One of the things that I appreciate the most about the work of the Building Movement Project is that they don’t just give nonprofit social service organizations advice (and exhortation) about integrating direct services and advocacy. They also provide true inspiration, in the form of case studies of organizations, all of them imperfect and just as stretched as any other, that are finding ways to make this dual mission work and, in the process, are transforming their engagement with clients and attacking injustices in their communities.
The case studies that accompany the Catalysts for Change report are particularly instructive, I think, because they include a wide range of nonprofit organizations (from relatively large health care centers to indigenous community centers to very grassroots groups working on domestic violence, for example), have strong representation from the poorest communities in California (where the studies are located), directly discuss barriers encountered by organizations and how to overcome them, and highlight the individual leaders that personalize and personify this commitment to advocacy through services.
Each case study highlights lessons learned: don’t panic if staff leave because they’re not comfortable with the activist direction (you’ll attract new staff who are!); break down silos between advocacy and direct services (they have to be integrated to be sustainable and effective); make sure your funding strategy and your Board selection align with your emphasis on advocacy (otherwise, you’ll be fighting those who should be your allies!); be prepared for backlash (center on your mission and stay true to your values); give your clients real power within the organizational structure; partner with organizations that can enhance your work without trying to co-op your community; and invest in client and staff capacity for advocacy leadership.
My favorite case studies draw out how radical direct service provision is, in itself, a powerful force for social change, which captures what I believe about working with clients for transformation and points the way to integration of clinical and macro practice.
Imagine selecting one of these case studies for a Board retreat where you’re discussing a new strategic vision and how you can involve clients more fully in your work. Or sitting down with your direct service providers to brainstorm how you could transform your programming so that it’s more integrated with your advocacy priorities. Or just curling up on those days when it seems like everything you want to see in the world is elusive, to be reminded that there are good and courageous people, and that they’re sharing their own experiences to be a light unto your path. And then imagine that the next Building Movement Project case studies feature…you!