The Future of Nonprofits, Part I: Innovating for Advocacy

This week, in the spirit of the season of giving, I’m writing three posts related to my thinking on some of the ideas raised in The Future of Nonprofits, and then giving away a copy of the book to a randomly-selected commenter at the end of the week. Today’s post tackles the core of the book–building an orientation to innovation within nonprofit organizations–specifically regarding what I think this means for transforming organizational cultures to embrace advocacy as a central mission imperative. Much of what I’ve written about here before (accepting risk, seeking mission fit, rigorously evaluating advocacy efforts) complements the authors’ insights on what innovation can look like, and can mean, for nonprofits, although I’ve never thought about it as explicitly “innovating” until reading this book.

I look forward to your comments, from those who have read The Future of Nonprofits and those who would like to, and especially your ideas on what the future can look like for our field, and more importantly, for the causes to which we dedicate ourselves, if we commit to building it together.

There’s an analogy in the opening of The Future of Nonprofits about how we respond to a moth in the room–taking the time to usher it carefully outside v. swatting at it with the back of our hands–that the authors use to illustrate how we often deal with new ideas in a nonprofit organization (hint: many of us are swatters). Honestly, I’m not totally enamored with the analogy, because what we often need to do is embrace the “moth” and shower it with the attention it deserves as it grows, rather than even kindly sending it on its way, but it did get me thinking about one of the greatest challenges we face in integrating an advocacy orientation into our primarily service-focused organizations:

We are very anxious about distractions.

Some of this preoccupation with focus is good, of course: none of us would want to work in (or be served by!) organizations without a clear sense of mission and how its activities advance those goals. We owe our clients, especially, accountability, and we need to avoid the temptation to do a little bit of good wherever we can, instead of developing real excellence that can revolutionize our world.


Advocacy is not a distraction.

Nor is it the kind of small side initiative (like the office recycling program that the authors use to illustrate inventions v. innovations) that we can tack onto what we’re already doing, in the hopes that either (a) it will magically make our lives better and our work more effective or (b) it will satisfy our guilt, at least, about what we should be doing, and get people off our backs for awhile.

It requires infusing a commitment to social justice, a willingness to engage even our adversaries, a recognition that standing with our clients requires (at least sometimes) standing in harm’s way, and a passion for mission that becomes a calling.

And that makes it an innovation, in the clearest sense of that word–something that contributes creatively and powerfully to what our organizations should be doing: “creating ways to deliver on their mission through products and services that are insanely great” (p. 23).

But how do we get there? How do we get past this fear that stepping up to the advocacy challenges that so demand our attention won’t, somehow, turn us into these political monsters embroiled in every nasty fight we read about in the papers, or, conversely, detract from our services so much that we cease to be relevant to the causes to which we are committed?

The Future of Nonprofits suggests that what our organizations need, in fact, is more waste. Translating this concept to advocacy, it means time spent contemplating the roots of the problems faced by those we serve, and thinking collaboratively and very intently about the policy approaches that could eradicate them. It means building this time, and respect for it, into our employees’ job descriptions, and into our organizations’ priorities. It means structuring our organizations so that there is room to explore, so that we can be deliberate about our advocacy AND still extremely competent in our services.

Because, really, we can do more than one thing at a time. Even well.

It means that advocacy shouldn’t be the prerogative of just the “policy person” in an organization. Everyone who works at a particular organization should be assumed to be passionately committed to its mission (or they shouldn’t be there), and there should be an intentional effort to weave advocacy responsibilities into their regular work, both so that advocacy initiatives have the benefit of multiple perspectives and so that individuals can be a part of something larger, even, than they own specialized functions. I’ve seen this in practice, with childcare workers allowed to travel for legislative visits on work time, and case managers whose advocacy efforts alongside clients emerge as their most treasured victories, sustaining them during draining periods of direct practice.

It also means that seeing advocacy as an innovation within an organization–a fundamentally new and very potent way to attack the problems that plague us–frames it as an endeavor to be approached with an eye towards evaluation and an acceptance of the risks that inevitably accompany it. That’s a healthy and sustainable way for organizations to embrace advocacy as a core part of their work, rather than that “stuck onto the side” distraction.

Because it’s not.

One response to “The Future of Nonprofits, Part I: Innovating for Advocacy

  1. Pingback: Best Tweets in Mental Health (wk of 12/5/2011) - SocialWork.Career

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