What are nonprofits’ REAL barriers to advocacy?

photo credit, livcheng, hurdlers in the Beijing Olympics, 2008

I’m working right now with Nonprofit Connect on a project to address some of the issues that nonprofit leaders in the Kansas City area (and around Kansas and Missouri, to some extent) identify as some of their barriers to engaging in advocacy. The project includes providing some training, because lack of information and skills continues to make it harder for nonprofit executives to competently steer their organizations toward advocacy success, but both nonprofit participants and the folks at Nonprofit Connect are very clear that it has to go beyond that. Advocacy teaches us, early on, that information alone seldom changes minds, or lives.

And, in another lesson borrowed from advocacy work itself, we’re starting the project by listening to those who will participate in it–nonprofit leaders and would-be advocates–to help them think through the gaps and complications that currently separate them from the advocacy work that we (and, increasingly, they) know they need to be doing.

In my work during this phase of the project, I was glad to find the Listening Post, an effort by Johns Hopkins University to do much the same thing, on a broader scale: listen to nonprofit organizations and intermediary institutions, in order to better understand the forces impacting the work of nonprofits, and to better identify missing pieces that could make a real difference.

This particular Listening Post Comuniqué relates to nonprofit organizations and advocacy. What’s especially helpful about it is how it skips over the obvious–nonprofit organizations wish they had more money with which to conduct advocacy–and focuses instead of how nonprofit leaders can do more with the resources they do have, as well as some consideration of interventions that would actually create more resources.

I haven’t decided if it’s disheartening or encouraging that many of the barriers identified–reluctance on the part of Board members, resistance by donors, difficulty involving clients/patrons, lack of understanding about policy change, and the need for better outcomes and definition of ‘success’–are many of the same themes that I spend a lot of time talking about here.

There were a couple of new insights that I intend to carry into this work with nonprofits in the Kansas City area:

  • 88% of nonprofits that are engaged in advocacy seldom or never involve their clients/patrons in their advocacy work. Without this, of course, we lack the legitimacy that begets political power.
  • Nonprofit organizations struggling with Board attitudes about advocacy should seriously rethink their recruitment strategies. Why aren’t we recruiting Board members with advocacy/activism experience in the areas in which we work, rather than trying to convince the mostly corporate-minded members we have of the importance of social change?
  • Stability and flexibility in funding are even more important than the amount, particularly given the commitment, over years, that is necessary in order to build the relationships that foster advocacy success.
  • 90% of nonprofit organizations engaged in advocacy respond to requests from legislators, even while they admit that this is too late to shape the course of the policy. As in so many things, then, having a strategy and charting the agenda, early on, is significantly related to later influence.

    At the Philanthropy Midwest Conference last week, we began a more systematic process of bridging some of these gaps, in order to provide nonprofit leaders with the tools they need to step boldly, and well, into the advocacy struggles where we so need their presence.

    And, having listened to our collective articulations of precisely what those barriers are, our local sector will then also be able to hold ourselves accountable if we still fail to act with the determination, vision, and courage that these times, and the challenges we face, demand.

    We’re in the Heartland, after all.

    The buck stops here.

  • 53 responses to “What are nonprofits’ REAL barriers to advocacy?

    1. This is a great blog! I must point out that I completely agree that there are many barriers to advocacy, in particular funding. Not only funding for resources, but funding for those doing the advocating. Specifically in my line of work, as a home visitor there are many things that we can advocate for on behalf of clients, it may be that we do not have the resources to get the message out there, but also the work that it takes. We have not had raises in over 3 years, I believe that without proper pay, those who could advocate for certain things chose not to because they feel they are doing “extra” work. I am noticing that more and more people are doing the minimum required in positions when raises are not given, thus we lose out on good opportunities for professionals to advocate because they are not being paid adequately for the work. Funding is very important in many different aspects of advocacy.

      • Great points, and a good example of how structuring organizations so that workers are empowered is not a ‘distraction’ from clients’ needs, but an important precondition. What do you think could make the case to your organization–and, then, to your funders–about the need for competitive compensation among your staff? How could you lift clients’ experiences center-stage, as part of this effort, to make the connection for those in power?

        On Sun, Feb 23, 2014 at 1:23 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


    2. Hi, Melinda — I was really surprised to read in your post that 88% of nonprofits engaged in advocacy never or rarely involve their clients/patrons in their advocacy work. I would not have guessed that it was that rare.

      I can see, however, how it might sometimes be difficult for nonprofit organizations to ask clients to be involved in advocacy. When you work with clients who are in extremely difficult circumstances (e.g., facing a life-threatening illness, unemployment, or bankruptcy), you might worry about adding to their burdens by asking them to do something for the organization. If a client does not feel like they are in a position to help with what the organization needs (time, physical labor, lobbying, money, etc.), it might make them feel indebted to the organization. Some might even feel like they should not continue to seek services if they cannot contribute to the organization’s continued success.

      I do not think these are insurmountable barriers, but I think they point to the importance of understanding a client’s perspective before you ask them to be involved in advocacy. In some cases, it might be just a matter of learning how to make the ask (not unlike asking for funding or other types of resources!). In other cases, it’s a matter of determining what’s appropriate to ask for. It depends on the type of organization, the kind of assistance being provided, the abilities and interests of the clients, and many other factors.

      I do think it’s important to involve clients in advocacy work. People who have received an organization’s services can definitely be the best advocates.

      • Great points, Susie–I think it also speaks to the importance of having a fairly broad understanding of what advocacy is and what it can encompass; maybe traveling to DC isn’t an appropriate advocacy ‘ask’ for all clients, but that’s also not what advocacy has to look like. Indeed, we can arguably be a lot more effective in our advocacy efforts if we are constructing strategies that use a stronger complement of approaches (including media advocacy, grassroots engagement, regulatory influence, etc…many of which could be better ‘fits’ for clients). We certainly need to make sure that we are making advocacy opportunities work for clients, before we conclude that they just aren’t interested in engaging, or before we move ahead without their critical voices included!

        On Sun, Mar 16, 2014 at 7:51 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


    3. Like Susie, the point that stood out most to be was the statistic about the lack of involving clients in the advocacy practice. As a service provider, my perspective on why this is the case is unfortunately the massive barrier of our required workload and agency specifications of our treatment efforts while working with clients. To really coach a consumer towards advocacy would be a significant investment (and certainly, a worthy one) in time and energy, something that social workers tend to be short on. I’d like to again reiterate that this is only from my perspective. One reason that this would be difficult for me is that our face time with clients must be medically necessary and documented as such for MCOs to pay for the service provided. As truly important as involvement in advocacy might be for a client (on both micro and macro levels), unless I can tie it to reducing symptoms, this would be a hard sell for my supervisor or agency to approve. While the efforts may be recognized or encouraged, I feel it would be regarded as a “side project” and not the main intent of my work with consumers. Which leads to another reason engaging clients in advocacy is difficult- for the sake of transparency (among other things), we need to have the backing and support of our supervisor and the agency. Without the agency promoting client involvement in advocacy as a goal, it might be difficult to get a client on board if they think it is only something I am promoting as an individual. Another barrier is the knowledge of current advocacy efforts and opportunities that are applicable and appropriate for the demographic I serve. One thing that might address these specified concerns would be to have an advocacy position at the agency that served only to educate the direct service providers about current advocacy efforts, so that we may be informed and consider clients that would be a good fit, then maybe we could refer that advocate to those clients who could then pursue those efforts. I do have a few clients that would be a valuable asset for advocacy purposes, and if there was someone I could suggest they talk to who’s whole position is about client involvement in advocacy, that might be a really valuable tool for the client, the agency, and the causes we are working for.

      • Great points, Sarah. One of the advantages of thinking about advocacy as occurring within a broad framework/landscape is that that view opens our eyes to different ways in which clients can engage, more than if we’re equating ‘advocacy’ with just ‘lobbying’. But the point about needing to tie it to symptom reduction is a critical one. I fully believe that engaging in advocacy can be therapeutic, but we often lack the documentation/evidence that we would need to be able to make that case to payers!

        On Sat, Apr 26, 2014 at 4:33 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


    4. It saddens me to see how little nonprofits utilize the voices of the people we stand with. At my agency, our executive director often sends out emails to get staff involved with advocacy regarding political decisions that will deeply impact our work. He also encourages us to get clients involved. We also have another program called Youth Link that consists of parents and children within our services that works to stop the stigma of mental health and advocates for client’s rights. Whenever there is an advocacy day at the capitol, this group loads up in agency vehicles and drives the 3+ hours to hopefully make some type of impact on legislators. Even though this may be a lot compared to other agencies, I know that we can still do better.
      I agree with Sha’era that there are many barriers to advocacy and funding is a huge barrier. When we have so little to give clients the bare minimum of services they need, how does one find the money or time to fully participate in advocacy? The thing that is most frustrating to me is that so many social workers have wonderful ideas on how to create change and what policies would really benefit people, yet they are overlooked and they probably should be the people sitting in the Capitol Building making decisions. Why aren’t the Deb Adams and Melinda Lewis’ who obviously have a plethora of knowledge and ideas for positive change helping to make important decisions on things that impact our social work careers, daily lives, and futures? I feel that a lot of these barriers exist because we continually promote business minded people to make decisions about important topics and they just don’t value them as much as they should. ie. mental health. Possibly the greatest barrier is of ensuring that our voices are really heard loud and clear.

      • I do actually work with policymakers on the issues that intersect my expertise, including financial aid policy and asset-based alternatives to student debt, as well as around anti-poverty programming and issues like child support and childcare. I’m more concerned with how we can adequately include practitioners’ voices in the policy arena, than those removed from practice like me. What are the next steps you’d like to see your organization take? How could you use your example to encourage others to engage as you have?

    5. It was shocking to hear that such a majority of non-profit organizations are not involving their clients in their advocacy. It appears to be common sense to include these individuals in the decision making process. It is hard to change the minds of people working in the “old ways” but when the economy is struggling especially in the realm of social work, change needs to happen and quickly. It is also disheartening to hear that the board members do not want to change, what are they there for, to maintain the processes that aren’t working? There is resistance from the donors because these changes are not being support within the organizations. I think that all organizations, not just non-profit, should start hiring social workers as advocates for change. This alone would increase the recognition of macro social work and the importance of having employees with a social work background. All employees should to be educated on policy change and should be incorporated in their annual or semi-annual trainings. A committee (i.e. board) should to be formed with the desire and intention to create change while understanding the importance of including the voices of their consumers.

      • Great points, Kim! Yes, I completely agree that these adverse conditions are precisely when we have the greatest incentive to upend our traditional ways of doing things! I have hoped that this recession might usher in a new way of activism, a sort of ‘new New Deal’, but we have yet to see it engender that kind of collective response. I’m still hoping, though, and working and organizing and waiting…

        On Tue, May 6, 2014 at 3:57 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


    6. Several people on her have commented about the surprise at percentage of agencies that do not have their clients assist them in advocating for themselves, I, too am surprised. This article reminds me of just how long it takes to change processes at a macro level. One really has to be passionate and enjoy the fight in order to stick with it for so long. You made a great point on why not look for board members who have a background or passion for advocacy. A friend once told me work smarter not harder! I feel that this phrase applies to this type of situation.

      You also mentioned in class about funding. It’s remarkable the limitations donors put on money. The key is to go find donors who are in line with your agency and who will be flexible with funding. Not just someone who writes a big check yet you can only use it for a small few who need it. Thanks for bringing up so many great points.

      • In the organizations where you have worked, what obstacles do they face in advocacy? How active are they, as advocates? What can you do, within these constraints, to advocate for a greater commitment to advocacy?

    7. I think that my organization is part of that 88% people keep commenting on. As a front-line worker I do not ever hear if my administrative staff even has advocacy related goals or objectives. This is fairly disappointing to me but I personally have tried to make an effort to advocate for my clients at least on a micro level. Little things related to service provision or treatment. When your population is children, like mine, I would guess that creating advocates out of them is difficult in itself. Instilling the importance of advocacy and motivation to act in a kid or teen, who most-likely has seemingly bigger difficulties to focus on, can be quite the challenge. However, I think that the biggest barriers to creating advocacy or advocates regardless of the population, time, energy, education, or communication are simply feelings of powerlessness and real power. I don’t think you will ever get a client to become an advocate for themselves, others, or the organization if the agency does not foster a culture of empowerment and inclusion at every level. This is especially true for children who legally and socially (in subordination to adults) hardly ever realize that they may have some power or control over their situation. While it may be beneficial to try and help empower many of our clients to be advocates, I think that social workers also have a particular obligation to recognize when certain clients or populations may not have the capacity to enact change as much as we could for and with them. When someone cannot realistically be expected to do this for themselves they need someone to help take on this challenge with them collaboratively and that is where our values and education make us perfect candidates as advocates.

    8. Oh, yes, Kevin! I love this response. It’s so important for organizations to be ‘laboratories’ of advocacy, if they want to cultivate that behavior among their clients. We can’t expect people to ‘get empowered’ when they step out of our doors! I would encourage you to look for examples of effective organizing and advocacy with children and youth, because there actually is quite a bit–I actually did a fun storytelling for advocacy training with teens at Cornerstones last fall! They were terrific. But, yes, empowerment doesn’t mean just throwing people to the wolves, and there are absolutely roles for social workers as collaborators with clients in social change. Thank you for sharing this!

    9. I was also surprised about the large percentage of agencies who do not involve their clients in advocacy work. The agency that I work in has such a short-term program that it would be very difficult and unrealistic to expect clients to become involved in advocacy. In the short time that we have to work with them, we are mostly trying to get them involved in actively participating in advocacy with us on their behalf. We need to teach the client to advocate for themselves when we have stepped out of the picture and often times that alone creates overwhelming feelings for them. It is a process that needs to be learned over more time than what they are in the program for.

    10. Certainly, Tina, the short-term nature of your work with clients means that some types of advocacy are more difficult to pull off, but I’d challenge you to rethink the idea that short-term engagement necessarily precludes advocacy. If the organization was actively engaged already in campaigns that align with clients’ greatest concerns, such that they could then just tap into that work, there may actually be a pretty short ‘ramp-up’ time needed. What issues do you see recurring consistently, as themes across multiple clients’ experiences, that could form the motivation for more cross-cutting advocacy?

    11. Tammy McCandless

      I found this piece interesting regarding advocacy and nonprofits. I also would like to comment about the 88%. I am not surprised that the nonprofits are not involving their clients/patrons. My question is do you think nonprofits should recruit their patrons to be advocates or wait to see if the inquire? I ask this because I wonder why clients are not inspired to advocate for a nonprofit organization that is helping them. Are they embarrassed by their circumstances, do they not have the resources, or are they completely unaware that the organization is doing advocacy work other than directly with clients? I wonder if not approaching the clients is a better avenue to take when it comes to advocating that way people feel the desire for themselves to pursue change. An inspired advocate could be invaluable.

    12. Great question, Tammy. I think the key here would be the definition of the word ‘recruit’. We should absolutely avoid doing anything that would seem to pressure clients to advocate on behalf of the organization. Absolutely. At the same time, clients may not feel welcome or empowered to advocate if we just wait passively…so how can we cultivate a climate of empowerment, create meaningful, accessible opportunities for people to become involved, and ensure that clients know that opting out of advocacy is a valid option, too? What do authentic but non-pressuring invitations look like? How do they feel? How do we hold ourselves to them?

    13. The statistic, “88% of nonprofits that are engaged in advocacy seldom or never involve their clients/patrons in their advocacy work” is an important factor when working in agencies where advocating is necessary for funding. While social workers play a large role in advocacy at local, state, and national levels, it has also been proven that stories of those affected by the issue at hand have a powerful effect in swaying an individual one way or the other. However, I can also understand why many agencies do not involve their clients in the advocacy process. If the clients have specific characteristics, such as homelessness, lacking transportation, or are employed and working hours that differ daily, it is not likely that the clients will be able to get to specific locations, especially hours away, in order to advocate and share their experiences with the issue. It would be interesting to investigate the differences between how an individual’s opinions are swayed between social workers advocating versus individuals affected by the issue advocating.

    14. And telling, I think, Gina, that all of the organizations we heard from in class Saturday mentioned having clients and others directly affected by policy concerns tell their own stories…while none specifically referenced significant challenges to engaging them in that way. That doesn’t mean, obviously, that the concerns you raised aren’t legitimate, but I wonder if it doesn’t mean that, maybe, some of the highest-performing advocacy organizations have just found ways over, around, and through those barriers. There are absolutely differences between how advocates from the outside and those living the policy concerns see the situations. I wrote about that in a post here about driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. I wonder what you think that might look like in your own practice area? What are we missing, if we’re mediating clients’ experiences through a ‘filter’ of professional advocacy?

    15. Hi Melinda, this blog spoke so loudly and speaks volumes to exactly what’s happening in non profit agencies. It feels a lot of times that clients and program effectiveness gets lost in the wind when board led agencies are so far focused on appeasing funders instead of what’s best for clients. It’s mind boggling to me that people on the board who NEVER experience the culture of clients or the agency’s day to day dealings could possibly advocate and understand the true need of the people affected. It’s my believe that in order to affectively advocate for populations and have a passion for change, you may need to have a clear view and understanding for what that would look like. Also, I feel that while they try to shape the direction of the agency based on what some funders feel are right for our population, they do not accurately represent need OR formulate solutions for our agency’s shortcomings as it relates to expected outcomes. Thanks so much for this.

    16. I’m sorry that that’s your experience, Sheria. I don’t know if it’s comforting at all, but that’s not the case with all Boards. There are certainly a lot of Board members committed to their organizations’ work, providing critical leadership, serving as ambassadors for their causes, and working in the trenches, too, in program design and evaluation and organizational governance, in addition to fundraising. What changes in how your organization recruits, orients, and engages Board members might help with this? Do you see any organizations you consider ‘bright spots’ whose Board practices you think are worth replicating?

    17. From my knowledge our board are recruited via NP Connect and by referral of other member. I don’t think the recruitment is necessarily the problem. I believe the job/board requirements may need to change. Maybe requiring the members have to work so many hours during operating hours instead of of just board meetings. Also have some interaction with clients, i think that would also be helpful so that maybe clients can be seen as people and not numbers. I’m not sure about “bright spots”….and I’m not too sure if this organization is ran by a board per say. I do like how Livable Neighborhoods was constructed through the Unified Government of KCK. They collaborate with community neighbors, representatives, KCKPD, the Mayor’s office and the city to make change and how to use funding for the city. I like how open it is and how inclusive and active the community is in problems that concern them such as neighborhood upkeep, crime, taxes, local businesses etc. I think this makes serves many purposes: the police department and mayor’s office get a better relationship and view of the people they serve, the community feel they are supported and heard and that the community as a whole can collaboratively make change together. I like this approach versus, a board making changes based off outcomes and people they can’t relate too or understand.

    18. Some organizations regularly have clients attend Board meetings, which might be something you think about? Maybe Board committees could be reshuffled so that responsibilities include more contact with clients? I agree that carefully defining roles is essential; people cannot be expected to perform according to criteria not explained to them.

    19. Yes,I agree with that suggestion.

    20. I don’t know how non-profit organizations can do without the support of its clients and/or their families! Yet, I know that they do. When I think of organizations like Wyandot Inc. where I work I doubt very much that they could do without it. I know that parents have testified in Wyandotte County and they have marched in Topeka concerning mental illness.

      I know that Kansas City, Kansas Huggers, a Kansas Special Olympics team, has a governing board that has a combination of business people with children who have special needs and board members that do not. Anne Phillips, Executive Director KCK Huggers, Inc./Special Olympics & Special Populations Coordinator Parks & Recreation has been operating this program since 1987 and it has kept growing because of her far-reaching insight of envisioning what the future holds that made it what it has. And, I know that she would one of the first ones to admit that the Huggers would not be what it is today if it wasn’t for the advocacy of the family members involved and the athletes.

      I recognize that there may be a large number of barriers to consider, but, even trying to get a small population of clients, family member, families or friends would make a difference. I think that a social worker may need to be the one to start an advocacy group and build support. And, there are times that we as social workers need to show others how to be a part of an advocacy group. Even, if one fears being a part of the advocacy group such as myself. You see, I’m kinda shy…. Last week I was speaking to a Zumba instructor who was taking photos for funding purposes at the community center in the Argentine area, in Kansas City, Kansas about having some of her Zumba students give their testimony at the meeting. When I shared with her how a year ago I was unable to climb the Summit at the Clinton Overlook in Lawrence, Kansas because of my knees and how I went back last week and walked the very same summit with only about 3 stops to rest. I shared with her that it was because of her classes and the low-impact classes that I’d been attending for about 2 -3 months. Her response was that if she needed someone to testify she’d call me! I was surprised that she’d think that I would. But, you know it’s true. In order to have members; clients and family members to advocate a social worker must be willing to step out of her comfort zone and testify. This, also, means sharing things that may be uncomfortable for us to share.

    21. I love this story, Chris, about your own encounter with an advocacy opportunity, from the perspective of a ‘client’, and how it feels to contemplate taking an advocacy stand. AND, congratulations to you for your accomplishment, too! I think you would be a great advocate on this issue!

    22. We had talked in class about whether involving a client into an agencies advocacy would be ideal. I think it is important to involve clients in advocacy to a certain extent. There are several aspects of policy change that the clients would need to understand prior to becoming involved. There are certain populations, such as vulnerable populations, that should not become involved in advocacy because of the risk towards the clients. Even if clients can’t be involved with advocacy at a certain point, maybe we can provide the skills that could help clients advocate for themselves in the future, or when they become involved with advocacy.

    23. Have you read my post about ‘too vulnerable for advocacy’, Kaitlyn? It speaks to this idea of protecting some of our most vulnerable clients from taking on advocacy roles…and questions whether that’s really in clients’ best interests. It’s a question very close to my heart, since my advocacy has usually been focused on undocumented immigrants–certainly vulnerable–and they have inspired me every day in their courage and wisdom and vision. What do you think would be the greatest challenges to overcome in involving clients in advocacy? What should a social worker do who wants to see this approach in his/her organization?

    24. Brittany Sheets

      I would like to say that the statistic regarding the percentage of organizations who do not involve their clients in advocacy work surprises me, but it honestly doesn’t. This is sad to admit. The clients that we work with are obviously the most educated on their own life circumstances, and what would be the most helpful in allowing them to overcome these circumstances. Therefore, involving clients in advocacy work seems like the most logical thing to do. However, I do not believe that there are enough advocacy efforts on the part of organizations as a whole, not to mention ones that involve the clients. Whether it be due to a lack of finances or a lack of effort on the staff’s part, I’m not sure. I imagine that it is a combination of both. I can say from my experiences during my internship this year that I have genuinely had very little to no opportunities to participate in advocacy work. I believe that the staff members at my agency are completely overworked and underpaid, and therefore do not desire to put in the extra effort required to participate in advocacy. It may sound like an excuse, but I believe that for many social workers there is simply not enough time in the day.

    25. So what do we do to change that, Brittany? Because we must; there’s no way that conditions will improve–for workers or those we serve–without addressing these underlying causes. How should organizations create the space where this work can happen? And what is the responsibility of individual workers, given the imperative that our Code of Ethics places on engaging in advocacy and social change?

    26. Jenny D'Achiardi

      I applaud the attention brought to some of the more obscure reasons for why non-profits are not engaging in advocacy work and see it as a reminder of how digging a bit deeper for answers can unearth some real gems. What really stood out for me in this post was the idea of self-perception and just how much it can hinder or enhance action. The way that many non-profits view themselves as powerless – at the mercy of funders, board directors and legislators, inhibits them from achieving their full potential to help others. Non-profits are paralyzed by the mistaken belief that they need more money to become effective advocates and that without it, they are helpless to take action. Sometimes focusing so much on what you do not have blinds you to what you do have and in the case of non-profits and the question of advocacy this seems to be exactly the case. As you cited Melinda, the majority (88%) of non-profits do not involve clients in advocacy and this fact alone represents a huge organizational oversight regarding a potentially formidable resource. It could even be said that the strengths perspective, so often used in direct practice, should be applied in a macro setting to non-profits so that they too would conduct an inventory of their strengths that, if nurtured, would empower them. In addition, non-profits position themselves re-actively to the advocacy agendas set by legislators when they are really the ones who must be deciding what is important, guided by the input and priorities of their clients. Via a more proactive approach, non-profits will be able to reclaim some of the control over advocacy participation and be better positioned to be successful at it.

    27. The strengths perspective absolutely has a lot to offer in the macro context, too, Jenny. I think that we are collectively at least partially responsible for this, though, too; we need to set a tone and expectations that advocacy is something nonprofit organizations do, if we are to hold them accountable for doing just that. Otherwise, if there is no presumption of responsibility to advocate, any obstacles–real or perceived–will seem an adequate reason not to engage.

    28. Kristina Knight

      You mention you are not sure if it’s encouraging or disheartening that many of those barriers are ones you commonly identify throughout the blog posts. I think it’s encouraging that there are people, such as you, who recognize the barriers that nonprofits face in advocacy work. Our challenge as social workers then becomes how do we get non-profit organizations to recognize these barriers and take action to overcoming these barriers? While funding and funders are important, the organization can only do so much to help clients without making the lasting social/policy changes that are necessary. Helping one client at a time for the duration of the non-profit’s life is not going to make the slightest dent in the amount of people who need help. Advocating for policy changes is the surest way to help the masses. Explaining this can help overcome the lack of understanding about policy changes by board members and hopefully rally support for taking on more advocacy work.

    29. I don’t know that the challenge is getting organizations to recognize the barriers, honestly, as much as structuring the whole nonprofit landscape so that there are more supports to facilitate nonprofit engagement here. I mean, certainly, there are internal obstacles, too, but most organizations with which I’ve worked want to address root causes more and yet struggle, given pressure for billable hours, cuts in staff, and increasing demands of ‘accountability’ (in quotes because to what are we really accountable, if not to solving problems?)

    30. Brittaney Miller

      I agree with Sha’era about the funding side of the struggle completely. I have witnessed in my practicum that people who are stretched so thin with their cases make the minimum effort in what they offer the clients. It stops being about how they can help their clients and about how much work should they really put in for what they’re getting paid. I have heard from workers “I could probably do this, but technically that’s not my job”. There is no going above and beyond anymore to help people when they have 9 other kids on their case and if they went above and beyond for vall of them they’d work 24/7 for very little compensation. The small compensation isn’t an excuse to not fully provide for a client but the money is a big motivator to a lot of workers who feel the compensation should be higher in comparison to the stress level.

      • Do you think it’s more the workload, then, or the salary? I mean, if people were getting paid more, would they really give more, if are they just at capacity as it is, regardless of their wages? How do you feel about it, personally?


    31. Since the bulk of what I was doing during my practicum was “advocacy” or being an “advocate”, I was surprised that 88% of nonprofits that are engaged in advocacy seldom or never involve their clients in their work. How is it social work advocacy if it does not include the with which we are advocating? I think that empowerment is a huge aspect of the work we do as social workers, and we should always try to include the clients in the advocacy work. Is it very effective if we are doing all of the advocacy work for them without including them?
      Also, I am totally bummed to hear that the barriers include reluctance of board members—but unfortunately, I am not too surprised. I see, even within my practicum, that we are hiring people with no social work background and who come straight from corporate world. They don’t have the advocacy/activism experience that we need (however, they are great at doing other things that we need—I’m not intending to judge the agency’s choice in new employees) I agree that we should be reconsidering who we are reaching to donate and who we are electing to be on our board, if they are the barriers to advocacy. I think that there needs to be more training for social workers on how to engage with policies to initiate policy change. I recognize that there are many people working in the area of social work that have no concept for pushing for policy change, and this is a crucial part of the agencies that work with the people who need policy change so badly. I would love to see more awareness of human trafficking and advocates understanding how to push for the needed policy change—so few people are doing it!

    32. I think there might be some dispute about what ‘advocacy’ means, Julia. I don’t know that many organizations consider work 1:1 for clients, to help them navigate systems, as ‘advocacy’, if it doesn’t have an objective of also changing social structures. One thing I have noticed, Julia, is that not all that many social workers serve on Boards of Directors…as though, by working in social services, we’re doing all of the ‘service’ we need to. This can end up making nonprofit organizations more reliant on those who are willing to serve as Board members, even if not all of those folks completely embrace the social change mission that we might envision for the profession. What do you think? What has been your experience?

    33. Yvette Martinez

      The insight you mentioned “88% of nonprofits that are engaged in advocacy seldom or never involve their clients/patrons in their advocacy work. Without this, of course, we lack the legitimacy that begets political power” stuck out to me; it had me wondering if theres been any changes since 2010? My practicum was at a Hospice House, a non profit organization; I heard that in recent years the social work positions grew and they have a stronger need for social workers. I believe that hiring social workers have worked favorability, they play the part of the engaging and advocating for the clients within’ the organization. The organization does a great job of including their clients when they are advocating; when it is appropriate, since sometimes clients feel it is a sensitive subject or do not feel comfortable. I saw more than one time where the CEO of the company had to step in to make sure that the clients needs are being met, she was very strict when it came to client advocacy. I’d say, I was lucky enough to have such a practicum. of course, funding and lack of understanding about policy change were barriers, to me… I think that will always be a barrier within’ non profit organizations; so if I were deciding if it is disheartening or encouraging, i’d choose encouraging. Theres always room to educate others, it will cost but I believe that as social workers, we have a job to empower our agencies and educate other professions. Lastly, funding will always be a barrier…. I do agree that there needs to be more training and more engagement from clients in policy change, I was just fortunate enough to be involve with a practicum that put their clients first….With that being said, I hope that I get more experience working in non-profit organizations, I am interested in seeing how agencies handle these barriers.

    34. It’s a great question, Yvette. Surveys like this aren’t repeated very frequently, but the last one I could find (2014) had similar figures. I think that most organizations would say that they are advocating, when ‘advocacy’ is defined as including helping individual clients navigate systems. Where I think fewer organizations are engaging in advocacy is when we define that as pushing for systems reforms, advancing policy changes, and/or catalyzing social movements. So it’s a question of scale, I think, and how nonprofits can amplify their individual advocacy for collective impact, and also of strategy–what can we do beyond working 1:1 with clients, that can build on these same skills of relationship-building, system navigation, and claims-making?

    35. After reading through comments above I think I now understand the distinction between being an advocate and advocacy. Sorry if this differs away from the blog post itself but I think it is really important that we define those things and why that might be a barrier for organizations right now. Advocacy is changing social structures, but being an advocate is being a voice that understands the structure is fucked. Advocates act out advocacy but it still is just an individual action that may or may not change another individuals mind. We can save someone from extra trauma, like my work at the Care Center but the only way I am changing the systemic narrative is calling my representative and screaming from a rooftop in hopes that someone will hear me and change something.
      I also really appreciate your point of rethinking the recruitment process. I dream of a world where everyone is on board with changing social structures because everything is on fire but not everyone is a dixie cup full of water. Sometimes we have dixie cups full of alcohol, gasoline and orange colored hair dye. They add to the discourse on purpose or on accident but the still add problems. I know folks who work with sex trafficking survivors and are not informed on sexual abuse survivor care at all. That is not safe and someone needs to take them out of that institution but who am I to tell when the boss of the institution believes I am just making things up because their background check cleared and they are “safe people.” That is probably an extreme case and the proper authorities have been informed yet none of that should have been happening in the first place!
      Accountability is key, it has always been key, but advocacy can only be accounted for if we understand what it is.

    36. I don’t know if I see the distinction exactly in the same way–I think that people can call themselves ‘advocates’ and be working to change systems, and that some advocates are absolutely just voicing concerns (or raging against machines). It is, however, crucial for us to think critically about the roles we’re playing. Sometimes, we rant too much, so that we’re taking up too much space and making too little change. That’s harmful. At the same time, sometimes we don’t rant enough, because we like feeling like we have an ‘inside’ track and we try to place nice with people in power. Also dangerous. In the case of those who are supposed to be advocates and yet lack some of the capacities and sensitivities they need to be constructive in those roles, what do you think is your best approach? What might make a change?

    37. Flexible funding is an important note to touch on: With the non-profit I intern at, we receive funding from various sources which is awesome, but many of those grants we receive only allow you to do certain things before it starts to turn red. Most of the money we are granted is funneled towards special assistance, but even then, to receive that special assistance money our clients have to meet certain standards and complete our program before anything is done. So we force our clients to wait 5 weeks before giving them any sort of financial assistance, but by then they could already have been evicted or something along those lines. Being a social worker, your role is always going to be an advocate for your clients, so the imbalance i see here makes me look at my own practices to really decide if I am advocating with my clients or if they are doing it on their own.

    38. Great point, Lauren; when organizations get boxed into receiving (and, sometimes, seeking) only funding that is tightly restricted to specific programmatic purposes, it becomes very difficult for the organization’s leadership to exert much effort in the direction of advocacy. Importantly, this can become sort of a ‘chicken and egg’ problem; do organizations lack the funding that would allow them to do advocacy because they aren’t oriented in the direction of social change, or are they unable to live into their advocacy visions because they don’t have the funding to do so? Or, when it’s both, where can social work advocates best engage in order to disrupt the cycle?

      • See that’s what I have trouble with! I cannot seem to figure out where I am supposed to intervene because of those specific standards.

    39. Just as you would when encountering a perplexing problem in work with an individual client, then, you start by gathering information and, then, systematically testing some interventions so that you can learn what you need to know. For example, how do leaders at the organization respond to invitations to advocate that don’t cost money (appearing at a rally, signing onto a statement, inviting policymakers to your events)? Are they willing to push back on contracts that would prohibit them from advocating, even using other funds? Figure out where you encounter resistance–and what it looks like–so that you can figure out where to focus your efforts. I’m always happy to talk through these approaches!

    40. “…it skips over the obvious–nonprofit organizations wish they had more money with which to conduct advocacy–and focuses instead of how nonprofit leaders can do more with the resources they do have…”. I have to be honest, when I initially thought of the term advocacy I thought of simply trying to get more money to do the things that need to be done. This was even my first policy recommendation in my brief last semester. I now realize that just as much focus and energy needs to be on the money/resources that an organization does have, not just on what they don’t. Work with what you’ve got and make the most of it, instead of sitting around and twiddling your fingers until you get more. It almost seems like the excuse of “we don’t have the money or resources” is used as an easy way out of advocacy. I liked how you then pointed out that stability and flexibility in funding is sometimes more important than the number amount. That is some serious financial wisdom. I was also surprised to see that “88% of nonprofits that are engaged in advocacy seldom or never involve their clients/patrons in their advocacy work.” Clients are the heart of advocacy and can act as an invaluable tool for true change, if given the chance. I imagine the empowerment that having a voice in advocacy can be just that, amazingly powerful. Lastly, the point of recruiting board members who are passionate about social change seems crucial to an organization’s will and determination to advocate during these “times and challenges” we face.

    41. I have never really considered other barriers to advocacy that nonprofits may face besides a lack of funding, but that is because I have not had much experience regarding all that goes into advocacy. This gave me a better understanding of how complex advocacy can be; simply having enough funding is not enough to ensure advocacy is occurring at the level it should be. It was very surprising to read that 88% of nonprofits that are engaged in advocacy seldom or never involve their clients in their work. It seems to me that involving clients would be beneficial for both sides; it could be therapeutic and empowering for clients to be involved in advocating for services they have received, and clients who have received these services would surely be the best advocates for them. One example that I think non-profits could learn from are public schools. Obviously, a lack of funding is a major problem for many public schools. However, they are forced to figure out how to do the absolute best they can with the resources that they do have. Obviously, it was disappointing to read that one of the barriers to advocacy includes the reluctance of Board members, but I can’t say it was surprising. I agree that it would be much more effective to work on recruiting Board members who have experience and a passion for advocacy rather than trying to change the minds of corporate-minded members and convince them that advocacy is important. The good thing is that nonprofit leaders are becoming increasingly more aware that they are not doing the advocacy work that they need to be doing. Although it is a very small step, simply recognizing that they need to do better is the first step toward making improvements and bringing about social change.

      • Great comparison to public schools, Summer! Several points there: one, that most schools have realized that parents and students are stronger advocates than just staff, because of their greater constituency power, two, that they have found ways to advocate for priorities other than just funding, and, three (there are probably more!) that leadership is determinant of an institution’s willingness to leverage itself as an advocacy force. I look forward to next week’s session on advocacy!


    42. The timing of reading this is very fitting for me. As you know, my practicum is at a nonprofit. I’ve always known about the struggle with money for nonprofits, first with my time as a volunteer at The Cat House in Lincoln, but my understanding was enhanced (and placed in a more social work setting) when I came to my practicum. The reason I say that this blog post is fitting is because yesterday I learned some inside information (that I cannot share, sorry!) about some internal workings of my practicum that are clashing, and involve board member reluctance, donor resistance, client involvement (well, specifically recruitment), and the need for better outcomes/definition of success. Long story short, board members at my practicum are essentially skipping a step (and not listening to the people actually running the day-to-day operations) when it comes to operations and financial situations. Part of this is caused by donor resistance (financially) and lack of walk-in clients (also financial), but the board is refusing to look at stability of the organization and instead launching into worse-case-senario mode. I can see how this REALLY can reflect negatively on advocacy work. I see the heads of my organization more worried about the board than they were a few months ago… talk has transformed to be about then and less about our advocacy (don’t get me wrong, we’re still utilizing tabling events/social media/word of mouth/trainings/etc., but the focus on advocacy can’t be the same percentage when the worries of the board are thrown into the mix). Overall, yes, money is the root of the issue. But we could still do our advocacy work without an overabundance of cash — we always have. It’s when the lesser-known “evils” of the nonprofit world show up that advocacy takes a hard hit.

    43. Great analysis, Whitney; I’m so glad this resonated with you, even though I’m also sorry that you’re going through this. It’s a powerful example, though, of how obstacles such as lack of leadership commitment and corrosive culture can undermine advocacy engagement…and how those dynamics may look like lack of resources, even if something else is really at work. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    44. I have worked for and interned for several agencies that replaced several spots on their Board or managerial staff with “business-minded” people who were expected to come in and “save the day”. I have seen first hand how this only worked to some degree, and I watched those agencies lose partnerships with donors and other agencies who the new staff did not bother to keep in contact with. In turn, so many clients’ voices were lost, and the once-consistent memorandum for advocacy was lost in the shuffle of what was now “important”.
      In her article Advocacy by Nonprofits: Roles and Practices of Core Advocacy Organizations and Direct Service Agencies, Kimberlin points out that several attempts have been made at the federal level to “substantially restrict nonprofit participation in advocacy” due to “advocacy by publicly-funded nonprofit organizations constituting an improper public subsidy of partisan political agendas” (2010). (What a time for such a claim!) I think it’s so important, especially when experiencing such kickback, to educate and yes, hold hands with our clients throughout the grassroots advocacy process; to teach them how to speak about their strengths and their needs.
      While nonprofits will continue to struggle to break down the barriers to advocacy, we can work with clients to break down this self-imposed barrier that we may not even see as a barrier until we see the good that we didn’t know we were missing.
      Thanks for being part of the change!

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