Evaluating Advocacy–the Organizational Capacity Question

I really, really wish that I would have read this guide about 8 years ago (in my defense, it was published in January of this year). It’s interesting–while it’s really designed for “advocacy organizations”– those that primarily (or exclusively) conduct advocacy campaigns–I really think it’s even more valuable for nonprofit organizations that are layering advocacy onto social service work, as I did in my work with El Centro, Inc.

The premise of this guide is that, while the new attention to evaluating advocacy campaigns is absolutely critical, a neglected area of study relates to organizations and their organizational capacity to support social change work. Too often, we nonprofit advocates, if we’re thinking capacity-building at all (rather than just “must get 500 people to this rally”, “must get Representative XYZ to vote no”, “must prepare leader ABC for press conference”), we think programmatic skill development: I want more media relations skills or I need help with Internet grassroots mobilization strategies. Research shows, however, that we need to pay attention to organizational structure and systems and the ways in which they support successful advocacy, or don’t.

And I know from my own practice that this is key.

I found myself nodding at the computer screen several times while reading this. The authors focus a lot on leadership (one of four areas of organizational capacity they identify: leadership, adaptive, management, and technical), and it’s undeniably the most critical link. Working for years in an organization with a primary emphasis on services and this tangential, although mostly sincere, interest in advocacy, I can testify to the importance of committed Board leadership, unity among stakeholders, organizational culture of advocacy, long-term goal orientation, and stakeholder engagement.

These are the pieces that, I think, most trip up our nonprofit social services as they seek to integrate advocacy. When the leadership hasn’t really bought in, when they expect social change on a grant timeline, when they’re hiding the potential for controversy from Board members, when the organizational culture discourages risk, when there’s great distance between leadership and constituents…then advocacy will be avoided or, if pursued, siloed and marginalized and sporadically forgotten.

This suggests, and my own practice wisdom confirms, the importance of really assessing our organization’s leadership and its “appetite” for advocacy before embarking on a social change agenda within our nonprofit organizations. And that’s the most valuable piece of this document for me. It has a “readiness to implement advocacy” checklist that I think all nonprofit organizations should look at, and it asks really important questions (as yet unanswered) about what “high-performing” advocacy organizations look like.

The final two pieces that prompted a lot of thinking from me about my advocacy journeys within nonprofit organizations were the importance of building time for reflections and the primacy of human resource concerns. As far as the former, I always built reflection time with my grassroots leaders into our work, but I rarely had a chance to reflect with the leaders of our organization about where our advocacy was going and how we should adjust. And I think El Centro, Inc. really did pretty well in terms of organizational capacity for advocacy–it had a diversified resource base, donor flexibility, a strategic approach to alliances, many of the elements emphasized here–which makes this almost total lack of shared reflection notable.

And for the latter, well, the authors make the point that, because advocacy depends on relationships, keeping the people who have these relationships on board and committed to the advocacy work is key to long-term success. Which is, I know, where I come in. I’m not honestly sure that there was anything that El Centro, Inc. could have done to keep me there, in full-time advocacy. The pull of my kids is very, very strong. But I know that if the organization had implemented some of the redundancies advocated here, in order to shift human resources to meet campaign AND personal needs–if, for example, I had had a real maternity leave, or been able to reduce my hours, or had more staff support–then I might have found a way to make it work. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t still think, just about every day, of what I could (should?) be doing in the movement, and reading like this makes me ponder those questions more profoundly.

I believe completely that our nonprofit social service organizations hold much of the future of progressive advocacy. You know that by now, right? But this report helped me to see the importance of not putting that proverbial cart before the horse and of, instead, making sure that we have the pieces in place, that our organizations are ramped up and ready for advocacy success, and that we’re building the kind of capacity that yields a real force for change.

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