Take an ‘advocacy day’: Social change as an employee benefit

Earlier this week, I wrote about different strategies that nonprofit organizations can use to fully deploy all of our organizational resources, especially in pursuit of our advocacy aims; and also about how we can create more complete ‘buy-in’ to our missions by bringing our entire staff (and our volunteers and donors) into our collective advocacy work.

Much of this was inspired by Zilch, and trying to figure out how to leverage the resources that nonprofit organizations do have, in order to accomplish the challenges that face us.

But I’m very cognizant, especially in my role as a consultant, of how much easier it is to say stuff like “make sure that you’re fully engaging your Board in advocacy”, than it is to actually do that.

So, today, I’m thinking about what it would mean to use advocacy, and opportunities to shape advocacy within an organization, to create and sustain passion in employees and connect them to the vision of social change that animates the organization, in nonprofit organizations where front-line staff are often anxious for these kinds of opportunities, and where retaining staff (and keeping them passionate) can be one of our greatest barriers to long-term mission success.

And, in the interest of being a little less esoteric and a little more grounded in the realities of nonprofit administration, I’m sharing not my grand ideas of what this could look like, but some examples from the agencies with which I have worked, about what it does look like.

  • Write into employees’ contracts a specific number of ‘comp’ hours they’ll have to engage in mission-consistent social change work, on company time. One organization gives everyone 8 hours to do nonpartisan voter outreach work during election cycles, for example (if they are employees on company time, it has to be nonpartisan!). At El Centro, Inc., we used to get substitutes in our early childhood education program so that teachers could accompany me to our state capitol for legislative work.
  • Provide advocacy-related training (or the money to seek it out) for direct-service employees. One organization I consult for regularly sends front-line staff to policy-related conferences, with specific goals about the policy content they are to bring back to inform their work. Another specifically asked employees what skills and knowledge they needed in order to be effective in advocacy, and set out to fill those gaps with agency-sponsored training.
  • Emphasize the impact of the work, more than the job description, when soliciting new employees. I routinely talk with my students about what attracts them to specific jobs (or internships), and they almost always talk about the area of work, and the impact they hope to have, rather than the types of activities they would be doing. We need to play to that; we should highlight our organization’s vision statements (and they should be good) when advertising for new positions. We need to sell people on the change that they will make, and help them see from the very beginning how their piece of the puzzle fits into that larger whole.
  • Divide up responsibilities to represent the organization in community collaborations. The agencies that are smartest about how to weave advocacy throughout the entire organization intentionally select a diverse set of representatives to engage with various community partners, and they accompany these coalition tasks with opportunities to strategize how to leverage these relationships for advocacy objectives. No one should be the ‘face’ of the organization, and no one should be stuck within its walls, either. Everyone should be able to speak to the mission, and everyone should be on the lookout for powerful alliances. One organization I know has a chart on the wall of all of the key community initiatives in their network, and they are careful about how they allocate representation among their staff leadership.
  • Recruit for mission congruence. It works both ways, of course; employees should know that the organization will take their commitment to social change seriously, and foster it, but organizations also need to expect that their employees will embrace the advocacy needed to advance the mission. Skills can be taught, but passion must be sought.
  • Reward courage and innovation. One of the most inspiring nonprofit leaders I’ve ever worked with regularly asked all of his employees for help working out a particular policy advocacy challenge. And then he took their advice seriously. It’s how we ended up sponsoring a rally of thousands of immigrants all dressed in their work clothes (to illustrate their contributions to the economy, suggested by one of our preschool teachers) and hosting an advocacy fundraising dance where one of our janitors’ band played. They got the credit, too, in ways that transcended their official titles, and it not only increased their allegiance to the organization but also served as a model for others.

Now, I hope you’ll share your examples, too. How do you integrate advocacy and social change work into your agency’s operations? How do you capitalize on the passions of your direct staff to invigorate your root cause work? How do you ‘sell’ your potential employees on the impact they’ll have, not just the kinds of activities in which they’ll engage?

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