Advocacy and Organizational Culture

There are some organizations that just get it, when it comes to advocacy. Everyone is into it. They share ideas, collaborate on campaigns, debate policy at staff meetings, talk strategy over chips and salsa at the monthly staff birthday parties…it’s just ‘what we do’.

And then there are the organizations that stifle any revolutionary thought, cling fervently to the status quo, punish dissidents, and appease opponents.

When social workers who belong in the latter organization land in the former, they usually quit, or are politicized. When social workers who belong in the former land in the latter, they are usually demoted, subtly harrassed, or fired.

But my work with nonprofit organizations has taught me that there are also organizations that look more like the latter, status quo-supporter but want to be more like the former (or, at least, some influential elements within them do). They have stuttering efforts to move in that direction but find themselves fighting resistance at every turn. Or, they give lip service to advocacy but then freak out when people start asking hard questions. Burned, these would-be advocates give up or get out.

What the organizations that succeed in advocacy have, I believe, that the others do not, is not superior technical knowledge (although they may have accumulated that) or abundant passion (because people can, in fact, be very passionate about their resistant to advocacy–trust me!), but, instead, a culture of advocacy.

I’ve only officially taught organizational culture in an Introduction to Community and Organizational Practice class that I haven’t taught in two years, but I find myself working some content on it into every course, because students are hungry for it. Social workers almost always have to work in organizations, and knowing why those organizations do the things, collectively, that they do, helps to make working within them much more pleasant and much more successful.

Edgar Schein is one of the authors I use most in these conversations in class. He defines organizational culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems that has worked well enough to be considered valid and is passed on to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

That definition helps to explain how advocacy can become an imbedded part of how an organization, and, of course, its members, view advocacy; it becomes seen as a/the valid way to address shared problems, so that it is then the tool to which people turn when confronting challenges, rather than something to be feared and avoided.

But how can people within organizations build an advocacy culture, if their organization currently lacks one? I’m not an organizational theory expert, certainly, but I’ve worked in organizations with and without cultures of advocacy, and I’ve done a lot of thinking about what sets them apart. I’d love to see more theoretical work on the elements of organizational functioning that can pull together a coherent culture of advocacy. In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts on what organizational leaders can do to promote one.

  • Be okay, really okay, with dissent. I was very lucky one time to have a boss who was really fine with me disagreeing with him, as long as I could make a compelling case for my point of view. On more than a few occasions, he conceded significant points. In the process, he demonstrated his confidence, earned my respect, and, most importantly for the organization’s advocacy, honed my skills. It was a priceless education that only a great leader can give.
  • Help people to know their own power. Seek out and truly incorporate the opinions of colleagues/employees/volunteers. We all know the difference between the structure of participatory decision-making and actual influence; don’t bother with the former but cultivate as much of the latter as possible. You can’t expect people to agitate for change outside your organization if they’re not allowed any chance within it.
  • Ask unanswerable questions. I firmly believe that our society would be a whole lot more just if we all asked, “why?” and “why not?” as much as my three-year-old. As a leader in your organization, ask why things are the way that they are, why we can’t do things differently, why people experience the problems they do. Make it clear that you don’t expect easy answers; here, the value is in asking the questions.
  • Learn together. The best advocacy organizations have a fervent desire to know more, to heighten their understanding, to increase the sophistication of their policy and political analyses. They seek this knowledge not because it gives them a competitive edge or because they think it’s what the donors expect, but because they really want to know. Bring in articles to discuss, use social media to share links, set a learning agenda together.
  • Seek a fundraising and organizational structure that supports advocacy. The greatest advocacy culture in the world will be stifled by a funding picture that forbids any advocacy, or by an organizational structure that only allows one person to interface with those outside the organization. Make yourself a designated ‘barrier remover’; find those elements of the organization that currently inhibit advocacy and find ways over, around, and through them.
  • Reward risk-taking. When people in the organization do advocate, organize their clients, practice radical social work–celebrate them! This doesn’t mean financial compensation at all or even formal awards; one of my most valuable rewards from El Centro, Inc. was when our then-Executive Director sent out an email congratulating our team on the work and adding that I was now one of his heroes. I saved it for three years on my computer and printed it out when I left.

    What did I leave out? What actions have shaped an advocacy culture at organizations where you’ve worked/been a Board member/volunteered/received services? What actions have squelched that same culture? As a nonprofit leader, what do you do to encourage advocacy? How would you define the culture where you work now? In what ways does it promote or inhibit advocacy?

  • 77 responses to “Advocacy and Organizational Culture

    1. The culture at CAPA around advocacy is slowly beginning to change. There have been several internal barriers to advocacy in the past including a board that does not consider it a high priority, a resource development director without a background in social work and an overall lack of interest by administrators. Now with a resource development and communications supervisor who is a MSW, advocacy is becoming a priority for the agency. It’s still in its beginning stages but the staff and administrators are behind the change. As social workers who comply with a set code of ethics, I think it is important to remember that those with other backgrounds such as MBA and PR degrees, may not feel the need to advocate like we do. In changing the organizational culture education on why we advocate is a good conversation to jump start the process.

      • What do you think are the key activities or processes, Leah, that are facilitating this culture change? What strengths and values were embedded in the organization that ‘primed’ it for an advocacy orientation? What do you think will be most important moving forward, to root advocacy in the organization’s structures and operations?

    2. When reflecting on some agencies I have been involved in, the second and third bullet points really resonated with me. These agencies I have in mind really lacked a strong emphasis on advocacy. The employees largely werent encouraged to influence the organization or question the status quo. Rather, there is a faade in place in both agencies where committees are in place that, on the surface, make it sound like employees have a voice. However, the committees are closely monitored and on one occasion I even witnessed an executive staff member encourage a committee that was making a stir to ease up because the Board was too preoccupied with more important things to address any internal policy changes. Ive also felt advocacy was stifled by a dependency on government funding sources i.e. the state. A strong fear of biting the hand that feeds you lingers; I think this is one of the most difficult barriers to overcome and I really struggle to identify ways to encourage a different perspective given the harsh environment. Also, I think that a concern regarding what a 501c3 can and cant do regarding advocacy also causes hesitation. These agencies seem to supplement their advocacy efforts with memberships of coalitions and advocacy groups.
      Despite this, Ive noticed some employees who take it upon themselves to mass email notifications of various community and advocacy events related to clients; these seem to be tolerated as long as they stay away from anything too political. These agencies might do well to reevaluate their missions to include a key element of advocacy. Starting with a simple annual advocacy event could help jumpstart a change in the agency’s culture.

      • Yes, Anna, deciding to take on advocacy externally requires that an organization be at least somewhat comfortable with these newly-empowered individuals pushing for changes within the organization, too…and some organizations’ leadership are really reluctant to equip staff with those advocacy roles and skills. I really appreciate your point that people can seldom tolerate an advocacy vacuum, so, when people don’t have a strong sense of what advocacy could/should look like within a given organization, they will often just jump in, and that’s not always the most productive way for the organization to collectively approach policy or social change. Thanks for sharing these reflections.

    3. I think one of the key activities is the identification of the agency’s messages and sub-messages. While everyone knows the mission of the agency is to prevent child abuse and promote healthy families, how we portray those messages in various settings has never been put down on paper. I think advocacy is a lot like science in that it has its own model that you should follow in order to be successful. The staff at CAPA have many strengths in that they are for education, they believe in supporting community collaborations and everyone there is genuinely interested in the best interests of their clients. In many ways they are already advocates, I think its expanding on those strengths and their natural advocacy tendencies that will really jump start the success of CAPA advocacy. It is going to have to be threaded into each staff persons job description and schedule if it is to take “root” and become a permanent part of CAPA’s structure. It will also be important to bring the Board on board and educate them about why and how to advocate for child abuse prevention.

      • Leah, I’m intrigued by CAPA’s culture as a learning organization, with so many interns and volunteers. How can those individuals play key roles advancing CAPA’s advocacy? How can that climate of continually trying to find creative ways to add capacity help CAPA embrace these new advocacy roles? I think of advocacy as much as an art as a science, really…there’s a lot that can’t really be distilled into a precise formula, and we often have to learn by doing. Are there models for how other changes have taken root within CAPA, that could be inspiration for this effort? Lessons to be learned?

    4. Michelle Williams

      I enjoy playing devil’s advocate. When an employee comes to me with some problem or concern and I hear something like ‘that isn’t going to work”, the first question I ask is why or why not? For me, a key point of managing staff is not giving them the answer but instead to lead them to their own conclusion. Most times I am not advocating a position either way, I just want them to think. I don’t like the easy way out. In my experience, it is never as easy as you thought in the first place.

      I’ve been thinking about helping people to know their own power. I think the line staff in my organization probably feel like they are on the bottom rung of the power ladder. Our state partners and court partners certainly seem more powerful but I think it is in the way you see power and describe what that power looks like. Does the Judge make the ultimate decision, yes. Does the state control what we do and how we do it, sometimes. But the power that comes from the client/worker relationship is most meaningful.

      • That ‘why’ question is so important, Michelle! (and ‘why not’?!) I love what you said about the power that comes from the relationships you have with clients…you are how clients know power, after all, and your power is very real for them, which is another reason why it’s so important that we claim it and use it well. Thank you for sharing.

    5. There’s so much good content provided by all the participants in this blog. I will attempt to take a theoretical and slightly philosophical perspective when explaining one of the many good points that one could choose to make. There seems to be three main forces at work in regards to cultivating good leadership, organizational culture and extrinsic/social values that can be communicated to the larger “whole.” They are 1) organic forces 2) institutionalized/systems level forces and 3) social norms.

      Often, all three of these factors are at work simultaneously, whether explicitly recognized or not. Take for example, a non-profit that purports to work on behalf of a social problem, pick any problem and it will work for the purpose of this discussion. If the organizational culture, unwittingly or not, and due to the forces described above, excludes the ideas of a population or only includes another, then how can the social problem be resolved externally, without having internal integrity.

      Let’s take age discrimination, for example. This is becoming an increasingly severe problem that perhaps has overtaken any other form of discrimination. If organizations including non-profits, in particular, are concentrated on creating an organizational culture only within a specific age group, the power of inclusivity cannot be allowed to cultivate the leadership required to promote collaboration and instill revolutionary mindsets.

      In other words, there is an increasingly divisive culture that is currently being overlooked. As social workers, advocates and community organizers, we don’t want to see ourselves as an agent of division, so it gets sorely overlooked. When we talk about advocacy, we need to take a serious look at cultural diversity and the forces that prevent it from thriving. In the non-profit environment, which competes for fewer resources by way of increased accountability standards, it is imperative that we practice collaboration with integrity, so as not to lose focus of the grassroots element, social work best practices, and resolution of broader social problems. (After all, as we are well aware, each social ill is simply a derivative of other social problems.) In this way we can be “accountable” more broadly, rather than narrowly. In my opinion, as social advocates, we need to look at the forces that we allow ourselves to succumb to and which prevent us from being “barrier removers.”

    6. The agency I’m employed at does a great job at reminding direct service staff of their advocacy efforts with clients. At agency meetings or events executive staff always commends direct service staff on their efforts to protect and promote the well being of children and their families. Depending upon the supervisor, I think the agency is also fairly open to new ideas and better and more efficient way to do things. I believe the agency’s greatest advocacy effort is its ability to evolve to meet the needs of the community. The agency is always evaluating the needs of the community, funding, availability of resources, and political climate to determine what type of programs are needed. The agency could improve their advocacy efforts by becoming more cohesive. The agency has offices throughout the state and there seems to be limited communication between offices regarding advocacy efforts. I think that it would be beneficial to create a committee or group of employees from the different regions to discuss advocacy efforts. Furthermore, creating this type of group or committee would allow for those employees who want to be more involved in advocacy efforts to become more involved. This would allow for the agency to have more of a “voice,” apart from the two employees who strictly do advocacy work. Allowing for more employees to become involved may create a more favorable organizational culture for advocacy, because these employees will have the ability to feel “powerful.” I believe it would also do good to create a more transparent environment regarding advocacy. If all employees are being educated on the agency’s advocacy efforts and it seems important, maybe it will become more important to the overall staff.

      • I am really eager to see how this goes for you, Mallory–please keep me posted! I think this team approach will be a good way for you to work within your structure while bringing more of your team on board.

    7. Melinda,

      You make several great points and placed things in a perspective outside of the way I had previously thought about them! In my first “real” job post undergrad, I was a “life enrichment director” at a nursing facility. While I thought of it as just doing my job, the administrator and my direct supervisor both really allowed me to stretch the position and if I had a proposal as long as I could defend it, even if they thought I was nuts, they let me try it! Looking at it now, it really was advocacy and assisted in moving an institutional setting to greater interaction with the community. Even though I am no longer in that position or even at the organization, the impact has continued and the current life enrichment director was able to continue to expand upon my initial dreams and aspirations, even though individuals prior to me had not been able to have that support from the administrator.

      I also, really like the why/why not questions,and have found myself asking that of my co-workers a lot more over the last year than before!

      • Thanks for relating that experience, Kelsey! It is absolutely the case that modifying an organization’s culture is a form of advocacy, and I’m so glad you had that experience!

    8. Before I decided on going to school for social work, I worked part-time at a phone canvassing center in Lincoln, NE called Hudson Bay. To date, they were the one agency that I’ve encountered that really went out of their way to make their organizational culture embrace advocacy. The job entailed calling folks who either showed interest in a charity by signing up on a list or were referred from some other organization that they are involved in. We called advocating for all sorts of liberal causes. From stopping bottled water companies from draining resources from Lake Michigan to campaigns against the death penalty to a pro-choice campaign in Kansas with a cringe worthy name (NoKANdo), Hudson Bay had us involved in tons of grass roots efforts. Beyond the job itself, the agency would occasionally encourage staff to participate in protest marches while on the clock or organize viewing parties of documentaries on Sundays every once in awhile to give employees a break while keeping them up to date on a certain topic. I remember thinking how my parents, who both work at Wal-Mart, would have been dumbfounded if they ever knew that I was once paid to watch that anti-Wal-Mart documentary!

      Ultimately, that job didn’t pan out. I didn’t meet my quota one month for getting credit card sales over the phone and that was that. But it did open my eyes to how many movements where out there, even if they aren’t discussed frequently in the media. I’m sure the experience played a role in my decision to go to school for Social Work as well. But now that I’m almost through with my social work education (at the university anyways…I know this type of learning never really ends!), what strikes me is how normal the management made all of this seem. There really wasn’t much wiggle room for dissent. It was simply “this is what we do. If you don’t like it, leave”. To this day, I’ve yet to encounter a non-profit who wholeheartedly embraced the nature of advocacy like this random calling center on the 9th floor of this innocuous building in downtown Lincoln. The takeaway to me, is that it is up to the management to lead the way in making advocacy a part of the culture. Find ways to make advocacy seem like a normal part of the job and the employees will be more likely to feel like it’s something they can do.

      • OK, Dylan, this is one of the most fascinating introductions to social change employment that I have ever heard! Thank you so much for sharing this. What gets me, though, and I’m interested in your take on this, is how an organization so committed to advocacy could also be so disempowering, when it comes to the employment policy. I firmly believe that nonprofit organizations need to be laboratories for the kind of social change we want to see in the world, and having a strict rule that says that you have to meet certain financial quotas or lose your job seems contrary to the values of inclusion and sustainability and justice that it seems like the organization embraces in its causes. No? I mean, not wanting dissent in terms of the kinds of issues you take on is one thing–you started working there knowing the kind of work they did, right? But where is the principle–the value–of human dignity and understanding that people need a space in which to grow? Thank you for sharing this insight into an organization that I certainly haven’t encountered!

    9. I am defiantly in an organization at this time that does not ‘get it’ but I do not feel they want their employees to ‘get it’. The first point regarding being ok with dissent would never be ok within the agency. Conformity or at least not questioning why things are how they are is the culture of the agency. You are told of a change and expected to be ok with it, even if you do not understand it. If you do question this you is for sure an outsider as you described Melinda. I do think that if you were a leader within the agency though, you could begin small. There may never be a large change within the staff but if supervisors and other leaders encouraged self-development and growth which to me is exploring other ways to continue to advocate, then maybe more people would begin to ask the why questions. This would help those in the agency learn their power and this would be a shared learning experience. If it is a shared learning experience then maybe it would be less common for those who ask the why questions to be viewed in a negative light and more as an employee continuing to move forward.

      • Do you think that state government always has to be this way, Bryn, or is there something about the particular culture of DCF right now that is particularly intolerant of questioning and dissent? Do you see any leaders who are trying to explore alternatives, or is it just really ‘groupthink’ right now? What would it take, in terms of building a coalition for change, for you to see some of the small inching towards change that you identify?

    10. The VA in Leavenworth is one of those organizations that just gets advocacy. There is a position that is regional that is throughout the VA system; Healthcare for Reentry Veterans (HCRV) Coordinator. The person filling this position has the opportunity to advocate for veterans that are being released from prison that has needs such as housing, employment, and renewal of their veteran benefits. This position is unique and essential to the success of the veterans that are being released from prison. There are meetings that take place that this HCRV Coordinator participates in a year out before the veteran is released. These meetings consist of the mentor, institutional and community parole officer, counselors, and mentor coordinators. Advocating for veterans is what the VA does, but incorporating this position focuses on the veterans that are released from prison.

    11. One thing I might consider adding to your list is an agency refocusing on its mission. There are a lot of good agencies out there that have great missions, but they simply don’t fit them into their “actual” work. It’s pretty normal that social workers go into the field to fulfill a value-driven mission of their own, rather than to fulfill a monetary mission. We should therefore enthusiastically embrace that which drives us as a means to drive our agencies. Refocusing on the mission can be done in so many ways. Any step from reading the mission at the beginning of staff meetings to creating budgets that are specifically in tune with the mission itself rather than what “feels right” can be utilized. I feel that, in so doing, it can almost inherently breed a culture that is at least more open to advocacy.

      • I wonder what other practices you would highlight, Kevin, for organizations that want to build an organizational culture around being ‘mission-focused’. Have you seen organizations that excel in this? I think it’s really an appealing idea, and one that would allow organizations to see advocacy as consistent with other organizational imperatives, too.

    12. I feel like the department in which I work is revolutionary in regards to advocacy, but the rest of the organization sticks to the status quo. Thankfully, our department is managed by someone who is comfortable with challenging the organizational leaders’ stagnant “business as usual” thinking, and this seems to bring about changes in the way the leaders think and behave regarding the work our agency is doing (slowly, but surely). Fortunately, all of your suggestions for promoting an advocacy culture seem to be occurring in the department I work in. As the newest person in the department, I am constantly asking why things are done certain ways and it gets the seasoned staff to really think about the rationale behind their actions. Risk taking, gaining knowledge, and voicing different opinions are all accepted in our department, which only makes us more passionate and involved in the work that we’re doing.

      • I LOVE you point out that you, as a new person in the department, are playing a key role in helping others to evaluate their own work by asking critical questions. Hurray for students and organizational transformation!

    13. I am currently doing my practicum at The Willow Domestic Violence Center, or simply ‘The Willow’. We currently have 17 paid staff (several of which are part time). However, we have a plethora of volunteers and interns. Most of the interns are from programs such as social work, human services, or women’s studies. Some come from KU, Washburn, Ottawa University or Baker University. I think we may have 10 interns now, if not more. Several volunteers also come in several days a week, making them similar to interns. We are really a “teaching agency” in a way.

      Many of our paid employees at Willow are fresh out of college and did their schooling at a local university or did an internship at the agency and then got hired on. Many of the positions are grant funded, and in fact, if memory serves me correctly from the paper I wrote for my Financial Management class, about 85% of our funding comes from state or federal grants. Most of these sources of funding, if not all, specifically say in the grant, “These funds may not be used to lobby.” In general, the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence prefers to work with the individual organizations and act as a collective voice on their behalf anyways. I have been told that they prefer to work with individual organizations to organize any kind of advocacy effort.

      That said, unfortunately, at this present time, even though I am a huge advocate for public policy advocacy, I don’t know that I necessarily think that our advocacy efforts should be spent on legislative advocacy. Given that we rely so much on public funds, it makes more sense to me to use our advocacy skills to be in the community to organize (which is advocacy in its own right) fundraisers so we have more unrestricted funds so that we could even entertain any kind of advocacy work.

      In the meantime, I have done a lot to work on creating public policy awareness within my organization. For example, domestic violence agencies have to have continuing education hours for their advocates, so I facilitated a presentation on teen dating violence and relevant legislation as a part of that which could count towards advocate’s continuing ed. Additionally, every month, I provide public policy updates to the organization’s management team and inform them of how changes in federal and state policies can impact the survivors of domestic violence that we serve.

      When doing this, I facilitate discussion among agency upper level management of how they think that these policies could impact clients. My Field Instructor has also let me make policy briefs as a part of my practicum and talk to my Congressman of how I think the policy could impact survivors, I just cannot make it look like I am representing The Willow, I have to say I am a KU social work student assigned to The Willow. My Field Instructor lets me count the time I spend at the Congressman’s office to my practicum hours for which I am very grateful. I can also count the hours I spend working on the policy brief to my practicum, which is great because I put a lot of time into my briefs!

      I also report on this back to agency staff and management. The Willow’s Executive Director used to work in public policy and her background is in political science and public administration, so she is well versed in these areas as well. She and I have gone to Topeka to meet with lobbyists she knows over lunch so that I can discuss my concerns and interests. I have also been given the opportunity to ask questions to public health lobbyists about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and how it could help (or even not help, in some instances) if fully implemented. I have also sought out information to complement this on how this piece of legislation impacts domestic violence survivors.

      However, although I have shared above how I am working to encourage advocacy within The Willow, I think the biggest inhibitor of advocacy at the agency is the fact that so much of our funds come from public sources. We are also in the middle of several programmatic changes right now; such as we are considering merging with Gadugi, Lawrence’s rape crisis center and adding a human trafficking services program. Until those major changes happen over the next year, I’d rather see us make sure those happen in a solid way instead of developing a lobbying agenda.

      In the meantime, I would love to do advocacy work by doing community organizing activities to help the agency cultivate unrestricted funds (to possibly lobby or just have more money to spend on other things that aren’t restricted by a grant). There has also been discussion of making the agency’s internal Trafficking Task Force a community task force and involve more people in Lawrence who are interested.

      The agency’s interest in human trafficking is shared by the Governor and state legislature, which could possibly present an advocacy opportunity or at least a testimony by a former client who had experienced trafficking, and something like that could happen if we had more unrestricted funds (example: give them gas money with the funds to testify in Topeka).

      • It is so exciting, Adele, that you have been able to so fully engage in advocacy within your practicum experience! I am glad that you have support from your practicum instructor for those efforts, but you deserve a lot of credit for taking so much initiative. I completely agree with your assessment that there are other paths to change, beyond lobbying expenses, that may make more sense for your organization at this time. That is one of the key learnings in building organizational advocacy capacity, I think–the realization that lobbying is only a small part of an organization’s ‘toolbox’ for change. Your efforts to engage a public, empower your clients, and change the conversation about domestic violence can be very instrumental in driving toward change. I do think that trafficking could be a possible issue inroad within the current administration, but that doesn’t have to mean lobbying, either–how might you raise awareness, challenge misconceptions, and humanize the issue? If you did lobby, what would be the specific policy changes you’d push for, and are there ways to work in alliance with others to push those? Keep in mind that if you take the 501(h) election, anything that you do in lobbying (as a student) would not count against the organization’s lobbying limits, so that might be something you could fairly gently nudge them towards, too! Thank you for sharing.

    14. Currently in my practicum agency, there’s not a culture of advocacy, and I find myself trying to find advocacy opportunities. After reading this, I think that my opportunity might be to establish an organizational culture that is more advocacy oriented.
      My agency is a larger body organization with local branches that operate independently budget-wise but are connected through the larger agency policies and administration. I think that my first step is to establish a culture open to advocacy in my particular office and go from there.
      The things that I think I will work on most that you mentioned are to be okay with dissent and ask the unanswerable questions. I think that this will provide me with a great starting point. I’m excited that as an intern I have the opportunity to bring my knowledge from my education into my practicum agency and hopefully leave a lasting effect on the organizational culture.
      I’m glad that I read this blog post. It gave me an idea of a great way to incorporate advocacy into my practicum.

      • I love that idea, Fran, of planting a seed of a pro-advocacy culture within your microcosm and figuring out how to make that contagious! I really have seen students so often be able to use their role as students to spark change, just by asking those tough questions and getting people to see the agency and its work through a different light. Please keep me posted and let me know if you ever want a sounding board as you embark on organizational change.

    15. The CMHC where I have my practicum at, is currently taking on a different role in its advocacy initiatives. The CMHC, is taking big steps in the corporate development, and long term sustainability as an agency. As a result, the large majority of the agency’s advocacy fall in the development of the foundation and the endowment. Seeing the sustainability is important, many other social and mental health programs are placed on the back burner. Just as the CMHC knows its current role, and what the long term effect of that role are, it is important for any advocate to understand their goal, and the unique position/niche that person fills. Within this position, that person has the prerogative to make substantial change.

      Being said, as a practicum student at this CMHC, I have a unique position. I, via magical powers bestowed on me by the University, am granted the privilege of education experiences. This allows me to meet and have interviews with individuals that many other would not have, i.e. the CEO, CFO, Corporate Development Specialist, and so on. In a meeting with the agency’s corporate development specialist, I was able to learn about the need for a non-emergency medical transportation program. I spear headed this initiative, visited other CMHC to see how they ran their programs, and started drawing up a proposal to initiate the first NEMT program at my agency. This process of course involved me asking difficult questions, many of which involved me asking, “why?”.

      I made some mistakes and learned from them. I was even given supervision along the way. Again, the take away from this is to understand what position you hold in your agency and utilize it. I would not have been given this opportunity had I know understand what power I held as an intern, and if I was not willing to do something that make me uncomfortable.

      • First, I am so glad that you are claiming this power as a student and recognizing the importance of asking questions. I have often thought that if social workers always asked, “why?” as often as my kids do, we’d have radically different systems! Second, it’s a really important point about the ends towards which organizational advocacy aims. Certainly developing a strong organization is a very valid objective of advocacy, but, just as surely, advocating for an organization’s own financial position (or other influence) can, sometimes, compromise its ability to advocate independently for progressive policies that would benefit clients. I don’t know that there’s any perfect answer to how to strike this balance, but I do think that recognizing the tension is the critical first step in reducing the likelihood of co-optation. I can’t wait to hear more about how you’re using your student role to push for changes!

    16. The agency where I work (which I will leave unnamed since I am a paid employee) is an established institution in Kansas City known for its advocacy platform(s). We serve the poorest of poor families living in the city’s urban core. My agency’s mission recognizes that we cannot help the child succeed without helping the entire family. The founders’ names alone garner attention, community partnerships, and donations. The agency advocates (lobbies) on the legislative floor multiple time every session. Documentaries have been made about our agency and the families we serve; we are a pillar in the community for both the families and advocacy efforts. Simply put it is an agency that just “gets it”. However, with changing political climate, public perspective, and the compounding of generational poverty, it has become apparent the focus and methods in which the agency advocates (internal and external) needs to adapt and evolve.

      My agency has the unique challenge of serving a dual consumer population. Where it was once “best” and necessary to focus advocacy efforts on the mother/parent consumer needs, those days have diminished greatly. Now it is imperative my agency funnel its advocacy efforts into the child consumer needs. Intra-agency contention arises from this (desire to) shift focus and, unfortunately, has created an “old-school” (parent first) versus “new-school” (child first) advocate. This division is also combined with advocacy methods; where it was once effective to play on the emotional aspects of poverty to gain support and/or public recognition it is now important that all advocacy be rooted in logic, policy analysis, outcomes, etc. 40 years ago when advocacy was more of a grassroots effort and the socioeconomic gap was not nearly what it is today, the emotional appeal was effective. Today though, federal policy and regulation closely monitor and divide the ever shrinking pool of social welfare funds/resources. What may have been a first generation family in poverty is now a 4th-5th generation family thus the need to advocate from the child up, not the parent down.

      I’ve noticed within different departments individuals are going the “new school” efforts and this expansion is overflowing to our families. Parents are more engaged in extracurricular events offered, hungry even. Parents are also longing for a sense of community within the agency families. I can see the fledgling beginnings of first-person advocates developing.

      It more so saddens – over frustrates or angers – me when I hear colleagues not engaging in new agency efforts or acting as obstructionists to new ideas. We’re already fighting an “us vs. them” battle in the public and political spheres we don’t need to fight it within our organization as well. It only causes harm to our client population (adult and child).

      • This is a great example, Vyonne, not just because it is such an organizational success story in advocacy, but also because of what you point out–that, sometimes, that very success can reduce an organization’s adaptive capacity, or ability to read the landscape and modify advocacy approaches in response. The organizations that are the most successful over the long term in advocacy are those that can adjust their strategies to meet the conditions–political, social, economic, but that can be harder to do if what you have done before worked for you before…which can make it harder to recognize when it might not work as well in the future. I’m particularly interested in your take on what might help stakeholders within the organization embrace the possibility of change. What types of inputs or supports could help to bridge their adoption of new advocacy ideas? Have you seen any ‘bright spots’ of folks being willing to take on this change? Thank you for sharing!

        On Sat, Mar 1, 2014 at 12:14 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


    17. The advocacy culture at The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is one that can and should be mirrored for many, if not all organizations. The society makes advocacy mandatory for employees to be involved in Legislative Action Day in/for their respective state / district. The issues that the society takes on each legislative session are clearly conveyed to the employees and the society’s constituents; this includes how each group might be impacted by the legislative issue. The society recognizes how state and federal policies impact their constituents so they try to enlist those same people to become activists for themselves through our program “MS Activists.” I was a key leader in successfully obtaining over 100 new enrollees at the last MS Society event, which was a new record. Those enrollees seemed so intrigued by the effort they would have to exude when being informed of policies that need support or opposition. They can choose their level of participation, anywhere from no participation at all, to signing a petition for their legislator that is automatically sent to that legislator, to then coming to the capital in their state to visit with their legislator. The society does a great job in trying to include EVERYONE in advocating for change.

    18. Ellen Hamilton

      Thank you so much Melinda for putting into words what I have felt the past year and a half. I first entered my agency wide-eyed and hopeful at all it could accomplish. But what I observed was STATUS QUO to the max. I believe all agencies desire stable and predictable funding but I have to make the argument that it can be very dangerous to the mission of an agency. When an organization gets the same funds from the same funder every year and know (or at least they think they know) that no one else can get it, there is zero incentive for innovation. It is tempting to stop doing what is right by the consumer and rather what works for the staff. It took me awhile to realize why this was so bothersome to me. But now, as I said, you have put it into words for me.

      I am a social worker. That means I am ETHICALLY bound to pursue social justice. I do not believe that can happen without advocacy. And advocacy can look a lot of ways, which I appreciate. Just one more eclectic tool we can put in our tool belts.

      The struggle I faced in my agency was the second environment you referred to. Having new and innovative ideas was okay but there was a zero percent chance anything would be done about it. And being an idealistic student meant I was alienated by the rest of the burned out staff. I had such great ideas that I knew could benefit the agency but every plan and idea I sent to management remained safely unopened in their inboxes. How frustrating.

      I am not sure what the solution is to the obviously negative culture of the agency. I have observed, though, that when an agency is organized in a bureaucratic structure, there will be far more turmoil when leadership changes than if they took another approach. And leadership never was established in the year I was there.

      So what I would add to changing the culture of advocacy in an agency is changing the organizational structure to better incorporate all levels of practice. Your ideas of being okay with conflict, celebrating innovation, and helping others know their power directly support this. Bureaucracies cannot support advocacy, nor be consumer-centered.

      • Great point, Ellen, about the risks of inaction. Too often, we only calculate the potential risks of speaking out, when there are obvious costs to inertia, too. I hope that there can be a catalyst for positive change within your organization, which obviously has a critical role to play.

    19. Michelle Seufert

      The agency with which I completed my practicum this year is a fairly large organization, which is part of an even larger family of organizations – all interconnected but still working mostly autonomously. I was placed in a small community based division of my agency, which had only been acquired a few years ago – before that time my division was its own agency in the area. Most of the divisions of our agency work this way – were at one point their own bodies, which later incorporated with this larger organization to better serve the community. While this has been great in some aspects – more desirable funding opportunities, wider referral pool, greater recognition in the community, and increased support from a more diverse staff – there have also been some drawbacks. One of these drawbacks that I have noticed has been the culture of advocacy. Because this organization is made up of many smaller divisions, which are still relatively new to the group, many divisions still operate with their “old” culture and not as a member or part of the larger organization. This has lead to there being clear differences between offices and areas of the larger organization. Some of these divisions already allow for and encourage open discussions and acts of advocacy, but others are not as used to this, and while I wouldn’t say they are opposed to the idea, I’m not sure that they are comfortable with it either.

      I think that the best way to encourage these not-so-enthusiastic divisions to take part in the advocacy conversation happening around them is for someone, preferably the new CEO, to begin to build bridges within the organization to connect all the divisions, helping to make the organization a whole, and not a mass of disjointed parts. Someone in a position of authority could openly advocate for the organization to set up boundaries and standards for all divisions to follow, making advocacy an integral part of the organizations goals – allowing every division to take part in the conversation, at whichever level they feel comfortable, until there is some consensus throughout. This is will clearly take some time, as these are not staff members who were hired yesterday and are eager to learn the ways of the organization, but are instead employees who have worked for years in a certain way which may take some time to evolve. I think that opening the door and inviting everyone into the conversation is the first step!

      • Great reflections, Michelle. Of course I know this organization’s advocacy journey pretty well, and I think that there is a lot of commitment to social change there, and a lot of common ground for advocacy work, but also some reticence about change in general, some of which I think stems from some traumatic residue, of sorts, from the reorganization. Do you have any reflections about what might help staff to feel more comfortable–and to trust more–specifically, and how the advocacy process could be a catalyst for some of the bridge-building you think is needed?

    20. Sandra Yoder

      I have never worked at an agency that “just gets” advocacy. I have worked with some magnificent people who embody some of the qualities you mentioned to advance advocacy and who have tried in their own ways to do so, but you are totally right that organizational culture can make or break the advocacy agenda. Over the past few years I have witnessed a culture of fear dissuade advocacy efforts, and these fears were heightened by economic downturn and scarce availability of resources for service organizations. In this climate though, advocacy is the most important! When our organizations are struggling financially, you can bet that our consumers are feeling the effects even worse. When there is some source of power mongering fear, someone has to be willing to stand up against it. I can’t say that I fully understand the difficult balancing act of keeping a nonprofit alive, but I know that we can not let our fears reinforce the status quo and interrupt our prospects for doing innovative work. That’s not helping anyone in the end. At times when it might seem hardest to do so, I will remember that I need to do my very best to facilitate dissent, reward risk-taking, and keep my organization open to change! These actions may run contrary to our human reactions to fear, which are generally to lock down and tense up, but I am tired of working in organizations where that is the norm. I look forward to the great things that can happen when organizations open up their collective minds more fully. It may feel vulnerable or weak, but truthfully there is great power in that kind of culture.

    21. Yes, Sandra, and there are tremendous risks in staying on the sidelines while our futures–and those of our clients–are being decided, whether or not we recognize those risks as as salient as the risks that come with action. What signals are you looking for, in your next organizational home, for an agency that is more primed for advocacy engagement? What are you willing to ‘put up with’, in terms of reticence, as you try to find the right fit?

    22. I do my practicum at a state agency and advocacy with the legislature is definitely discouraged as an employee. The agency has a Public Information Officer (PIO) and if any staff gets contacted by a legislature or by a reporter, he/she should refer the person to the PIO. In this way, the culture of advocacy is that of the latter that you referred to. However, within the program where I am, advocating for clients with providers and partners agencies happens on a daily basis. In that way, I feel like the Program Director encourages advocacy, but I wonder how different it would be if the Program Director really fostered a culture of advocacy, both within and outside of the program. Many of the pieces are there, but openly encouraging it (and discussing it) would change the atmosphere for the program staff.

      • Yes, Kendra, absolutely–here, you may be limited in how you can advocate with other decision-makers, but you are well-positioned to make changes within the organization itself, which, in turn, could have a huge effect on the lives of the people you serve. What are your priorities for changes in the organization’s approach? And how could you frame those so that they are more acceptable within the organization’s cultural framework?

    23. At my practicum, Ronald McDonald House Charities of KC, I have seen a lot of these things happen! The CEO is always open to suggestions and listens to all opinions from not only employees but volunteer workers as well. She collaborates with board members and stakeholders before making any decision that will affect the agency. She takes into consideration the overall implications of her decisions and uses her employees’ views and opinions to shape her decisions. Additionally, she is not afraid to take risks for the betterment of the agency. Several times I have seen her take a chance on a new fundraising strategy, trying a new procedure when approaching board members for approval on a project, and when allowing me to make important decisions on her part during meetings that she could not attend. This shows me that she not only values the opinions of her employees but that she trusts them as well. This allows for a team mentality instead of a feeling of a hierarchy in the agency. Everyone knows that their insights matter and that is why the agency is so effective. Advocacy comes naturally at my practicum because there is always a discussion being had about improving services and client relations. Fundraisers are designed to include clients and volunteers in the process and in the actual event. I think it is beneficial that the administrative office is in the house that clients stay at because it allows for a close relationship between staff and clients. The culture is inviting and positive due to the environment that the agency has laid out for not only clients but for staff and volunteers as well.

      • Thank you so much for sharing this, Emerald! Yes, here empowering workers leads to innovation–even risk-taking–in pursuit of better outcomes, and that becomes a form of advocacy, as employees are pushing themselves to find new ways to approach their work, confident that sticking their necks out, so to speak, will here be at least tolerated–often overtly encouraged. I really appreciate how you highlighted the different dimensions of the organization that support advocacy, including the special events and the direct services, and it’s really noteworthy, I think, that you identify physical proximity between clients and decisionmakers as contributing to the culture of mutual accountability, respect, and also challenge…keeping the focus on clients and their needs. I’m so glad that you’re having this practicum experience!

    24. Melinda, I love how you put into words so many of the thoughts/feelings that sort of float around in my head without words. I work for a homeless shelter in Wichita that, sadly, fits your description: “stifle any revolutionary thought, cling fervently to the status quo, punish dissidents, and appease opponents.” And like you said, those who work in these types of organizations are usually demoted, subtly harassed, or fired. I started working at this organization shortly after moving to Wichita and was excited about the mission and work I was doing. But slowly, as I got to know management better, I realized how much they LOVE rules, regardless of whether they are truly benefiting our clients. I struggle with dissent, but I’m working on it. I often feel intimidated by my boss, but a while back I somehow mustered up the courage to question her and her rules when it came to a specific client whom I believed was treated unfairly. I was shot down, and harshly. Since I’ve worked at this homeless shelter, the turnover rate has been crazy huge. No surprise. About five months ago I changed from my regularly scheduled position to a PRN position because I just couldn’t stand being in that environment. I still want to serve the clients, but the work environment and management just, for lack of a better word, sucks. I want to advocate for change in the organization, and I know many of my coworkers do too, but instead of any change happening, we just gripe to each other about how management won’t change anything. How can we realize our power? What kind of action should we take?

    25. People who thrive in these environments usually have learned to accommodate this ‘love’ of rules (I love how you say this!). So there are others in the organization with whom you ‘gripe’–can you find allies who can help you navigate your way to power? How do changes happen in the organization, and how can you follow those routes to seek the changes you want? What about the rules under which the organization operates today–are there ways that you can frame the shifts you need as aligned with these overarching preferences? Where does ‘management’s’ power come from, what legitimates it, and how might those sources be made more responsive to the cultural shifts you’re seeking?

    26. At my practicum at CMH we are tightly overlooked by our legal affairs. Any kind of media, or outside agency being involved, has to be run through our legal affairs. While I get that an agency as important as a children’s hospital has to be over look to decrease any potential law involvement it really limits our abilities to adovocate outside the agency. Inside, however, I see social workers advocating on a much more mezo level for departments as whole, or on a micro level for the patient. Changes in our department have to go through our Director of Social work then in turn has to go through the VP administration, and then at higher levels to the “Big Dogs”. Any kind of changes to policies could take YEARS to get approved. Currently I am advocating to change three policies that contradict each other! But in this big of an agency it is hard to get any changes to be approved in my short time here.

      • Oh, yes, Morgan–this is a great point! So often we get into a habit of putting up obstacles to change, maybe for self-protection externally, and then those become self-reinforcing patterns, such that changes that really shouldn’t be so hard (or long!) are. It becomes a part of the culture, and it can often work in invisible ways. How can you counteract this? With what we’ve learned about administrators and the imperatives to which they respond, what can you adopt as styles of approach/intervention that might meet with less resistance?

    27. I volunteer at an organization that does not practice advocacy – they are supported by a strong base of volunteers who assist with the administrative duties and transportation needs of the clients. This organization “likes the way they get things done” – which is a polite way of saying that they aren’t interested in trying anything new or different from the norm.

      Imagine if some of the volunteers became engaged in advocacy! They would be motivated into action for supporting their agency and generating resources for a good cause. This most likely will never happen, but it’s a small example of how a little idea could turn into something good in an organization that is also “doing good” for others.

      • And, Chris, because this sounds like an organization that, while perhaps somewhat resistant to deviation from standard operating procedures, is nonetheless committed to its volunteer base, those volunteers may be the very best agents of change! What would it take, do you think, to get volunteers to articulate and then champion roles for themselves as advocates? What types of issues might they carve out for themselves?

    28. Tammy McCandless

      I really appreciate this post and the comments regarding the subject. It seems to me that everything always boils down to people. An organization could have a great cause and purpose but can be restrained or empowered by other people in the organization. It is so important for the organization to work collectively and know what other people are doing. I really like the point about ask unanswerable questions. I continually ask why? and it drives everyone nuts. I think it’s so important though so we can evaluate how we are doing and what more can we do to be successful. It’s not about finding answers it about exploring possibilities. I think the problem that comes into play is how sensitive people get about their work. When the question “Why?” or “Why not?” is asked people wonder what they are doing wrong as opposed to how things could be better. When people can discuss and communicate the organization can really learn how to best advocate for their clients.

    29. Yes, Tammy, to unanswerable questions that, nonetheless, are completely worth asking!!! I agree that people are key, but, because this stuff is all way too important to leave to chance, I’m constantly thinking about how we can build organizations that increase the likelihood that people will act in the ways we want/need. What is it about some organizations that cultivates a climate of advocacy? How can institutional structures bring out the advocate in people…just as some surely squash it?

    30. Chandra Smalley

      I believe transparency is conducive to a culture of advocacy. If we are open and honest then we will understand our strengths and weaknesses. This is where respect for expertise plays a role within the team atmosphere. When colleagues are comfortable with challenging each other than significant gains can be made. It’s not a matter of right or wrong but a matter of cultivating a climate for problem solving. We ask our clients all the time to tell us more about that and never hesitate to ask them why. There is no plausible reason we should not require ourselves to answer those same questions. This needs to be done inside of the organization as well as outside of the organization. Community outreach and partnerships can be priceless and compensatory to opposition. Asking those hard-to-answer-questions makes us proverbial think tanks. This provides fundraising opportunities although it may involve risk-taking no problem will go ignored or unanswered. We remove the barriers within the walls of our organization and invite in success.

    31. How can we facilitate an environment where we ask these hard questions, Chandra? Even in class–what works, in your opinion, to get that level of exchange? What prevents it? How can we challenge each other, in pursuit of excellence? What kinds of cultures make that possible?

    32. What you are describing above is everything that a local shelter, my former employer, was not. The uneducated leadership in the direct service department clung to a status quo that had very distinct shelters. A–direct service staff had no accountability and this is achieved by holding absolutely no written policies for staff/client interaction. And B–It assured that the husband-wife-son couple in charge, remained the most powerful within the department. This arrangement made for a very hostile work environment for people who saw and recognized the need for changes within that organization.

      I was instructed to specifically halt questioning clients as to their next life-step. Queries such as “Have you considered your out-plan?” or “what can we do as staff to help you get out of your situation and into a home?,” were received with snark-filled comments like “is that something you learned in school?” from the staff leadership. Yes, yes it is.

      Another example of an environment that stifled advocacy was when I suggested that we stop letting a particular sexually traumatized client print suggestive pictures that “Make him happy,” I was confronted with bold claims that the local shelter was the ONLY place that he could get love and caring that he needs, and that letting him view suggestive (not pornographic) photos was what he needed and certainly not encouragement to identify and seek help for his trauma. I “am not the one who can change him.” I found no solace in that explanation.

      I will continue to seek a workplace where the Culture of Advocacy exists because I know it is out there somewhere. I will continue to accept your suggestion that there ARE agencies that simply resist advocacy and create an environment of hostility toward anything that threatens their status quo. Hearing that, it really does help me keep focused and prepared to fight the good fight.

      • Wow, Jon. That is all so disturbing, both that organizations are operating that way, with obviously adverse implications for client outcomes, but also that that would be your exposure, so to speak, to the profession, and an obviously negative component of your early training. I am glad that you were able to see the collision between those values and approaches and those you hold personally and that your profession inculcates. That speaks to your maturity and centeredness and wisdom. I am sorry that we have a nonprofit structure that makes it so easy for organizations to perpetuate even with an orientation like that, and, often, so hard to tell quickly–particularly from the outside–that that’s what one is walking into. I would encourage you to really seek your place of post-MSW employment based on organizational culture and ‘fit’. You can make a difference in any professional role, and you will gain so much–in learning, but also a sense of belonging within the profession–by finding peers who share your commitment to engaging in transformative organizational practice. Thanks for sharing!

        On Fri, Jan 22, 2016 at 8:52 AM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


    33. I believe that leadership roles are very important to create organizational cultures that actively seek advocacy opportunities. Leaders who have strong advocacy orientation, passion, and community organizing skills are more likely to integrate his/her staff’s passion and unique strengths into day-to-day organizational advocacy agendas to make changes. These leaderships are more likely to attract more motivated staff members. Such leadership sometimes could become radical (in a sense that their creativity may not always fit within the range of social norms), thus people who do not resonate with such an organizational climate are likely to drop off the ship as a natural consequence. I can relate my experience to most of the thoughts suggested here. Among them, “curiosity” is the one I always pay attention to the most. “Curiosity” creates a lot of room for advocacy. We don’t know many things in this world. Some people seem to reach “the” answer very easily. For example, a worker may say “my client doesn’t have income. He is just lazy and doesn’t want to work.” This in fact closes all doors for possible advocacy opportunities for the client. Asking ”why” is the beginning of the advocacy. Most problems social workers deal with are structural and adaptive problems that require several different and creative approaches to resolve them. Leaders who have a strong advocacy orientation often set high expectations for the agency, and facilitate creativity as well as collaborative learning to make changes.

      • Yes, Sadaaki–I love this! Curiosity as the catalyst for good advocacy…asking not only ‘why?’ but also ‘why not?’, to uncover the roots of problems that deserve our attention, and to probe the limits of what could possibly be. I really appreciate this insight.

    34. I love what you said about if we all asked “why” or “why not” as much as a three year old then our society would be more just. It really is such a simple concept, but it can work wonders. What I am wondering is how do you initiate that “ask why” type culture if you work in an agency that doesn’t want to be questioned? I can think of one boss that I used to have that was a “my way or the highway” type, and questioning her was really out of the question. Needless to say, I am no longer with that agency (through my own choice). Speaking strictly from personal experience, it was really frustrating working for a place where I felt that I couldn’t question my boss, but I would also be in danger of punishment if I did question her.

      Unfortunately, I have never worked at a place that is like what you first described in the blog! An organization that “just gets it” sounds like a dream come true. What I have the most experience in are agencies that are so-so on advocacy efforts- they certainly aren’t the worst out there, but they could definitely do better though. This is including my current practicum location. Since I am a SWAAP student, and advocacy is a large portion of the education I am receiving, I have tried to stress the importance of advocacy specifically to the Board of Directors and the Administration during my practicum. I hope that when I leave my practicum next month, the staff, clients, administration, and board can tell that a difference was made in the agency because of me being there. I also hope that they take what I have told them about advocacy into consideration (basically that they actually use the information that I have given them), as I have had a few opportunities to speak to the board and administration about organizational advocacy efforts and how to improve their impact as an organization.

      • Let me say, Jamie, that I’m so glad that you’re asking these questions at your practicum! That’s how we’ll begin to reshape organizations’ offerings re: advocacy for our MSW students. I wish that you would have had more opportunities already, but I truly believe that you can reshape how organizations see advocacy opportunities for future students. I really want to help you, too, as you make decisions about your career next steps, so that you can navigate to an organization that shares your commitment to ending poverty via advocacy and direct practice. Thanks for sharing.

    35. I think one of the factors that may influence leaders in organizations’ hesitancy to build a culture of advocacy is fear of losing control over messaging. It can be intimidating to turn over control of your message to your staff. However, what these organizations may not take into account is that their staff and supporters are already telling the organization’s story. Working with staff to build messaging skills and form shared goals can improve that story and unify their message.

      Edgar Schein’s definition of organizational culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions … passed on to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems,” rings true in my experience working in an organization with an advocacy-focused culture. The organization explicitly taught me ways to speak to donors and shareholders, and staff often repeated our mantra that “everyone is an advocate and everyone is a donor.” This shared valuing of advocacy made me and my colleagues more confidant when we encountered obstacles. We felt empowered to directly contact government agencies to ask for policy changes when they put obstacles in our clients’ paths. As an organization we treated system barriers as changeable and worked hard to make sure we lobbied for the changes we wanted. To me, that is the power of creating a an organizational culture that supports advocacy.

      • I love hearing about your experiences in this organization, Sammy–it really sounds like the way things are ‘supposed’ to work, and it’s so encouraging when they do! I agree that fear of losing control hinders advocacy in some organizational contexts, but I also think that more nonprofit leaders are learning that we really never have ‘control’ over our messages, at least not in today’s fractured and complex media landscape, so we might as well equip and empower messengers throughout our networks to carry our vision forward. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

    36. It would be amazing to work in an organization that really “got it.” I mean whole-heartedly from headquarters to the staff. The organization I’m currently with really hits a lot of your points, but it is mainly only up to a certain level of management, a certain level of advocacy, and by only a couple of individuals.
      Although everyone sits around the conference table and talks about the problems and “what is really needed.” It is the community outreach director that tries to come up with a strategic plan. Also, the executive director and community outreach director are the only ones with interactions involving the public, businesses, or government agencies surrounding the issue. It would seem that opportunities made for others to participate in some way would create an environment that would further embrace creativity in strategy and advocacy as a whole.
      Also, advocacy is supported as long as it is on the approved level or certain amount of time. I know of only one occasion when advocacy was supported on the state level. When I sit back and watch, it appears the E.D. is more open to advocacy with local businesses, rarely at times with cities/counties, and less so on the state level. This could be for several reasons, but the E.D. generally will not approve time spent on advocacy beyond local levels. It could be from the pressure the board or national headquarters puts on the E.D. to maintain a particular ratio while budgeting for staff time and pay, and they believe it is more likely to get a “win” in a shorter time. I am really unsure of the reasoning otherwise.
      One example I can think of right away is concerning a mobile screening unit for cancer in one of the counties with more poverty in the area. It is a good idea, but the problem lies in funding for tests. Since Kansas has chosen to not expand Medicaid, amazingly there is a government program called Early Detection Works (EDW) to help those who do not have insurance get screened. However, there are often times many barriers still to get screened. These involve transportation, convenient hours, etc. The mobile unit still will not alleviate many of these barriers, because the unit must sit on the grounds of the hospital for the EDW program to pay for the screening. Also, certain insurances will not pay for screening through this method. So, instead of advocating for the county to allow concessions (tax breaks, etc.) for a company to put a screening unit in the section of town it is needed most or advocate for the state of Kansas to abolish this ridiculous rule (it is a government program with government rules), the organization is trying to advocate for local hospitals to “write off the cost” of these women when they are screened by the mobile unit. When I look at this, I see only a short term fix. Hospitals will only write off so much and for only a certain amount of time. They will then have to start charging women again. This will put the women back into the same situation with the same barriers. However, only advocacy with the hospitals and other all ready permitted agencies for testing are approved to advocate with. I guess they see the other routes a losing battle or too much time and money being spent?
      I would like to know how to make a compelling argument to get through to agencies that it isn’t always about the economic numbers of staff pay. I understand economics is always behind everything, but sometimes it has to be the numbers of individuals and how their lives are being affected. Also, getting them to think about long-term results versus short-term results.

      • I wonder, Shelly, if you could use your role as a student to raise some of these questions with the ED? I mean, to ask whether the organization might consider state-level advocacy? It is possible that there is a history that has influenced this reluctance, but it’s also possible that it’s really just financial barriers, as you suggest…either way, I think a student could do some probing. I would be happy to talk through this if you want to gameplan?

    37. madelinegiesler

      The organizational culture at my practicum is one where ideas are shared and relationships are built. The clinical staff regularly spends their lunch hour with one another and the laughter can be heard on other floors because they are enjoying their break together. The importance of team building is emphasized at the agency as well in weekly supervision and monthly trainings. As an advocate in my organization, I encourage my clients and other interns to use their voice and share their opinions. I look for opportunities for gaps in services and find ways we might be able to help others meet their needs.

      In my efforts to expand services at the agency for victims of human trafficking, it might be more on the spectrum of “squelching” opportunities for advocacy. The administration and board is interested in focusing narrowly on the services that align perfectly with the agency’s mission, while cutting out the excess. While I understand the need to refocus at times, I believe it is part of organization’s responsibility to adapt and evolve over time to needs of the community. I think it is imperative to the social work profession to ask hard questions about the agency’s competency and ability to serve diverse populations. The advocacy experience overall has been great for me to learn how the process is not always easy, and you’re usually going to have resistance to change from outside forces.

      • Does the culture embrace those outside of this ‘clique’ within the organization, though, or do non-clinical staff feel left out? If the latter, what might support a more inclusive approach? How could you make inroads into this aspect of the organization? And, YES, it’s an important lesson that our first advocacy target is often our own organization and those power structures–what we learn there, about the organization and about ourselves, girds us for the external struggles to come.

    38. Its interesting that the first comment on the blog was from an intern at the same practicum I am at 4 years later. CAPA has been through some significant changes since that comment, and I am honored to be apart of such a small organization that makes big advancements for child abuse and neglect. Although CAPA is widely know for their counseling services, the word prevention is trademarked in their name. CAPA’s prevention efforts are all about advocacy and bringing awareness to the signs and symptoms associated with all types of abuse. As far as a culture of advocacy is concerned, CAPA does well with incorporating their interns in a lot of things (I mean they make up more than half of the staff), as well as giving their interns a space to get out an be a part of the community. I have personally be able to lead tables and host workshops, all in an effort to promote and better advocate for our services.

      • I’m SO glad that you commented on this, Aarion; I was wondering about your experiences there. There have been major changes at CAPA for sure. One of the things that I have always been impressed with there is the organization’s willingness to stand apart from some other organizations addressing child abuse, to specifically focus on prevention and also sort of ‘normalize’ child abuse–not in terms of making it acceptable (obviously!) but situating child maltreatment within its social and economic context, to underscore how policy and social systems drive people to desperation, and how much child maltreatment reflects not ‘bad’ parents, but broken systems. That is part of their organizational culture, as I see it, but it’s also reshaping social norms within their field, too. The cultures we construct within our organizations have ripple effects into our worlds.

    39. The atmosphere at Kansas Advocates for Better Care (KABC) is all about advocacy. Every board meeting contains a specific agenda for policy advocacy. I think I have been spoiled as far as an advocacy organization is concerned. I also, however, think that this puts me in a prime position, because I am already armed with some advocacy skills and I know what effective agency advocacy can look like. I plan on keeping my advocacy connections, even if I end up in an organization that is not active in their advocacy efforts. I believe that by staying in touch with the right people/agencies, this can put whatever organization I land at in the position to begin (or revamp) their advocacy efforts.

      I have been at an organization that was not able to lobby, because they were housed within a government entity, but advocacy was alive and well within the organization. The program manager was a great example of how to advocate at a clinical level. She was not afraid to stand up to her peers, who were perfectly content with the status quo. I think that I could point to her as a perfect example of how anyone, in any agency can advocate.

    40. How does KABC interface with organizations that focus more on direct service? I wonder what lessons you might learn from looking at advocacy through that lens? How can you leverage organizations like KABC, as a resource, when you’re in practice, including in an organization that doesn’t have that same orientation?

    41. Although my experience is a bit limited, both of my nonprofit employers and my practicum agencies have seemed relatively stereotypical or average in terms of their advocacy efforts from what I have learned through this program and from others. To me this means that there is much more getting in the way of advocacy practice than advocacy practice actually happening. I think that this has been my experience everywhere for a few reasons that apply to each agency. The first barrier I have noticed across the board is a reluctance to emphasize advocacy practice because priority is heavily emphasized on service outputs, outcomes, and improvements. All of the agencies had this but is has been rooted from different sources such as grant funding, board pressure, executive/leadership pressure, and agency culture oriented towards direct service. I believe that a lot of this at its core is tied to concerns about funding. This means both concerns about what funders will think about potential advocacy work and also concerns about how the agency would pay for advocacy work. Thus, in most situations this has meant that these agencies are mostly concerned with maintaining or improving the status quo that is in place rather than encouraging creative or future-oriented systems change thinking. The second major obstacle that I have seen across the board is lack of involvement and opportunity for direct service staff to participate or even be engaged by an agency’s advocacy efforts. Often if there was minimal advocacy work taking place it was in higher up or in administrative positions separated from direct practice. There was never a flow of knowledge between these two levels in regards to advocacy. Advocacy efforts by agency leaders were never shared or discussed with the majority of staff below them. Thus, these efforts certainly weren’t communicated to clients either.

      I think that there are a few perceptions from administrators that make this more limiting than it potentially could be. First, I think some have the perception that the field is more oriented clinically and that maybe advocacy is not everyone’s work to do or that many would be uninterested. Secondly, I think many administrators realize the caseloads/multiple responsibilities of direct practice workers and think they surely must be too busy to advocate or feel that they would only further burden them by providing them with more work opportunities. Lastly, in a culture that prioritizes direct service (I think largely because administrators come from direct service) I think that many leaders think advocacy work might be a waste of time, hurt their programs, or keep the agency from providing valuable assistance to clients if job functions or opportunities to advocate are expanded. I appreciate having learned about the work of the Building Movement Project because I think some of the advocacy capacity building ideas that they have could be really helpful for agencies that are similar to what I have described.

    42. Good point, Kevin, that many administrators’ anxieties about funding advocacy are related not only to the direct costs of paying for the work, but also what the potential ‘collateral damage’ might be. Please let me know what you think about the BMP resources. I have found them really valuable in helping nonprofits think through what this work could look like in their specific contexts.

    43. I work in a practicum setting that does not do much advocacy work. We provide a service that is seen as helpful but we are not doing anything that is holistically helpful in our clients lives. So I went somewhere else where advocacy was rampant and I love the Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center with my whole entire heart. This space is inclusive, accessible and client first centered. I have never felt each point reflected so perfectly in this organization and I am only a humble volunteer advocate.
      The difference between the Care Center and my current practicum is the accessibility to the administration and how I show up in those spaces. As a volunteer advocate I feel like I am treated with more respect and gratitude then I ever will at my practicum. I am constantly doing crisis intervention with nothing more then a walkie yelling for me in the cafeteria or outside. If I ever wanted to talk about doing something differently with my area director the conversation would be shut down with “well the rules of a group leader says…” and that would be that. There is no dialogue, there is not change of advocacy, it is kind of a really horrible situation, don’t you think.

    44. What do you see in the leadership of the Care Center that facilitates their advocacy? How are they staffed? How do they take care of staff and volunteers? How do they communicate? How are they funded? What are the systems, in other words, that allow them to operate as advocates?

    45. I would not say that you left something out as to say that something further could be added or explained for certain populations. You stated that helping people find their power. This is important. Often, I have witnessed in my two practicum experiences that advocacy is not always a huge part in the organization. Instead of advocating for the client population or social justice issues in a more proactive way, there is a huge presence in advocacy work when it directly correlates with the future/survival of the organization. I do not agree with this, since in the bigger picture sense, we could often help the client population with the proactive approach with advocacy.

      To add to your empowering the client population or helping people find their voice, it is important to note that sometimes with different populations, there is a time when a practitioner often has to build rapport with the client population, before that population will engage in the discussion or openness of suggestions on how to be more impactful with their presence on certain issues.

      One of the things with both practicum settings, was the employee demographic almost completely represented the client population in terms of familiarity as well as the mirroring of what the client population looks like and identifies as. I do not know if this was intentional, but it can show that part of the rapport building or trust building in which, the employee demographic is assumed to have to be able to relate to the client population biologically as well as emotionally.

      As far as advocacy at the most recent practicum which was an intertribal college setting, I tried my best to connect with the student population by attending events in hopes of building rapport. Also, I tried to express my opinions in terms of a student mindset or tried my best to ask if students are involved in program development and implementation in the coalition and board meetings. I verbally expressed, often, that we cannot forget that the student population must agree and invest in new programs in order to help serve them best. After all, students know best of what they are lacking and what they need to succeed.

      • Oh, YES, Kellie–self-interested nonprofit advocacy is absolutely real! I see so many organizations focusing their limited advocacy resources relatively narrowly, on efforts to secure more funding or win something they care about. Sometimes, these advocacy efforts can build capacity and lay the foundation for more broad-based efforts, but other times, this is the only advocacy they’re going to do, and it’s so much less than what the people they serve really need.

    46. I have volunteered and worked at a few agencies at this point and something I was never cognizant about was advocacy culture. After reading your blog post I have hindsight and realize how important advocacy culture is for not just social work agencies in general, but also specifically the organizations and agencies I work(ed) at. When reading the first part of your post indicating the two types of agencies out there, I feel like I am fortunate enough to have been mostly at the agencies that value expanding beyond the status quo and engaging in discussion with staff members of all levels. While I understand why certain agencies may decide to discourage dissent and encourage a status quo, it certainly seems counter-intuitive for social work settings. It seems that a major part of social work values are to continuously self-reflect and challenge ourselves when met with uncomfortable feelings, the whole always asking “why” or “why not” is the very tool we use to challenge outdated policies and systems that gate-keep or even work against different groups of people from accessing a wide verity of resources or opportunities. How can agencies claim to support social work values if they don’t support these very principles that promote advocacy for their clients?

      When reading through the list of how we can promote advocacy culture within an agency I really agreed with everything you wrote. The bit parts about learning together and helping each other know our own power resonated with me because I think that becomes the biggest obstacle against advocacy culture, when management and administrators start to believe they have all the necessary information while more “boots on the ground” staff may only have limited perspectives. While I don’t necessarily disagree that different staff members will have limited perspectives, there needs to be transparency between management and front end staff so perspectives can broaden so all staff member opinions and thoughts carry more value. The only thing I might add to the list is to include a member(s) of the population served in certain staff meetings because having their direct input would certain promote culture for advocacy. Understandably, some agencies may not be able to do this depending on the service and clients served, and I recognize that this may not be appropriate for ALL meetings, but outside of these reasons, I can’t think of why this wouldn’t be a good idea. It’s possible this is already commonly practiced and my limited experience makes me unaware, but its seems like a good idea regardless.

      • It’s a critical point, Auw, that introducing different perspectives is one of the most powerful ways to, at least over time, begin to shift cultures. As we talked about in class today, we see this in ‘cultures’, as more traditionally understood (which we more readily understand as dynamic, living concepts, rather than rigid structures), and it’s true for organizational culture too. So, then, building structures and instituting practices that seek out and incorporate these different perspectives (as Derek talked about re: his practicum organization, today), whether through utilization of volunteers, regular interface with clients, or altering the boundaries between staff in different parts of the organization…can all affect how norms develop, which assumptions are validated, and how practices take root. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    47. Gosh, what a great post. There’s nothing more soul-crushing than working for a company whose culture is stifling; on the other hand, there’s little more rewarding than working in a place that encourages change and advocacy, as well as celebrates people who think outside of the box.

      Many people and organizations find change inherently scary. All the what if’s and reasons that things cannot be often squash proposed changes–especially those that are seen as more radical. So that begs the question: how do you shift an organizational culture from one shut down to change to one that celebrates it? How do you get to a place where an organization feels comfortable with doing the things that you suggested?

      They’re such difficult questions to answer and, undoubtedly, different for each organization. Culture single-handedly makes or breaks organizations and leads to mass applications to the organization or mass exoduses from it depending on the nature of their culture. It’s such a crucial piece of any organization or business, but such a difficult one to change because of the very embedded nature of culture itself.

      • I have some thoughts about ways to inch towards changes in organizational culture, but I want to first flag that not all embrace of change is constructive or positive, at the organizational level. I did some consulting once for an organization with a leader who was evangelistic about embracing change, and it became a bit of the ‘shiny object’ syndrome–he literally never heard an idea (even as an offhand comment) that he didn’t think was worth a try. Staff were exhausted, clients were disoriented, and he ultimately decided that he needed even bigger changes and (yes, that’s right!) left, fairly abruptly.
        But, certainly, resistance to change can be a danger and a limitation, particularly in a field like ours, where the ability to read the landscape and adapt to changes can make the difference between an organization thriving in dynamic circumstances…or becoming fairly quickly irrelevant. Part of the process of inducing organizational change begins with understanding the culture (which is why we spend such a significant portion of the course on it). When we understand why things ‘are the way they are’, we can more readily identify different approaches that are, nonetheless, culturally consistent (and it’s countercultural changes that are particularly challenging). Charismatic, trusted, and skilled leadership can also be a catalyst for organizational change; people will go a long way with those they trust to help them get there. And, because culture is cumulative, even relatively modest shifts in practices can add up over time, such that a change becomes a harbinger for new cultural orientations…leading to a new ‘way things are’, albeit slowly. What kind of organizational culture appeals to you most? Are there examples you’ve observed of organizations with cultures that seem particularly aligned with your way of working?

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