One of the challenges in evaluating advocacy is really just a variation on a universal bane of researchers: the contamination by extraneous variables.
In advocacy, after all, there are so many different things that can impact the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of an initiative, only some of which are remotely within the control of the entity being evaluated. Evaluators, then, are hesitant to ascribe too much of a given victory or defeat to the actions wielded by the organization/advocate, because, in so doing, they could be inadvertently inflating or deflating the true impact of the effort.
One of the most promising approaches to getting around the pesky reality that advocacy can’t happen in an isolated lab is the idea of network centrality.
Network centrality means measuring advocates, rather than the discrete advocacy effort–essentially looking at one angle of the adaptive capacity question. It requires determining the reputation of an advocate or organization within the network of allies and targets it needs to influence–today or over time–if it is to prevail in an advocacy campaign. It’s not necessarily easier to collect these assessments than measures of controlled cause-and-effect, and it’s as relatively subjective as most everything in the social sciences, but it’s tremendously valuable in predicting how one will be able to move within the advocacy context. It’s designed to work in real life and real time.
And you can use it to sort of self-assess, too.
Have you ever tabulated the policymaker targets with whom you have a close relationship–the ones that routinely ask you for information and turn to you for policy guidance? What about those who may not approach you, but who are very receptive when you initiate the exchange? What about looking at your coalition relationships–with which organizations are you in relationship, and how often do others look to you to lead an advocacy effort? How many entities within your community are aware of your policy priorities? How many would report that you are a trusted source on policy issues? How many visit your website to check out action alerts? How frequently do media contacts rely on you?
Understanding how we move within the orbit that is our advocacy network, where we sit, and how others see us can give us valuable insights into how we can maneuver effectively within our context. It can reveal why we feel marginalized in some debates, point out where we need to invest more relational energy, and guide us towards new tactics to build our reputation with key stakeholders.
It’s not egotistical to want the power we need to get the changes we want for the people we serve. It’s not self-serving to spend time analyzing how we connect to those with whom we need to have influence, so that we can figure out how to better wield that influence in pursuit of justice.
It’s not about trying to make ourselves the sun.
It’s about making sure that we are in a position to shine.