The Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga (WFGC) may not have a lot of money, but they do have a great network of partners which they leverage to advance their mission. A relatively young organization – in only their fourth year of operation — they’ve already racked up several policy wins.

“We have an advocacy committee and a huge part of what they do is help track legislation, manage some of the relationships and come up with strategy,” explains Executive Director Kara Fagan, who is the fund’s only full-time employee; needless to say, they have an active board of directors.

CWGFheaderLast year, WFGC decided to support legislation cracking down on sex trafficking, an emerging problem in Tennessee. They chose five bills to work on and all five passed. More remarkable is that some even had “fiscal notes” attached – a requirement that the state appropriate money to pay for implementing the legislation.

Increasing their reach through advocacy and policy

Early on WFGC made the strategic decision that they would have greater impact and reach if they focused on influencing policy rather than making grants. As a public foundation, they are allowed to engage in a limited amount of lobbying. One of their first experiences with advocacy was in 2011, when the Hamilton County commissioners voted to reject federal family planning funding for the local health department. Their objection stemmed from the fact that birth control was among the array of services supported by the funding. WFGC consulted with partners on the issue and shared their concerns with the commissioners.

After all, says Fagan: “It’s not funding for abortion, it’s funding for health services! We ended up getting them to successfully reverse their decision.”

Flexible but focused

The group’s size enables them to be nimble in adjusting to political realities. WFGC concluded that one of the priorities on their policy agenda, influencing changes in the federal welfare program — Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) Program — wasn’t going anywhere. In response, they pivoted to another important issue affecting the well-being of women and girls in Tennessee: sex trafficking.

CWGF is now leading a statewide initiative to publicize the hotline for trafficking victims.

The Women’s Fund is now leading a statewide initiative to publicize the hotline for trafficking victims.

WFGC first became interested in trafficking in 2010, after a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) report found that at least 88 percent of counties documented at least one incident of trafficking. The extent of the problem came as a surprise to many. The TBI report reasoned that Tennessee “is conducive” to trafficking because of its proximity to Atlanta and the large number of interstates that cross the state.

“Here, people are shocked that it’s even happening,” says Fagan. “They think of it as an international issue, as a problem that involves only immigrants, only adults. Not true.”

WFGC began working with an antislavery organization, Operation Broken Silence, which was drafting legislation on trafficking. The proposed bills increased penalties for traffickers, created civil remedies for victims, and mandated the state to develop a plan to help trafficking victims.

Deploying networks and natural partners

Ryan Dalton from Operation Broken Silence took the lead on pushing the legislation at the statehouse, in close consultation with the TBI. WFGC’s contribution centered on mobilizing public support for the legislation and raising awareness of the extent of sex trafficking in Tennessee. Specifically, WFGC took responsibility for:

  • Engaging natural partners: For sex trafficking, these include the children’s advocacy center, rape crisis center, social services, but also law enforcement, district attorneys, and judges.
  • Bringing in new partners: WFGC belongs to an international women’s funding network – there are three other funds in Memphis, Knoxville, and Nashville, Tennessee. They tapped into this network to expand the partners advocating for the legislation.
  • Running an education campaign: This involved a media blitz explaining the problem of human trafficking; speaking with local groups (e.g., Kiwanis), high schools, and colleges; and recruiting student volunteers to plaster the town/campus with posters.
  • Circulating calls to action: These were sent via email, phone, and social media.

Their efforts combined with persuasive spokespeople at the statehouse paid off. All five pieces of legislation passed!

“That was exciting and a great win for our three funds working together,” says Fagan. “We have formalized our partnership and are now officially the Tennessee Women’s Funds Alliance.”

What worked?

Fagan notes that in-person communication — public speaking, media events — proved more useful in educating people than social media. She believes people have a lot of questions about an issue as complex as trafficking that they don’t feel comfortable asking on Facebook. Press interviews were definitely effective in generating attention and interest from people who wanted to be part of the solution.

Lessons learned

Changing policy — especially if an organization uses volunteers – is not very expensive. Fagan points out that enacting policy change involves a relatively low tangible cost: computer, travel. But by passing legislation, she argues, “you can impact millions of lives beyond the life of your organization.”

“What we’ve taken away is a conversation that we can have with our donors about return on investment,” says Fagan.