The “how” matters. A lot.

My consulting work will has slowed down, a lot, over the past two months, as I stepped back to spend some time with my growing family. I don’t miss the stress of trying to make work phone calls while kids are clamoring for fruit snacks, but I do miss, very much, the opportunity to play at least a small part in the work of some really inspiring social service and civic organizations.

I’m ready to get back to “normal”, or at least my version of it.

Getting ready for some of my fall work, though, and making plans for the future, has prompted me to reflect more on the impact that I have on those with whom I work, and on how this phase of my career builds on my past experiences, and some other thoughts that may quite honestly be more insomnia-provoked than truly interesting.

But this insight, I think, means something, to me and to the organizations with which I’ve worked over the past couple of years.

HOW we do advocacy matters, especially in adverse political and economic times like these.

That’s one of the primary lessons that I’ve tried to share with organizations, especially those just beginning to integrate advocacy into their services. I don’t mean the sort of standard “there are no permanent enemies” advice (which, okay, I’ve never been all that good at anyway).

Instead, what I try to help clients understand is that, when we lose SO OFTEN, we have to build our campaigns so that there are real, tangible victories that can be salvaged, celebrated, and, most crucially, built upon, from the wreckage of the failures (that always hurt anyway).

And people, be they advocacy-averse Board members of a large social service agency, or social justice advocates assembled at a progressive church, usually start to nod when I mention those losses. Because they know them; they’re what they fear. So talking about them openly, from the very beginning, helps to take some of the “sting” out. And, with the inevitability of failure, at least to some degree, on the table, then we can talk about how you build “loss-proof” campaigns, the kind literally guaranteed to bring your organization significant benefit, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

To some extent, this means thinking carefully about how you’ll measure success, and building in the kinds of interim measures (increasing your membership base, attracting new donors, raising your profile) that, while not empirically demonstrated to lead to later advocacy success, matter on their own rights.

But what I push organizations to plan for, and what I mean by the “how”, is the need to construct strategy and choose tactics that are designed to build the power of individual leaders within your organization and to strengthen the relationships among them.

This means that, when you have the choice between going alone to a meeting with the Mayor or spending the time to prepare community members to facilitate it, you choose the latter. You hold regular meetings with your leadership to let them make the decisions about how to proceed, especially at difficult junctures. You encourage them to collect postcards or petitions, even if you doubt they’ll influence the decision-makers, because you want them to practice their messages and build their base. And you utilize reflections to help them name their advances and process their grief about the loss, rather than buying into the “winner takes all” logic of our current political system.

It means that you recognize that, while falling short of your ultimate policy goal is virtually a given, irredeemable failure is unacceptable. And so you plan to prevent it.

And that way, you win. Even when you lose.

And that makes all the difference.

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