We have to start by claiming our failures

There is growing recognition, I think, of the importance of owning our failures—in advocacy and in life—so that we can learn from failings (ours, which is a sort of eternal life lesson, and, increasingly, those of others, too, through shared learning opportunities that have taken some of the ‘sting’ out of failure). We should celebrate the liberating power of being comfortable with failure, of even rushing to it, in pursuit of the victories that we know can and often do follow in its wake.

Certainly nonprofit advocates are not immune from this imperative to acknowledge, analyze, and even disseminate our failures; we can do more, certainly, through the deployment of systematic advocacy evaluation efforts, but I see a trend of reducing stigma around failure, and it’s one that I think will benefit us in the future.

But there’s an extension of this idea that is harder, I believe, for nonprofit advocates to embrace. It’s even more central to our advocacy success. And we’ve got to put it out there together, because it’s too much to ask any one organization, or even any one sector, to go out on a limb.

So here it is.

To fully transform our nonprofit social service organizations into effective advocacy forces, and to make the strongest case possible for the policy changes that those we serve so desperately need, we have to admit the truth:

Our services, our programs, our intense direct services, are failing.

Yes, I know; that sounds brutal.

And of course I don’t mean that there isn’t tremendous value in what nonprofit social service organizations do every day—feeding people who are hungry, mentoring kids at risk, helping people free themselves from addictions, training people for better-paying jobs. There obviously is.

That work meets people where they are, provides hope, helps people survive to fight the larger structures that create and perpetuate need. It is noble work, and it lifts my own soul and has the potential to transform individual lives.

But, measured against the scope and scale of the problems we face, it’s failing.

We’re working smarter, and working harder, and bringing more and more bright and talented individuals around to the ‘social sector’, and yet we haven’t moved the needle on very many of the most critical challenges that face our world. And the answer isn’t more services, or even more money for those services.

It’s changing the systems that create the problems in the first place. It’s addressing the root causes that make poverty and oppression and tragedy routine and predictable and crushingly continual. It’s removing the fuel instead of always putting out fires.
And it means that we have to acknowledge that, on its own, our services aren’t going to win the day. Which is a tough lift for nonprofit organizations that are, now more than ever (and not unrelated, obviously, to these structural issues) competing with each other for funding and trying to prove to donors that they have the answer. We absolutely should be measuring the impact of our services, because they’re certainly not all created equal. And goals of program accountability are not at all incompatible with this larger need to give up the charade of adequacy—we have to stop pretending that we can ever program our way to justice.

We have to stop for ourselves, because there’s no easier way to drive oneself crazy within a social service system. We have to stop for our clients, because how disempowering is it to think that you must be the only one whose problems aren’t being eradicated by this excellent case management or fantastic after-school program.

And we have to stop for our public policies, because we can’t be our best advocates if we’re simultaneously trying to convince policymakers that we’ve got everything taken care of.

I think we can start small, really. What if, in our annual reports where we highlight our programmatic successes, we included a column dedicated to the policy changes that would make next year’s annual report radically different? What if we added language about “ending homelessness” or “eliminating racism” to our mission statements, the way some organizations have done? What if we added “but our services can’t solve all these problems” to our agency brochures, or added an appeal to advocacy in every volunteer orientation?

It won’t be easy, but we can win.

We just have to first acknowledge that we’re losing.

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