Managing Through Change: Part III - Mobilizing Advocates to Fight for Government Funding An Interview with Donald Romanik, Former Vice President for Legal and Governmental Affairs at Oak Hill

Oak Hill is a leading provider of services and residences for the severely disabled in Connecticut. It operates a main campus in Hartford with dozens of group homes around the state. A few years ago, Oak Hill faced a familiar challenge for many nonprofits—shrinking government support even as need remained high.

Oak Hill’s service population included some of the highest need people with intellectual and physical disabilities in the state, and Oak Hill was one of the only providers equipped to care for these difficult cases. Oak Hill had been covering budget shortfalls with their endowment, but realized that this couldn’t be a long term solution. They looked at ways to decrease cost, but found that it would require them to stop serving the highest need populations and even shut down some of their residential facilities. This would have been a disaster for the individuals whom they served, and their families, as no other provider was equipped to provide the kind of care at which Oak Hill excelled. Rather than bend to these pressures, Oak Hill took a different tack, and successfully mobilized the families they served to advocate for additional state funding.

Recently we spoke with Donald Romanik, former General Counsel at Oak Hill. He shared five insights on how to successfully pursue additional funding through advocacy

Insight #1 – Focusing on revenue can be the answer when cost cutting or other efficiencies aren’t an option

Donald Romanik: “Our Director at the time had the philosophy that bigger was better. It was also a time of deinstitutionalization and privatization, so the state was looking for capacity among the providers they funded. We were opening homes at an incredible rate, but supplementing the cost of the programs over the reimbursement we got with our endowment. We had a nice endowment that most of our sister organizations did not have, and that worked for a while. But eventually, the Board said the endowment was not there to subsidize chronic underfunding. We looked at cutting cost and being more efficient. But we decided it was not only about that—it was about the value we were bringing to the table. We were the provider of last resort. The state called us when no one else could take someone. So we told the state they needed to increase their rates. We were the largest, but also one of the most expensive providers, because we were unionized. Part of the issue was convincing the government we were worth the price differential.”

Insight # 2 – To secure additional funding, empower families to advocate for their loved ones

Donald Romanik: “To convince the government of our value, we hit on the idea of involving the families of our residents. This was really the first time that we got families involved. There had always been a reluctance to involve parents in advocacy because of an almost paternalistic belief— that we were there to take care of their poor disabled child. But, we realized it was a way to empower parents as advocates for their kids. Legislators are used to seeing the administrations of organizations like ours asking for money. But when someone comes and says ‘I am a proud parent of a resident at an Oak Hill facility’, they stop and look. Those are their constituents, not the usual suspects.”

Insight #3 – Choose the right families for the most effective advocacy efforts

Donald Romanik: “You need to choose the right people to be involved in advocacy. They should be constituents who not only appreciate the services and needs of their own family member but also understand the broader mission, the idea of the common good, and the role of government. Also, identify people who can articulate their views in a very personal and compelling fashion.”

Insight #4 – Give families a variety of entry points for advocacy

Donald Romanik: “We gave the families various entry points. The easiest entry point was to provide a template for a letter to their legislator—they could sign it and add a little note. The next level was to ask them to call their legislator, giving them a script they could use. Additionally, some people were politically active in local districts and were comfortable coming to rallies at the capital or testifying at public hearings.  This was all before social media. In this day and age, there are a lot more user-friendly ways to engage people. You can ask a parent to do a 30-second video where they say how great Oak Hill is while sitting next to their daughter in a group home, then post it on your website or Facebook page. Organizations need to take full advantage of the myriad communication opportunities that are available now.”

Insight #5 – Keep pushing and do it right

Donald Romanik: “Remember that you are competing. Government funding is a zero sum game with a limited pie. And, you can’t assume people know you exist and are doing good work. You have to tell legislators once, twice, three times in different ways. Bombard them with emails, texts and social media, but do it in a respectful way. For this to be successful, you also need leadership at the top and participation at every level of the organization—rank and file people, employees, parents, etc. It is time consuming and can be frustrating, but it is really critical to the mission of the organization and, more importantly, to providing services and supports to core constituencies.”