There are a lot of sort of pop psychology, bumper sticker motivationals out there about the difference that one individual can make…they all sort of run together for me, but you know what I mean, right?
Probably the best known is attributed to Helen Keller, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
Beautiful, right? And capable of making me feel guilty when I’m, say, on my way to the fabric store instead of a rally.
The belief in the power of the individual is very much rooted in our culture, but much less frequently seen in how we build capacity for advocacy and social change.
Bet you never thought about that while stopped behind someone at a red light, hunh?
See, when it comes to how we invest in building power to make a difference, we tend to focus almost exclusively on networks of people, on the connections that bind us together, and on how we create structures that leverage those relationships for power.
Sure, it’s obvious that no social movements are the sole work of any individual, even those that are commonly associated with one. But isn’t it also just as true that single individuals do, perhaps not as often as we would wish, change the course of history in amazing ways?
So why is the organization, or the community, most often our focal unit, when we think about what we need to develop in order to reach our goals? Why do we sometimes sort of gloss over the individuals who populate those entities, as though they are somehow replaceable, even when history so clearly teaches us otherwise?
I’ve been particularly thinking about this over the past couple of weeks because of the work that I do with The Sunflower Foundation and its Advocacy Fellows initiative. The initiative is somewhat distinct, particularly in the philanthropic world, because it revolves around advocacy, specifically, rather than a more diffuse sense of nonprofit leadership, and yet, unlike many other advocacy capacity-building efforts, individual advocates are clearly the emphasis.
The theory of change animating the Advocacy Fellowship is this: “the Sunflower Foundation believes that increasing the number of nonprofit health leaders who advocate on behalf of their constituents informs public policy and leads to real solutions for those in need. By becoming involved in advocacy, nonprofit leaders are advancing their causes, building public trust, and helping the people they serve.”
Notably missing, then, is discussion about the organizations in which these individuals work (indeed, they fairly frequently move organizations during the Fellowship or quickly following it) or about the sector as a whole. Instead, the idea is to find promising people, who happen to be working in nonprofit health organizations, and to work intensively with them to develop the knowledge, skills, and, yes, relationships they need to be effective advocates themselves. They are the ones held accountable for moving their work forward, and they are seen as the keys to advancing a vision of a healthy Kansas.
We’re still very much in the early stages of evaluation, but the indications at this point are, really, that the model works–that, no, their organizations do not necessarily greatly increase their advocacy capacity, but they as individuals do, and that that makes a difference. They are quoted more frequently in media accounts of related policy debates, they engage in those debates more often and with more influence, they are more respected by a larger circle of potential targets and allies, and they are increasingly sophisticated and outspoken in their advocacy.
It’s a bit of a gamble, this business of investing in individuals. We feel safer, sometimes, with organizations, because of the law of averages, but those same “averaging” tendencies can dilute and stall the radical message we want to convey: that, in the end, justice hinges on you (and me).
Here’s to sparking movements, one soul at a time.