This is how you do it: Building Movement survey
My obsession with Building Movement has been well-documented.
They’re nice about it and keep sending me emails about their efforts, which mostly revolve around encouraging and then documenting the really phenomenal activities of nonprofit social service organizations to integrate direct practice and advocacy, in a way that empowers their clients and energizes their staff.
It’s really good stuff.
The last piece of theirs that I’ve been combing through is called Catalysts for Change (I even love the title), and it presents the major findings from a survey of more than 450 nonprofits in California, about their efforts to transcend mere service provision to become a real force for social change around the issues presented by their clients, along with case studies of the organizations doing this best, to provide inspiration to the rest of us.
They frame this work as helping clients become change agents and, indeed, recognize their inherent capacity to transform the systems that trap them, and I just kept nodding my head as I read. But not all of the report is good news–Building Movement discovered, not surprisingly, that nonprofits are, for the most part, missing opportunities to engage their clients in these revolutionary ways, for all kinds of predictable reasons about limited resources and limiting philosophies.
Some of the lessons I took from these nonprofits’ experiences, and the efforts of Building Movement to catalog them:
Many more organizations are engaged in externally-focused advocacy (more than 80%) than in grassroots organizing and capacity-building within their own client base (fewer than 50%). Board members are likely to participate in advocacy, but quite unlikely to interface with clients on this work. This strikes me, in many ways, as odd: why are we more willing to stick our necks out and expend our own energies than get our own houses in order, so to speak, by fully equipping and utilizing the considerable power our clients represent? How can we expect institutions of power to include our clients’ perspectives if our own organizations haven’t fully embraced this? It makes me wonder about how we’re shaping social workers’ views of the world, and of those we serve, and how we can work from the inside out to turn our organizations into forces for change.
Smaller organizations are, perhaps predictably, less likely to incorporate advocacy into their work, but, given the number of nonprofit service providers with fewer than 25 staff, it quickly becomes clear that we cannot afford to relegate social change work to only the big players.
The challenging (to use their rather euphemistic term) economic context seems to be encouraging, not discouraging, advocacy activity: desperation breeds courage sometimes, apparently, and, here, organizations are reaching out beyond direct service work as an extension of their survival mechanism. Here, too, though, there are some real missed opportunities: only 25% provide clients with the opportunity to register to vote, and only 10% connect clients to elected officials’ forums, when making the case to these power brokers is clearly in organizations’ own direct financial interest, in addition to critical for advancing the issues on which they work.
The organizations highlighted in the case studies all have that rather indefinable organizational culture that supports advocacy, and the leaders of those institutions point to that as a core feature that supports their work. About two-thirds have explicit structures (strategic plans, mission statements) that call for and provide accountability for these social change activities, and these organizations out-perform their peers on engagement, including on the more elusive client-empowerment measures (at a level of statistical significance, even!). That makes it obvious that cultivating organizational support for both an internal and external social change orientation needs to be a focus of leadership efforts.
Unlike several years ago, direct service providers reflected a familiarity with the terms “civic engagement” and “social change”, even if we as a field still lack common definitions or a universal commitment to these ideals. Building Movement suggests, and I agree, that this points to a real opening to institutionalize these ideas in nonprofit management. This advocacy is perhaps best viewed as a continuum, too; while very few organizations are engaged in collective activism, relatively many are comfortable with direct contact with elected officials. There are certainly roles for organizations along this spectrum, and finding these niches starts with conversations.
I’m going to highlight some of the case studies later this week, but I’m interested in your reactions to these findings, too. Does anything surprise you? How does knowing what this really looks like, rather than what we might guess, matter? What questions need to be answered as part of this project of “field transformation”? How do these findings dovetail, or contradict, what you experience in your own organization?