When Shauntay Nelson’s parents asked what she wanted for her 10th birthday, she made an unusual request: a judge’s gavel.
“Public policy has always been a passion of mine,” she told Blueprint365 in an interview at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s Marketplace conference in Milwaukee. “I wanted to create law to make life more fair for people at 10 years old.”
She didn’t end up on the bench or even practicing law; she has, however, made a career in the depths of public policy, and now helps other business owners and nonprofit leaders shape public policy, as well.
As founder of Nelson & Co, she provides a wide range of consulting services – leadership development, strategic planning, executive coaching. But her main line is helping organizations advocate for themselves and issues important to them with policymakers.
“My bread and butter of the work really is strategy and strategic planning, as it relates to advocacy (and) lobbying from a public policy perspective,” she said. “We work with nonprofits and small businesses to fill the need of being able to connect individuals to local elected officials. If there’s a need for lobbying, we work with them around lobbying and how to lobby according to state statute. We also work with them if there’s a need for advocacy because some businesses and organizations don’t have the capacity to lobby.”
Nelson was a lobbyist herself for some time, largely at the local level, and largely around increasing access to voting. In 2017, for example, she successfully worked with the Milwaukee Common Council to increase the number of early voting locations from three to eight.
She later jumped into consulting with first-time legislators, helping map out legislative and policy agendas for those just learning their way around the Capitol. That wasn’t a paid gig, but the volunteer hours helped build a network among some of the most important people in the public policy process – legislative staff.
While she’s no longer technically a lobbyist, she knows enough about the process – and the networks involved in the process – to help organizations navigate local and state elected bodies. That includes knowing when and how to register as a lobbyist – which isn’t always required.
“People a lot of times don’t realize that advocacy is being able to convey an idea to a lawmaker or decision maker … in a way where there can be implementation of something that actually helps to expand a primary purpose of an organization. That’s advocacy. You’re educating, you’re given information. You don’t need to be registered as a lobbyist” to do advocacy, Nelson said. “When you have five days where you are interacting with a legislator to change law or implement a budget line item, it is then lobbying. And once you get to that fourth time, it is very, very, very much encouraged to register … if you don’t register, and you get to that fifth time … now you’ve broken lobbying laws for the state of Wisconsin.”
Following the law is just one aspect of lobbying and advocacy that Nelson helps clients with.
“Government, public policy at large, is literally a strategy. You have to be strategic. Because if you’re not strategic, you literally lose some (allies), you disengage others (without) trying to,” she said.
Beyond forming that strategy, Nelson helps individuals craft their message to policymakers, and hone the delivery.
“I want to be the voice that’s listened for, and to create power within individuals (so that) when they begin to speak, people lean in, they engage, not because they’re so influential within their talk, but because they are bringing information that is life-changing,” she said.
In many ways the current moment – with deeply polarized politics – presents unique challenges, but not just for lobbyists and lawmakers.
“Polarization manifests itself in every line of work. It’s not just in my line of work,” Nelson said. “I think when we think about government or politics as a whole, we have to be mindful. We have to engage with individuals from a transformative perspective, not just transactional.”
Businesses or organizations with a need to engage lawmakers or form other strategic plans can visit NelsonColab.com.
That URL has some meaning.
“It’s Nelson Colab, because we are a collaborator,” he said. “Then we are a company that creates a laboratory experience for an individual in order to actually get to the results that we want.”