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The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Friday, June 05, 2009

NFOIC Summit: Coalition Sustainability

Barbara Peterson, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation and NFOIC president; Hyde Post, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation; and Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Coalition discussed how to sustain state FOI coalitions at the 2009 NFOIC Summit. Here are the notes from their session.

Barbara Peterson
Lessons from the Florida First Amendment Foundation:
  • The Florida First Amendment Foundation started in 1985. For first 10 years, it was housed in Florida Press Association. The foundation started publishing Government-In-The-Sunshine manual. The AG's office complies it. The coalition publishes it and distributees it. It was the main source of income.
  • Peterson onvinced the board that the group should focus only on open-government issues. Nobody else in Florida did that. The group started a toll-free hotline for questions. Someone can call and get a quick question answered and a great quote. In the first year, 203 calls were placed. Now the line averages about 150 calls a month. Half of those come from citizens.
  • Initially membership was mainly from newspapers. Now private investigators, broadcasters (not many), lawyers, anyone can be a member. Membership is as low as $25 and high as $5000.
  • Because of the 501-c(3) status, there is a federal limitation on the amount of lobbying. So Peterson doesn’t lobby. She educates. An average of 100-150 exemptions bills are filed in Florida Legislature each year.
  • The coalition is in the position of responding to all proposals for new exemptions. When a bill comes up on House floor, someone will say what is the position of Florida First Amendation Foundation on this bill. The foundation is sked to review 95 percent of bills. If the coalition doesn’t like it, chances are it won’t go anywhere.
  • The coalition increased its profile dramatically by establishing a legislative alert list. The coalition can send out an e-mail alert about a bill to more than 300 newspaper editors and reporters in Florida. It makes the e-mails as outrageous as possible to get their attention.
  • The coalition also conducts about 50 seminars and trainings a year. Those who attend automatically become a member for one year. In turn, the coalition gets their contact information, and many pay for the $25 membership the following year.
  • The coalition has been talking to professional fundraisers after seeing a significant drop in every level of membership, even $25 members. One told Peterson that you should have three diverse, distinct sources of income.
  • The foundation is about to launch a direct-mail fundraising campaign with advice from a professional fundraiser who volunteered her services. It would have cost $10,000 at minimum to hire her. A 2 percent return is expected. The second step will be getting everyone in the foundation to identify those who have been important in the history of the organization and send them a personal letter pleading for money ($1000-$5000 or more).
  • Raise your profile.
  • Make sure reporters know you're a free resource.
  • Track your calls. Know who's calling you and where from? That way if you got 15 calls from one newspaper, use that data to convince the newspaper to donate to your coalition. Those free calls were a lot cheaper than placing a call to the newspaper's attorney.
  • Create a bullet list of talking points for board members when they're calling to ask others to donate.
  • Develop champions. Identify those in the state who really support the cause. Honor them with an award. The Friend of the First Amendment Award has now become somewhat of a competition.
  • Develop database of those who will continue to support organization.

Hyde Post

Lessons from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation:
  • The Georgia First Amendment Foundation started in 1994. There was no consistent voice for FOI or access issues in Georgia. This issue was number 6 on the state press association's list. The Atlanta Journal Constitutaion was arguing a case before the state supreme court. The justice said journalists are always saying access to information is for the people but where are these other people? It's always just the Atlanta Journal Consititution fighting for documents. That's when the newspaper realized it would be helpful to have an organization of not just journalists.
  • The first question: Who should be in the coalition? The group started with $5,000. To get diversity, it recruited some journalists (print and broadcast), journalism professors, law professors, media lawyers, librarians, intellectural freedom groups, like-minded public service groups (such as the ACLU, Common Cause) and JPF (just plain folks).
  • A lot of the funding from newspapers. Obviously, that's not so much the case for those starting off today. Law firms are a good source of funding. Grants both through NFOIC and local organizations (such as state bar associations) are also something to look into. Don’t become dependent on any single source of funding.
  • Pick a board of directors that includes a diversity of people with diverse skills. It's nice crucial to have a certain number of people who have money or can attract money.
  • The coalition's most successful programs in Georgia have been workshops programs and booklets. It's an educational organization. Its most important constitutency is people just being elected to public office or newly appointed deputies, newly elected school board members, etc.
  • The coalition produces a general citizen guide, one on school board records and is working on one on court access. Its board went to the attorney general and state sheriff association and asked them to coauthor the booklets. They didn't have to write it, just review it. However, the coaliton essentially had them approve the documents this way, which made it easier to get that material inserted into their training materials.
  • Get on regular list of newly elected magistrate judges. Show up during their training.
  • Focus and consistency is key.
  • Narrow the focus to what you can do well.
  • FOI people who FOI stuff. Find out who's requesting records. That's your target for membership.
  • Tell board members ahead of time that donating to the annual fund drive is a condition of being on the board.
  • Aim to be nonpartisan.

Kathleen Richardson Lessons from Iowa Freedom of Information Coalition:
  • The Iowa coalition began in 1976. Since early on, it had a strong alliance between print and broadcast journalists. One of its strengths is that it's had a broad base of support. This includes the state Associated Press bureau, state university journalism schools, Iowa Public Television, the League of Women Voters, Mediacom, the state high school press association, the state trial lawyers association, Iowa State Association of School Boards, attorneys interested in open records and meetings issues, etc.
  • The coalition has focused on institution memberships, not individual membership. The group have stayed small. Its dues are a couple hundreds dollars for institution members. In current economic situation, that’s turned out to be a good thing. The coalition hasn’t lost any members.
  • The group's mission is really educational. It publishing a handbook on open meetings and records laws that also includes FAQs about the laws. The publication is very popular and established the coalition as a neutral resource for information.
  • The coalition is the statewide coordinator for cameras in courtrooms. It has done informal trainings. In the past couple years, it started partnering with Association of Counties, League of Cities, the Attorney General's office, etc. to conduct training around state.
  • The key to success is that Richardson a professor at Drake Journalism School, which provided the coalition with office and Richardson's employment. This keeps the overhead low.
  • The coalition has been successful in the legislature in terms of heading off some bad things. It's a voice of wisdom in hearings.
  • Establish credibility by trying to project a neutral, nonadversarial image.
  • Look around state for successful models, such as state good government groups.
  • Look around creatively for allies. Media is just another economic interest in many ways. Legislators are looking for voices of real people. Seek business groups that might be potential allies. Rely more heavily on the library or League of Women Voters, for example.

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