a way to strengthen our Members' abilities to advocate. The fact is, anybody can be an advocate, and anybody can learn to be an expert advocate.

What happens in these meetings?

We tell our story and we talk about why the work of CDFIs is so important.

What, specifically, are the public policy discussions about?

We let it be known that the annual congressional appropriation to the CDFI Fund is absolutely crucial to the work we do. We also want to have our voices heard in the very important current housing finance policy debate. We care very much about getting a permanent extension to the New Markets Tax Credit program, and we are going to be talking a lot about the growing CDFI participation in the country's small business infrastructure and how federal agencies can support that.

Why do you encourage Members to share borrower or project stories?

We want members of Congress especially to understand the impact the work of CDFIs has in their home districts. That's a very powerful message when you can say to an elected official who has influence over programs that affect CDFIs, "Look, here's a CDFI in your backyard that has created jobs or financed a much-needed redevelopment project or funded a charter school or helped open a health care clinic." Names help. Pictures help. Details help. They personalize the issue.

They leave an impression.

Beyond great stories, what else should participants be prepared to talk about?

Participants need to be experts on their CDFIs, but we can help them be experts on advocacy, too, on understanding how to talk to particular legislators about particular issues. One of the key things is to be ready to respond when you're asked, "What exactly can I do for you?" It's a golden opportunity. Be prepared to answer. Maybe it's, "You can help by supporting the Capital Magnet Fund," or "You can help by supporting a permanent program of New Market Tax Credits" or "You can help by endorsing the work of the SBA Community Advantage Program for CDFIs."

What if you forget what to say?

We'll help you remember.


This interview was condensed and edited.

More here about Advocacy Day.

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