A new framework for advocacy

September is mostly going to be “what has Melinda been doing” month.

And my motivations are fairly self-serving, I’ll acknowledge.

I have been working so much for my consulting clients that I really haven’t been doing nearly as much reading and exchanging, in the blogosphere or otherwise, to cultivate thoughts to share here.

And, too, I need a reason to sit still for a few moments and just reflect on, and sort of process, what this work is adding up to.

I hope, of course, that this is also at least somewhat helpful to you, the readers who continue to humble and amaze me, with your comments and your mere presence.

If not, well…it’s another reason for me to be ever grateful to you, for humoring me. And to the Internet, for giving me this platform.

My world was fairly rocked, and not in a good way at all, in the Kansas Republican primaries on August 7th of this year. Conservatives picked up way more seats than they needed, in order to gain control of the Senate, which has, until now, been a pretty moderate body, serving as a sort of ‘check’ in the past two years, as the House and Governor’s Mansion are increasingly far-right.

It was a big deal, and even made national news.

I don’t think that it’s as much a mandate for the policies of Kobach and company as much as a referendum on the inadequacy of the Republican primary–and, at least for now, the entire party–as a medium for moderation. In several of the races, where solid moderate Republicans–mostly very good friends of mine–lost well-financed, hard-fought contests, there is ample evidence that moderate voters just didn’t show up.

I’m still very much in the stages of grief, here. Some of my advocate friends joke that I may stay ‘stuck’ in anger for a long, long time.

We will almost inevitably lose issues that matter a great deal to me, including our instate tuition policy for immigrant students, decent school financing for public education, an Earned Income Tax Credit, support for essential social services.

Elections have consequences.

Even when that sucks.

But I know that I can’t stay stuck in grief. None of us can afford that.

Neither can we content ourselves entirely with ‘speaking truth to power’, not if that means beating our heads against the collective wall that will be the Kansas Legislature for the next few years.

We can do better.

I have had the pleasure of working alongside the Center for Evaluation Innovation recently, on a Kansas Advocacy Evaluation Collaborative, where we’re helping some of our strongest advocates–primarily in health–to develop new and greater capacity to evaluate their advocacy efforts.

One of the takeaways for me, from these discussions, has been this framework that they introduce to help advocacy organizations conceptualize where their activities are directed and the kinds of impacts that they can expect from them. It’s designed, in part, to help foundations and grantees understand where they need to be engaged in order to get the effects they want. For me, though, it’s also about reminding ourselves where else we can be–beyond just legislative lobbying–in order to influence other key actors and, ultimately, provoke change.

All credits to Center for Evaluation Innovation

We used this framework with the Sunflower Foundation Advocacy Fellows last week, as part of a discussion about how the Kansas political climate has shifted, and what this means for the Fellows’ work.

I needed this, at this particular juncture.

It’s like a challenge, to consider all of the places, and all of the ways, I need to be working. Where should we be organizing and mobilizing? What kind of research and analysis do we need? Are there places we can develop champions, in ways that might, slowly, build political will? What do voters need to understand, and how can we really reach them?

Certainly, many advocacy organizations have long considered all of these domains fertile territory. I don’t mean to imply that we’ve ever been ‘one-trick ponies’. But, now that our efforts in legislative lobbying are more likely to be thwarted–NOT that we should ignore the statehouse, in any respect–how can we piece together a theory of change that relies more heavily on some of these other quadrants?

How can we adapt and thrive, no matter how hostile the environment?

So that, in the end, we find new ways to win?

20 responses to “A new framework for advocacy

  1. Hey Melinda –

    I appreciate your post and it is so timely. Our tendency to organize and advocate as usual in light of the changing political and economic winds must be challenged. Collaborating based on a shared purpose and shared resources seems to be the direction we must head in if we want to win on the issues that matter to the people we love.

    – Jerry

    • Thanks, Jerry! Yes, we certainly can’t afford to keep doing the same things–that obviously doesn’t mean giving the elected officials a free pass or just biding our time until things get ‘better’, but we know that there’s more than one route to victory! I hope to see you soon!

  2. Reblogged this on The Political Social Worker and commented:
    Some good info for Advocates & Community Organizers.

  3. I, too, have been thinking about this issue of dealing w/such a strong wall of conservative Ks legislators. Not that it was easy before, but now after the KS primaries, it’s a little overwhelming. So I agree, how do we make progress? The Center for Evaluation Innovation sounds very interesting. I’m curious did the Sunflower Foundation utilize their webseminars or did you meet with them in person? I’m always looking for affordable ways for TBW to become more effective.

    Thanks for the article. After getting the kids back in school and settling into our new family routine, I am now ready to focus back on legislature and policies. It will be an interesting 2 years. One of my hopes is that folks will become more aware of the impact the legislators have on our everyday lives such as schools, healthcare, and jobs. Maybe this is just what we needed in KS to wake everyone up(trying to find a bright side)! Perhaps this will cause more area organizations to allign and gain in strength.

    • Center for Evaluation Innovation is leading an advocacy evaluation collaborative for some foundations in KS, which is how we got access to their training and materials, but they have a lot of publications available free on their website, which might be good for you to check out. I agree with you, Lesa, that maybe we needed to really experience the brutal effects that I think are headed our way, in order for there to be more engagement with the legislature. I just hope that we don’t all ‘wake up’ to utter devastation. But we have to look on the bright side, or we lose all hope!

  4. The National Association Code of Ethics core values demand social workers to have a commitment to providing services to our clients despite the current political climate. We are still obligated to fight against social injustice. With the political climate that is a part of Kansas it can make it more difficult for social workers to advocate for their clients. In order for legislative change to happen social workers need to continue to fight against social injustice.

    If I were get involved in pushing for legislative change I would start with an advocacy day at the capital. I think this is a great way to get comfortable with talking with legislators about an issue. I would then build from there and be involved in an agency that had experience in advocating for clients in policy and legislation.

  5. In reading this, I could not help but to immediately brainstorm a variety of different ideas in which to “infiltrate” the wall that has been constructed. I currently work in the mental health area, and believe that there is not better advocate that a person experiencing a severe mental illness. There are a few brave individuals who are willing to walk into the Topeka capitol and advocate for their brothers and sisters…so long as they have the skills that they need. This is where I see need. Social workers should be helping these individuals prepare testimonials, and support them when they give them to legislators.
    Alongside this types of processes, I think public education campaigns are also needed, and need to be advertised extremely well. This becomes a challenge, as many time these types of campaigns are not always considered news worthy, or there is a general apathy, and stigma around mental health, that inhibits the growth of awareness. Bringing individuals who experience a mental illness to schools/business and so on to present and call others to actions of writing policy makers and so will be important. This will take some forethought and prior communication with the decision makes at these institutions, but the effort should also count towards achieving the overall goal.

    • Great points–these are definitely some of the areas in the advocacy landscape that need investment, and you identify a critical point–that making sure we’re executing these strategies successfully will enhance our chance of success in other arenas, too. What are your thoughts about how your organization, specifically, can play this role in the field?

      On Thu, Apr 17, 2014 at 10:03 AM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  6. This post feels like a powerful flashback to this past November when Missouri moved in a far more conservative direction in almost every elected office. As someone that pursued their MSW specifically with an interest in social policy, I saw this as very concerning considering what we have seen unfold in Kansas since this post. I also realized that legislative advocacy work in the social policy realm was likely going to very difficult for some time now in my home state. It had me thinking deeply about other ways that I and the agencies I work with can continue being strong advocates for our clients. I absolutely love that advocacy chart and I think it will be a valuable and much used tool for me in my future work. There really are so many ways that social workers are equipped to make meaningful systems level change for their clients and too often they go unconsidered. However, considering recent electoral changes and small legislative victories in Kansas I am keeping an optimistic outlook for Missouri that with hard work and the right strategies positive change can still be made for those experiencing inequality and injustice in my state.

    • Absolutely, Kevin–it’s not either/or but both/and. Investing in strategies beyond the legislative doesn’t mean that we’re entirely abandoning the possibility of legislative change, just that we see the best path to change–for the time being–in other domains. It’s also totally possible, even likely, that successful advocacy in media, grassroots organizing, or influencer engagement, will make legislative change more possible, even in an adverse political climate. I hope that your career ultimately includes some opportunities to make a difference back in your home state!

  7. I think it is most important to always keep in mind that the work of empowering populations is a huge task and we cannot do it as a small group. It also needs to be addressed at all levels with all people. The talk about coalition work is often scrutinized with the many different ideas and agendas, however, in this time where people are divided and it seems the less ethical group is in power, there is still much more people who are looking for the same thing in continually seeking social justice. We build champions to create change, sustain it, and rebuild through the different levels of education systems. Educators impact people so much more at all levels of education than people realize. This is one level of picking up the pieces and continuing on with social justice. However, people are currently in the arena day in and day out to help keep social issues on the agenda are also another part. Across the board, communities are the ones who can start this. Processing has to happen before people can be productive. Although change takes time, patience is key. There is always room for a strong comeback from what could have been perceived as a loss.

    Voters need to be able to express their frustrations, process, reflect, and explore new solutions. They cannot be rushed, and they will not need to be rushed to be a part of the conversation once the reflections are finished. You have to let people feel what they feel whether it is hope, fear, anger, etc. After their mind is clear, the energy to strive toward something positive for different populations will be fueled for the approaching time limits we face when it comes to the political arena. If you take care of people, which includes their emotions and their processing routine, their investment in hope and change will be exchanged.

  8. Stephanie Stauffer

    Thanks for this reflection Melinda!
    This framework is helpful in thinking about the variety of ways that advocacy can happen. It is easy to get stuck in the frame of lobbying directing to legislators, when there are so many other ways to go— especially in environments where direct lobbying might not be as powerful. What does an organization do if the only strategy that they have ever used becomes ineffective!? Well, here are about 20 other options to get the work done. For me, I like that there are ways that every person in an organization can become involved, regardless of their comfort level with direct lobbying. I know many professionals who would be completely horrified to go to the state capitol to lobby, but who feel completely at ease setting a meeting agenda for a new coalition or educating a group of 50 community members about an important policy issue.
    I also like that this tool addressed the general public and influencers as well. If social work is truly a profession that values empowerment and human relationships, we are neglecting our calling by focusing solely on lobbying efforts. Also, it seems almost too obvious that growing the number of folks in our corner, elevating the voices of others to carry the message would be an effective strategy for advocates. But I ask all the time at my practicum if we should look for more ways to involve clients (A.K.A. those who are directly impacted by the policy) in advocacy efforts, just to receive a lot of blinking stares.

  9. Legislative advocacy can be one of the most influential advocacy actions we can take, after all, legislators are the people with the power to affect policy change on the state and federal level. To affect legislative change, we must be skilled in gathering evidence for our claims, understanding the motivations of our allies and opponents, and developing messaging to play on those motivations. But as we saw in the 2012 Kansas elections and the huge conservative ad liberal seat pickups/swings over the years in Congress, we cannot always control whether the legislators we are advocating to are on our side, how far on the other side they might be, or whether they will even listen to us and consider our positions fairly. This is why we need to engage in advocacy on various levels.
    One of the policy changes I’m most interested in is expanding Medicaid in Kansas. This fight has been ongoing for years now and the recent elections that put more hardline conservatives into the statehouse hasn’t help propel our issue forward. In fact, they have actively blocked every attempt to even introduce this issue. I have been involved in legislative advocacy on this issue for the past year and our efforts to use various messaging strategies to make our point and encourage legislators to do the right thing for the people of Kansas has not created the ultimate success we’ve been hoping for. I think one of the most influential strategies we can now use (or continue to use) is community engagement. We know based on polling that a majority of Kansans support Medicaid expansion, but this has not changed many legislators minds yet. I think Medicaid expansion proponents need to engage in public awareness campaigns, community organizing, and community mobilization to encourage Kansans to make their views known to their legislators and convince more of our neighbors to support our cause. Increasing support and mobilizing that support might help legislators understand that they will be held accountable if they do not support the will of the people and give this issue the fair shot it deserves in the legislature.

    • I see real parallels to this issue of Medicaid expansion and the tax fight from a few years ago. Then, it was clearly not going to be possible to convince the policymakers in office to repeal the tax cuts, so the analysis was that we needed different ‘bodies in the seats’…but, of course, 501(c)3 organizations can’t do electioneering. What we can do–and what organizations like the KS Center for Economic Growth did do–was take the message of “we need new tax policy” to the voters…who ‘rose up’ (that was the slogan–Rise Up, Kansas)…and we got new legislators and a dramatically different outcome.

  10. Melinda,
    Thank you for your post! It can be difficult to keep going after such an event that makes us feel powerless and unable to make change. When we put our heart and soul into something only to see if fall short, it would be easy to get stuck in the “grief” phase. However, as you state, we can do more, and we must do more and keep moving forward to promote advocacy! There are many other areas of advocacy and change outside of the legislative sector, and other ways we can promote change. This is why we must keep pushing forward, and not give up even if we lose one battle. Advocacy is a continuous fight in various aspects, and in order to empower individuals who we are advocating for we need to seek out as many sectors as possible to do such work in, and spreading awareness of the advocacy needs. We cannot stand still, we must keep moving forward.

  11. That’s a really interesting point, Morgan, about the ‘grief’ that can beset advocates after a particularly difficult loss..it seems to me that attending to these interpersonal dynamics (or, here, maybe mostly intrapersonal) is one of the ways that social workers do advocacy differently than others, who may very well be lobbyists or other types of policy practitioners, but not approaching the work with the same ‘clinical’ lens or from the same value stance. What social work foundation do you draw on, to help you keep ‘pushing forward’?

  12. This post reminded me of how I felt in 2014 for the Kansas Governor’s race and then in the 2016 presidential election. I’ve found it difficult at times to not sit with the negative emotions and how daunting it can be to put so much energy into creating change, for then for the powers at be to go in the complete opposite direction. But you are correct in that we can’t sit with those negative feelings forever. The work is never complete and it is important to continue even when the outcomes are not in our favor. I really like this graphic to show multiple different tactics advocates can utilize and easily identify the targets and outcomes. This would be an excellent tool for advocates to use so that they are targeting multiple angles of an issue and not just focusing on a few aspects of the problem.

    • A lot of organizations do use something like this to help focus on multiple ‘paths’ simultaneously, although I find it most helpful for thinking about what I’m really trying to achieve with a particular policy, so that I can then evaluate it appropriately. Otherwise, you can call your public education work a failure if it doesn’t lead to policy change…when that’s not what it’s actually intended to do, but, rather, to create the public conditions in which such a change becomes more likely. Thanks for your comment.

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