One of the most rewarding parts of my work life over the past year has been the opportunity to provide technical assistance to four social service organizations in the region, around the question of how to integrate advocacy into their organizations.
For me, this has been a chance to put into practice some of the concepts I have spent much of the past few years thinking about:
- How can equipping service providers to effectively engage in advocacy change the ‘field’ in policy advocacy?
- How can the assets of service providers–their Boards, their clients, their staff, their expertise, their reputation–be leveraged in policy advocacy, without compromising their commitment to their primary mission?
- What are sustainable models for integrating advocacy into social service organizations, and what investments need to be in place to build those structures?
- What is the relationship between overall organizational capacity and advocacy capacity?
And it has also been a tremendous gift to be able to spend quite a bit of time with direct service providers and with service participants, since I can begin to feel isolated in an academic/theoretical/political vacuum, sometimes.
The hands-on technical assistance period has almost concluded now, and I am beginning to prepare the case studies requested by the foundation that provided the assistance to the organizations. This part of the process has me reflecting on what I have learned from these organizations, and what I believe we are learning and accomplishing together. This week, I have three posts related to some of these ideas, and I’d certainly welcome comments, from any of my colleagues in these organizations, from others engaged in similar work around the country, and from any of you.
And to the really inspiring, committed, creative, courageous, and fun people with whom I’ve spent so much time, especially these past 9 months, please don’t be strangers. I don’t need to be paid for every minute of my time. If there’s something you think I can help you with, or something you want to talk through, I am your traveling companion on this journey. Thank you for sharing with me.
Some of my initial thoughts on lessons from practice:
- Organizational culture matters, a lot, especially a culture of innovation (where new things aren’t scary, just new), of cross-departmental collaboration (because the only way to make advocacy sustainable is to weave it into everyone’s jobs, a little), and of client empowerment (so that ‘turning over’ advocacy to those we serve doesn’t seem foreign or awkward).
- Organizational capacity absolutely makes a difference, even though I still don’t believe that advocacy capacity can be conflated with overall capacity. I saw that organizations with the greatest overall capacity–staffing levels commensurate with need, adequate backroom support, good information technology, workable physical space–were able, really, to place the greatest demands on me. They could use more of what I could offer, because they weren’t always in catchup mode. This, of course, feeds their capacity further, making capacity investments (or the lack thereof) a reinforcing cycle.
- There are staff within every organization who want to do more, and do differently, and do better, despite the really incredible demands on their time and energy. Without fail (and even when administrators were pretty skeptical), I had direct staff members come up with amazing insights on advocacy agendas, terrific ideas for how to engage clients, exciting avenues for advocacy allies, and, more than anything, a real openness to the possibilities of making advocacy part of their work. And, at the same time, I helped organizational leaders see that this commitment doesn’t need to be universal for it to be transformational.
- Boards make a difference. I have been a nonprofit Board member for years, sometimes a really great one, sometimes mediocre, and, sometimes (ahem, when the twins were newborn) totally derelict. So I get it, and this isn’t a ‘bash on Boards’ post. But, truly, many of our organizations would be well-served by better Boards. I was struck by how many times not only staff but even other volunteers within an organization spoke of the need to make information short for Board members, to limit demands on their time, to downplay the significance of their roles. This is especially noteworthy given the impact that Board members could have on the organization’s advocacy, positioned as they are to be ambassadors for the organization in influential circles.
- Defining advocacy more broadly than legislative change is essential, both to gaining additional buy-in from organizational actors (who want to change the world, but maybe not lobby Congress), and to charting avenues of social change where they are positioned to be successful (which, for some, may not be in the state legislature). Among these organizations, some are planning to play very active roles in state legislatures, but others are tackling media coverage of mental health, local government funding for public transportation, local school district policies affecting homeless youth, and state agency regulations around access to public benefits.
It sounds tired, but this journey, to orient social service organizations to a social change mission, is a process. My intense work with these four agencies is ending only because the grant that makes it possible is, not because the work has reached a definitive conclusion. Still, though, as I do this reflection, I can point to some changes–some tangible, some much less so–in how these organizations approach advocacy as part of their mission, a complement to their services, and a philosophical orientation that, in turn, shapes how they serve.
On the ground, not just in theory.