by Michael McCarry
As winter began its slow progression into spring this year, Cenet senior staff made a trip to Washington to meet with Members and staff of Missouri’s Congressional delegation.
The meetings were part of the annual Advocacy Day sponsored by the Alliance for International Exchange. Cenet participates in this event every year, investing senior staff time and the cost of plane tickets, hotels, meals, and program fees.
With no urgent policy issues presently facing the Exchange Visitor Program, was that investment worth it?
My answer is emphatically yes. And my reason boils down to a single word: relationships.
Like most everything else in life, advocacy works best when you’ve built a relationship that serves as its foundation.
Think of it this way: every time any of us – an individual or an organization – asks a Member of Congress to help us, we are asking that Member to invest some of his or her political capital on our behalf.
Political capital is limited, and politicians hoard it for genuine crises and for constituents they know and respect. If a complete stranger walks into a Congressional office to ask for urgent help (a veteran DC lobbyist I know calls this the “knee hugging” approach), his chances of getting what he needs are not great.
Cenet stepped into a meaningful role in advocacy in 2013, during Senate debate on an immigration reform bill. The initial version of the bill would have eliminated much of the Exchange Visitor Program by prohibiting U.S. sponsors from collecting a program fee from participants. The bill never became law, but the advocacy process in the Senate proved instructive.
Amending the bill became an urgent priority for the entire exchange community, and because Missouri Senator Roy Blunt was a key player on the appropriations subcommittee that funds the State Department, Cenet had a crucial role to play.
Cenet had visited with Blunt’s staff in both Washington and St. Louis, but these were get-acquainted meetings without the urgency injected by the immigration bill.
Cenet, a small nonprofit based in Cape Girardeau, doesn’t profile as a major Washington player, but the organization had a number of advantages that made it a good candidate to attract attention from Congressional staff:
1. It runs very high quality programs that support U.S. national interests but receive no federal funds.
2. It earns most of its revenue from inbound exchanges, and that revenue in turn supports cultural exchange for Americans (and especially Missourians) through affordable study abroad programs and through Cenet’s efforts to inject international content into the curricula of Southeast Missouri schools.
3. Its size and location also proved an advantage. Passage of bill would almost certainly put Cenet, a vulnerable and public-spirited nonprofit, out of business.
By effectively formulating and presenting this case to Senator Blunt’s staff, Cenet succeeded in turning Blunt into one of the exchange community’s strong supporters. He cosponsored an amendment that eliminated the no-fee provision.
This didn’t happen all at once. But through a series of meetings in the Senator’s Washington and St. Louis offices, Cenet built a relationship that paid off with the best possible outcome for the exchange community.
Let’s fast forward back to Advocacy Day 2019, six years after the immigration reform debate. Cenet doesn’t face an urgent issue, though that could change without warning. So it’s important to maintain these relationships and, as needed, build new ones.
Congressional staff turnover is high, and new staffers need to learn about Cenet and its work. And often, Members turn over, too. On Advocacy Day, we had a very good first meeting with a foreign policy staffer working for Missouri’s newly elected Senator Josh Hawley. We also met new staff in Sen. Blunt’s office, and had a long and entertaining conversation with Congressman Billy Long, whose House district includes Branson, a major placement site for the Summer Work Travel program. All of those conversations were investments in our relationships with those offices.
Marlene Johnson, formerly Executive Director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, used to say that in the field of international education and exchange, advocacy was part of everyone’s job description. That almost certainly will never change. Fortunately, organizations and leaders in our field have built relationships with policymakers and know how to draw on those relationships to strengthen our work.
Michael McCarry, senior adviser to CENET, served for 21 years as Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange. Before joining the Alliance, he was a U.S. diplomat with assignments in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Beijing, and Washington, including a tour as Staff Director for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. His international involvement began with a year as a graduate student at Melbourne University.