In search of adaptive capacity

Advocacy evaluation has been both an academic and an applied pursuit of mine for the past three years or so now.

I’ve learned a lot about how to build accountability and shared learning into advocacy campaigns, how to measure the comparative impact of different approaches, and, most importantly, what to address in order to improve the effectiveness of a given advocacy organization.

I’ve learned a lot about what doesn’t predict advocacy success, too: sheer organizational size or budget, ‘inside’ connections to decision-makers, expertise in a given issue area, even the number of grassroots activists.

All those things matter, certainly.

But what seems to matter more than anything, and what captures, in a way, the effect of knowing how to bring those elements and others together into a cohesive and potent whole, is adaptive capacity.

It’s an idea borrowed from systems theory, and I’m certainly not the first one to connect it to the task of advocacy evaluation.

It’s one of those beautiful theories that makes intuitive, as well as empirical, sense.

Wouldn’t we expect that, in the advocacy realm, those organizations that can adapt to a continually changing environment would see the greatest success, especially over time?

The challenge, then, for nonprofits engaging in advocacy (and, we assume, wanting to win!) is to figure out what adaptive capacity looks like, for them, and how to build it. Otherwise, you get organizations that build the same kind of campaign, or deploy the same kinds of messages, or use the very same tactics, no matter the context, which yields victories (not surprisingly) only when the actions are well-suited to the demands of the situation. When they’re not, well…that “successful” advocacy organization can find itself losing, a lot.

It means understanding how to really diagnose the political context–not just who’s in power, but who has influence over them, and where there are openings and how to leverage your assets to push through them. It means fully reflecting on the victories and failures of each advocacy effort, so that you can learn from one experience to figure out what it means for the next. It means compensating for the areas where your capacity is less than you would hope, by optimally wielding the capacity you do possess. It means building your skills, and knowledge, and relationships–not so that you can “master” advocacy, as though it was a one-time achievement–but so that you can increase your versatility and pivot to different strategies as the situation demands.

This understanding, as fairly evident as it appears at this point in the development of the field, presents a different nuance to the pursuit of advocacy capacity. Now, we know that what we should be working towards isn’t just a bigger organization or better connections or a stronger base…it’s the elements that are particularly essential in this specific environment, and maybe the one that we think is headed for us next. That might require going after any one of those assets, or all of them, or something else entirely. And it will definitely demand that we know when to pull out which tools, and in what combination, and that we never stop scanning around ourselves to see how what we’re doing might not fit with what is needed.

Adaptive capacity:

A fancy way of saying “able to win again and again and again and again.”

Doesn’t that sound good?

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