Building a better agenda: inclusive advocacy agenda processes

One of the most exciting parts of my advocacy technical assistance with these four organizations has been the work helping them to build (or, in two cases, rebuild) their advocacy agendas…starting from where their clients are.

Often, we build advocacy agendas for our organizations (those documents that get our Board of Directors’ official approval and signal to the world–or those who are watching–the issues on which we will take a stand, usually in the legislative session) by having someone sit down and craft a list of priorities, sometimes with some prior input from the Board (but usually not). These lists are often far too long, because we care about everything, somewhat less than aspirational (because we don’t want to set ourselves up to fail), and determinedly ‘relevant’ (in the eyes of policymakers and observers, not necessarily those we serve).

I know, because I have crafted more than a dozen of these agendas, over the years.

It’s not a fruitless exercise; we know that having a formalized advocacy agenda is associated with significantly higher expenditure of organizational ‘effort’ towards policy change, and, in turn, correlates with greater advocacy capacity.

But I think we can do it better.

Because, if we think about our reasons for advocating in the first place as stemming from our desire to see the brick walls we encounter taken down, we have to truly understand the nature of the obstacles our clients encounter, and how we can address them through policy.

And, if we hope to engage all of our organizational assets–including our clients and our staff–in our advocacy, that task will be a whole lot easier if we’re asking them to help us move their priorities, instead of ours.

This certainly isn’t rocket science. Mostly, I work with staff to create some surveys for staff members to think through how they would prioritize the issues that might command the organization’s attention, and to rate them based on mission congruence, the likelihood that the organization could make a real difference in that area, and overall importance.

And, the most fun for me, I sit down and talk with clients and staff (usually separately) about the organization, the challenges they encounter, what would make the biggest difference in their lives, and how they would like to play a role in advancing these issues.

I’m careful to frame this as only the beginning of a process of engagement; we can’t make the mistake of assuming that once we’ve asked people their opinion once, we’re good. Nor can we expect that any one group of clients ‘speaks’ for any other, or that staff members will participate across the board, at least not in the way we might hope.

But the act of asking, and of acting on the insights shared, is yielding some distinct differences, and the process has made me even more convinced that our advocacy agendas can be far more than signals to our elected officials about the changes we hope they’ll make.

They can be tools that we use, internally, to make it more likely that those changes are realized.

What I’ve seen:

  • Some of the policy priorities clients identify are obvious, and, so, often overlooked. One homeless youth identified a need for the SNAP eligibility process to change, so that youth don’t have the responsibility to prove that they are no longer considered part of their parents’ households; the onus should be on the parent receiving SNAP on behalf of that child. When this was presented to representatives of congressional offices, they reacted in surprise, and said, “I think we can make that happen.”
  • The priorities often align considerably. In one community mental health center, the CEO had been talking about housing for months, and then, when I sat down with several groups of clients, ‘housing’ was the first need they emphasized. They had stirring stories about how lack of appropriate housing options results in unnecessary institutionalization, and they identified policy and programming changes that could make a difference.
  • And, sometimes, they don’t. Clients at several different organizations stressed the need for access to identification, as a foundation of access to other services. None of the organizational leaders had identified this as a priority, though, and, indeed, resisted somewhat, primarily since figuring out the levers to push for those changes is somewhat elusive.
  • Some of the policy changes identified will be internal agency policies, and, if organizations are going to really live values of empowerment and communicate to clients that their opinions are not mere tokens, these have to be at least somewhat openly received. One organization’s clients took issue with the smoking policy and the practice of handling Medicaid spend-down regulations. I believe that the leadership’s willingness to hear people out on these pieces is tangibly impacting how willing clients are to advocate moving forward.
  • There has to be a ‘so what’. We know that we do more damage than good if we unintentionally send people the message that we asked them for their stories, and for their insights, and then just filed them away somewhere. Organizations should be clear about the purpose of the information-gathering, about the opportunities for people to continue to engage in the process, and about the anticipated timeline. This is also a great chance to help people understand the other factors that go into setting an advocacy agenda, including a power analysis and assessment of the advocacy landscape.

How do you build your advocacy agendas? What role do all of your organizational stakeholders play? How do you structure the process? And what product do you receive in return?

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9 responses to “Building a better agenda: inclusive advocacy agenda processes

  1. Being a practicum students at a community mental health center, at this point in time is very interesting. We are experiencing changes into a fully qualified health homes, among many other changes. With these changes, and many other stressors, both line workers and administrative staff struggles getting to know the deeper issues surround the consumers at the agency.

    Without a doubt, this is something that many other agencies experience as well. It is for this reason that my agency struggles with advocacy. With in my agency, not many members go to board meetings. Many individuals do not know that the agency has a open board meetings. If we can empower staff, and even consumers to visit the board meetings, we might be able to stimulate agency change, which would allow us to gather information, or who knows, open a position for and advocate.

    Sometimes, we need to advocate for our own agency internally, in many instances in order to develop a structure that will help the agency to stimulate change for the consumers that we help.

    • Great point about the connection between organizational structure and governance and subsequent advocacy capacity–literature suggests that this sort of executive and Board leadership is among the most significant predictors of advocacy engagement. I wonder how the changes buffeting the mental health system can be used as catalysts for change around advocacy, by sort of ‘raising the temperature’ by highlighting what’s at stake? Often, our tendency in a difficult time is retrenchment, to put our heads down and try to get by, when these are precisely the moments that most call us to risk. As you suggest, though, the organization needs to be structured such that the preconditions for such risk are established. Thank you for your comments!

      On Thu, Apr 10, 2014 at 10:48 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  2. My agency does a wonderful job in advocacy. They enlist staff to identify what they feel they need to advocate for or against in the legislature. More importantly, they enlist constituents to identify those issues. The internal program that holds all of the constituents information will also indicate what their advocacy issue and we can monitor and track any changes in their issues or when new ones arise that needs to be addressed. The board members are also heavily involved in developing advocacy issues for the society to follow and are involved in the efforts to make changes to those issues as well. The society is fortunate in that they are really an agency built for social justice for the MS population. Every new fiscal year (end of September) they decide what their one or two key issues are. They begin making appearances in the capital to gain recognition amongst the legislators and try to find support for those issues while they are there.
    The product, in return, is that people are much more invested in the advocacy efforts the society addresses and are much more willing to participate in trying to accomplish the changes necessary to make those issues more positively relevent to our constituents.

    • I wonder, Rachel, what your thoughts are about how being part of a national organization affects your organization’s advocacy capacity–on the one hand, you have access to a wealth of materials and resources but, on the other hand, do you ever feel constrained, in that you have to select issues with an eye towards those that have the support of the national entity, even if those may not resonate as much with your local constituency? How do you think those dynamics balance out?

      On Fri, Apr 25, 2014 at 3:43 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  3. My practicum agency is one that is an affiliate of a much larger organization. The larger organization does an amazing job of laying out their political agenda. They list clearly on their website what specifically their legislative priorities are, what their position is, and how you (as an advocate) can get involved. They even provide links to the federal bills that are coming up for a vote, with contact information for all of the members of Congress that sponsor/ co-sponsor the bill, and let you know if they (the organization) are in support of the bill or not. They also let the public know how they feel about key decision/ issues in Washington. For example, with the recent nomination of Merrick Garland to the United States Supreme Court, this organization expressed disappointment that the president did not use this opportunity to appoint someone that had a minority status. If I was assigning a grade, they would get an A+!

    However, things are not so clear at the individual agency level. I guess that I cannot speak for every one of the individual agencies, but the websites I have looked at show a lack of evidence that the individual affiliates take a clear stand on what their position is on issues their clients face. The least their websites could do is point people to the parent organization’s website to view their position. I like this idea of surveying the staff to get an idea of how they would prioritize the issues. As I am currently writing this post, I have already finished my practicum requirements (as of one week ago), but I would have loved to implement something like this within the agency. From my perspective, my practicum agency had real potential to increase their advocacy efforts and they had staff/ board members who were willing to do so! As a student, I was only able to accomplish so much during my time there, but I am hopeful that the discussions I started about agency advocacy efforts continue well into the future. I do intend to take this information to where ever I end up working though!

  4. Great reflections, Jamie. I think that this is often the case, that organizations that are affiliated with other structures are less likely to take strong advocacy positions themselves, because they defer to that ‘parent’ organization in advocacy…which can be a real asset, sometimes, but can also lead the local organization to not develop advocacy capacity, which can be especially detrimental when there are local issues that need to be addressed, that the larger organization won’t take on. I look forward to seeing where your social work career takes you!

  5. Chris Anderson

    My practicum site is housing related and seems to have a different advocacy philosophy. The agency does a really nice job of being open and transparent with actions and desire to create a client-centered atmosphere with its tenants. However, I have always found it strange that in a market that experiences lots of affordable housing problems, the agency seems to choose to pursue advocacy for housing options through a national organization. Rather than focusing on advocating for clients and housing on a local or state basis, they seem more focused on advocating through a national forum.
    In the post you talk about inclusion with clients and their opinions, I think that is where I would start with an advocacy agenda. Advocacy shouldn’t operate solely on an agency agenda, but certainly include thoughts and ideas of stakeholders. Tenants, as stakeholders, in my opinion, should be a driving force in the agency advocacy agenda. Barriers and roadblocks to housing, as presented by tenants, should be a primary influence on advocacy philosophy. My practicum agency is very inclusive with exposure to Board meetings (tenants are welcome to attend and contribute), and also posts Board minutes on its website. I believe this is a great start to creating an agency advocacy agenda that is tenant-centered and based on local conditions. By being more responsive to tenant reported local and state concerns, I believe my agency would better serve its clients and the local housing market.

    • Thanks for this, Chris. I agree that welcoming clients to Board meetings not only helps to set a strong agency culture of engagement with clients, but also lays the ‘pipes’, so to speak, through which critical feedback from clients can flow. In other words, you’ll have more opportunities to hear from clients about what they need and the policies they want to see, in order to increase their chance to live into their visions of their futures. Maybe there could be time set aside at an upcoming Board meeting to specifically elicit this input? You could work together to draft an advocacy agenda.

  6. This is a practice that I have not seen fully integrated into most of my practice agencies. My first employer actively participated in focus groups and sought to connect youth with advocacy groups. However, my following employer and my practicum agencies seem less than thrilled to directly include their voices. I get mixed messages about including youth voices at my agency from saying things like “We’ll only get inaccurate data from youth” to “Their voices are what we really need to make effective change.”

    There is a disconnect in the agency between collecting data for stakeholders and collecting data for youth. Personally, I am wanting to bring all of the data collection tools and data to one table (something not done) just to see what we are tracking, how many tools we have, and what information have we gotten from it. I’m hoping that could make a change, and I suppose is the first step in guaranteeing that the greater organization has the same tools and skills that the others do.

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