One of the most exciting parts of my advocacy technical assistance with these four organizations has been the work helping them to build (or, in two cases, rebuild) their advocacy agendas…starting from where their clients are.
Often, we build advocacy agendas for our organizations (those documents that get our Board of Directors’ official approval and signal to the world–or those who are watching–the issues on which we will take a stand, usually in the legislative session) by having someone sit down and craft a list of priorities, sometimes with some prior input from the Board (but usually not). These lists are often far too long, because we care about everything, somewhat less than aspirational (because we don’t want to set ourselves up to fail), and determinedly ‘relevant’ (in the eyes of policymakers and observers, not necessarily those we serve).
I know, because I have crafted more than a dozen of these agendas, over the years.
It’s not a fruitless exercise; we know that having a formalized advocacy agenda is associated with significantly higher expenditure of organizational ‘effort’ towards policy change, and, in turn, correlates with greater advocacy capacity.
But I think we can do it better.
Because, if we think about our reasons for advocating in the first place as stemming from our desire to see the brick walls we encounter taken down, we have to truly understand the nature of the obstacles our clients encounter, and how we can address them through policy.
And, if we hope to engage all of our organizational assets–including our clients and our staff–in our advocacy, that task will be a whole lot easier if we’re asking them to help us move their priorities, instead of ours.
This certainly isn’t rocket science. Mostly, I work with staff to create some surveys for staff members to think through how they would prioritize the issues that might command the organization’s attention, and to rate them based on mission congruence, the likelihood that the organization could make a real difference in that area, and overall importance.
And, the most fun for me, I sit down and talk with clients and staff (usually separately) about the organization, the challenges they encounter, what would make the biggest difference in their lives, and how they would like to play a role in advancing these issues.
I’m careful to frame this as only the beginning of a process of engagement; we can’t make the mistake of assuming that once we’ve asked people their opinion once, we’re good. Nor can we expect that any one group of clients ‘speaks’ for any other, or that staff members will participate across the board, at least not in the way we might hope.
But the act of asking, and of acting on the insights shared, is yielding some distinct differences, and the process has made me even more convinced that our advocacy agendas can be far more than signals to our elected officials about the changes we hope they’ll make.
They can be tools that we use, internally, to make it more likely that those changes are realized.
What I’ve seen:
- Some of the policy priorities clients identify are obvious, and, so, often overlooked. One homeless youth identified a need for the SNAP eligibility process to change, so that youth don’t have the responsibility to prove that they are no longer considered part of their parents’ households; the onus should be on the parent receiving SNAP on behalf of that child. When this was presented to representatives of congressional offices, they reacted in surprise, and said, “I think we can make that happen.”
- The priorities often align considerably. In one community mental health center, the CEO had been talking about housing for months, and then, when I sat down with several groups of clients, ‘housing’ was the first need they emphasized. They had stirring stories about how lack of appropriate housing options results in unnecessary institutionalization, and they identified policy and programming changes that could make a difference.
- And, sometimes, they don’t. Clients at several different organizations stressed the need for access to identification, as a foundation of access to other services. None of the organizational leaders had identified this as a priority, though, and, indeed, resisted somewhat, primarily since figuring out the levers to push for those changes is somewhat elusive.
- Some of the policy changes identified will be internal agency policies, and, if organizations are going to really live values of empowerment and communicate to clients that their opinions are not mere tokens, these have to be at least somewhat openly received. One organization’s clients took issue with the smoking policy and the practice of handling Medicaid spend-down regulations. I believe that the leadership’s willingness to hear people out on these pieces is tangibly impacting how willing clients are to advocate moving forward.
- There has to be a ‘so what’. We know that we do more damage than good if we unintentionally send people the message that we asked them for their stories, and for their insights, and then just filed them away somewhere. Organizations should be clear about the purpose of the information-gathering, about the opportunities for people to continue to engage in the process, and about the anticipated timeline. This is also a great chance to help people understand the other factors that go into setting an advocacy agenda, including a power analysis and assessment of the advocacy landscape.
How do you build your advocacy agendas? What role do all of your organizational stakeholders play? How do you structure the process? And what product do you receive in return?