Advocates speak out on advocacy evaluation

photo credit, Michael Lokner, via Flickr

A missing piece in the discussion of advocacy evaluation has been the voices of advocates themselves. Too busy changing the world to be included in the discussion about how we measure those change efforts, the conversation has been happening almost behind their/our backs, and I was really glad to see this report, spearheaded by the Atlantic Philanthropies and Annie E. Casey Foundation, two of the leading philanthropic voices on social change, and, it turns out, evaluation of the same.

The purpose of this report is to provide nonprofit advocates with a platform to discuss their experiences with advocacy evaluation and to open communication with evaluators and donors about how to improve the enterprise. It opens, though, with the results of a survey of more than 200 advocacy grantees of some of the leading foundations in advocacy, and those results are themselves instructive for forming a portrait of the status of nonprofit advocacy.

Not surprisingly, only 25% of respondents have ever evaluated their advocacy. Even fewer of those have had the assistance of an external evaluator (which is significant given the limited experience of many nonprofit types in doing systematic evaluation of any kind)–only 17% of the total sample. Of course, I also question how useful the exchange with the external evaluators has been for advocates; anyone who has participated in an independent evaluation knows that evaluators vary in their willingness to actively engage program leaders in the process and shape a product that will meet the agency’s needs.

Sixty percent of nonprofit advocates are working within organizations with budgets less than $1 million annually; fully half have budgets less than $500,000/year. More than half of respondents, furthermore, dedicate fewer than half of their resources to advocacy, with smaller organizations more likely to be ‘purely’ advocacy. Human services are the most common advocacy priority of the respondents, at 40%. Advocates are mostly engaged in state, local, and regional work; only 21% are substantially working on national advocacy. That’s interesting, I think, not surprising, given the logistical and political challenges of impacting Congress, but rather discouraging given the rich possibilities of effective congressional advocacy.

Advocates are overwhelmingly focused on legislative advocacy (56%). This appears to include a strong grassroots lobbying component, though, with 47% citing participation in community organizing also. Only 12% are working on judicial strategies and only 5% on administrative/regulatory advocacy. That echoes what I often hear from nonprofit leaders when we talk about advocacy; they tend to think legislative work first and foremost and are often surprised and even confused when I talk about other types of engagement as ‘advocacy’. One of the findings that most resonated with me was that, despite the preference for legislative advocacy, only 22% of advocates judged legislative work as the most effective strategy!

Important for me as I continue exploring my consulting work with nonprofit organizations was the statement that research and communications assistance are the capacities that advocates view as most lacking. That surprised me, because I would think that those tools would be easiest to find from other sources, and it has caused me to rethink somewhat what I need to be discussing with nonprofit leaders.

As far as actual advocacy evaluation, those advocates that have done it note that it has helped them to refine their strategies, make the case for more funding, and pursue staffing changes. They point to lack of resources for evaluation, obviously, as a barrier, but also the need for better interim goals and an attitude that sees evaluation as a capacity-building tool rather than a punitive audit.

As the report states, the field of advocacy evaluation was virtually nonexistent not even 10 years ago and is now developing rather dramatically. The authors conclude by calling for advocacy evaluation to help advocates better change the world. In the race towards justice, they say, we need to know when to sprint and when to save our strength, and good advocacy evaluation can help us reach the finish line.

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