It’s all about relationships… What 25 years of advocacy has taught me

Posted By: Susan DeVenny For Good Connections,

Last month, a team of South Carolina philanthropists visited Capitol Hill with foundation leaders from across the country. 

Our goal? To talk to members of Congress en masse about the impact of American philanthropy, highlighting the results of strong, public-private partnerships at home. 

During a busy week of budget negotiation in DC, staff and members talked with us about the needs of our communities and plumbed new data around charitable giving.  Our team talked about the nimbleness of the nonprofit sector, the value of multi-sector partnerships, and important tools to encourage charitable giving in tax law. Measured by numbers of office visits, cups of coffee, and thoughtful dialogue, Foundations on the Hill 2024 was a success. 

More than just Spring visits, however, strong relationships with elected leaders are built by sharing information all year long.

Advocacy “fly-ins” (like statehouse visits in Columbia, or town and county council meetings across the Palmetto State) help us stay visible and connected to decision-makers, draw attention to pressing issues, and can build momentum toward common goals. Our elected leaders depend on information year-round from staff, constituents, and thought leaders in order to govern with excellence every day. 

Advocacy is essentially lifting your voice in support of causes that matter to you in your daily walk. For me, those issues have been public education; the needs of young children, families, and caregivers; and philanthropy. Over my quarter century of advocacy in these areas, I’ve learned a few key lessons. 

  1. Know your audience. Do your research before visiting with your elected leader, learning his or her background, and familiarizing yourself with key staff. Prepare succinct remarks and plan a few key questions that highlight the intersection of your cause and the elected leader’s interests or experience. A key data point or story can make an effective connection; be sure to use both in your materials. Note what “sparks” deeper conversation with the elected leader or staff, and follow up with any promised information.
  2. Seek common ground. Data and stories of impact make a compelling case for your cause. Your research ahead of visits will help you showcase information in a framework that builds shared knowledge between you and your elected leaders. More than “talking” or “telling,” I have found that strong advocacy is based around listening. Hearing what is important to elected leaders will help you find intersection points.
  3. Build the relationship. More than anything else, good advocacy is centered in relationship. Your time and interaction with elected leaders and staff over time builds a currency of thoughtful, reliable connection. Our representatives depend on relationships based in truth, trust, and lived experience. Be the person they think about calling when your cause is in the forefront by being a good resource over the years.

At a time when voices are often loud, discordant, and polarization is the norm, our recent time on Capitol Hill was a reminder that conversation centered in community can build toward our common goal: a bright future for all. 


Pic: Tiffany Friesen, Philanthropy Southeast; Melissa Levesque, Coastal Community Foundation;  Susan DeVenny, Arras Foundation.


Pic: Tiffany Friesen, Philanthropy Southeast; Melissa Levesque, Coastal Community Foundation; Bob Morris, Community Foundation of Greenville; Susan DeVenny, Arras Foundation; Joshua Gross, Congressman Jeff Duncan; Katy Smith, Greater Good Greenville.

Pic: Melissa Levesque, Coastal Community Foundation; Darcy Merline, Congressman Ralph Norman; Susan DeVenny, Arras Foundation.


Pic: Tiffany Friesen, Philanthropy Southeast; Melissa Levesque, Coastal Community Foundation; Katy Smith, Greater Good Greenville; Susan DeVenny, Arras Foundation; Bob Morris, Community Foundation of Greenville; Leah Grace Blackwell, Congressman Joe Wilson.