Using our whole bench

I have tremendous respect for those who run social work organizations.

In my consulting practice, I work closely with CEOs, and I don’t envy their mix of responsibilities–managing people, meeting budgets, evaluating programs…all the while (we hope) charting a vision that inspires people, mobilizes allies, and solves core social problems.

All of this is to say that my thoughts about how we can better utilize our resources within social work organizations are in no way intended to suggest that I could do that work any better. Because I could not.

But some of my conversations with former students, and some parts of Zilch, have me thinking about the very limited resources that constrain many nonprofit organizations, and about how we might overcome those limitations. It’s more than just an academic interest of mine, since “we don’t have anyone who can do that” and “we are already so overworked” are two of the most common objections to the idea that organizations should integrate advocacy into their services.

We can’t afford that.

But I get it that organizations can’t afford to do staff advocacy campaigns the way that they’d like to, either.

So, it has me wondering: are we really using everything we have?

I know, that sounds obvious. Of course, all of our folks are working hard, and everyone thinks that we’re doing as much as we can.

But, are we?

There are three groups of people I think we’re not adequately utilizing. And, if we’re going to be able to do more, even with less and less, we’ve got to bring everyone into the game.

  • Interns and volunteers: I’ve never bought into the idea of staffing something really mission-critical, like advocacy, with an entirely ‘intern squad’–that’s not a reflection on their qualifications, certainly, but rather the recognition that, too often, that’s code for “we don’t really take this seriously.” But too many of my students complain that their practicum organizations don’t give them adequate opportunities to engage in policy, community organizing, or other macro activities, and that’s a waste, not only for their current organizations but also as an investment in their future practice. We need to cultivate a culture of advocacy in our own organizations AND in our profession, and students are the best place to start.
  • Board members: Some of my students also tell me that they hardly ever interact with the Board of Directors and that, indeed, the Board seems somewhat sequestered, not engaging too much with the daily operations of the organization or, certainly, its social change campaigns. I see this in my consulting practice, too, with staff who are very protective of their Board members, reluctant to ask them to contact their legislators or contribute to strategy planning, or, even, make donate financially. I don’t get that. I mean, what’s the use of ‘keeping your powder dry’ if you never intend to fire a shot? What are we saving them for? Our Board members are fully capable of taking care of themselves, and their time, and it won’t be the end of the world if we lose a few Board members because their idea of service is significantly less involved than ours. This same principle extends to our donors, too; why do we think that asking people who already give their money to give 15 minutes of their time (to make a phone call to a policymaker, for example) is just way too much to expect?
  • Former employees: This was an idea from Zilch that I thought was genius. We have a lot of turnover in social work organizations, and, most of the time, those employees who are leaving are doing so in search of new opportunities, but not because they are no longer committed to our missions. Why don’t we ask them, then, to stay involved with our work? In exit interviews, why don’t we invite them to continue to receive our e-newsletters? Why don’t we tap their expertise to ask them to contact their policymakers? They’re more likely to respond than a random member of the general public, and yet we’re often even less likely to ask them. It doesn’t make sense; these valuable former employees are resources we can’t afford to leave on the table.

What about you? What ways have you found to fully leverage all of your human resources? How have you learned to do more advocacy, even in the era of less? What stops you from putting in all of your reserves?

One response to “Using our whole bench

  1. Yet another excellent post.

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