Making sense of advocacy capacity assessments

If you haven’t already checked out Alliance for Justice’s new(ish) site, Bolder Advocacy, I’ll wait here while you go do that.

Regular posts about nonprofit advocacy news, interviews and profiles of changemakers in the nonprofit advocacy field (including foundations, community organizers, nonprofit lobbyists), all of their valuable materials on the legalities of nonprofit work in ballot measures, electoral activity, lobbying, and broader social change…

and a revised version of their Advocacy Capacity Assessment, which I have now used in practice with several nonprofit organizations here in Kansas.

It’s certainly not the only good capacity measure out there, and, indeed, there are others that have some features that I really appreciate. There’s a lot to like about AFJ’s, especially this newer version, which has ‘advanced’ options for organizations whose advocacy is a bit more well-developed, and the ability to compare an organization’s assessment against an aggregate, thanks to the free access to their tool and the categorization and clustering their site does behind-the-scenes.

This post is not an evaluation of the evaluation tools, though, but, instead, some thoughts on advocacy capacity, and the assessment thereof, culled from my work in advocacy capacity-building over the past year.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has used AFJ’s tool, or another advocacy capacity measure, about what they found helpful, and not. Similarly, if you’ve embarked on an advocacy capacity-building process, what reflections can you share? Next week, I’ll link to some case studies of organizations with which I worked on an advocacy capacity technical assistance project. Their experiences, I believe, hold a lot of lessons for we capacity-builders, for organizations committed to advancing their own capacity, and for the foundations that make this work possible.

Today, though, some thoughts on baselines–how we know what we need to do–and on using advocacy capacity assessments to measure our progress towards that goal of ‘capacity’, with, perhaps, some thinking about what capacity is, and why it matters so much, anyway.

  • Partners matter: One of the things that I appreciate most about the new version of the AFJ assessment is that it includes an option for “relying on partners”, when asking organizations about their abilities in specific areas. This isn’t a liability, but, instead, reflects a sophisticated understanding of the capacities of partners and how to leverage them to complement organizations’ own strengths. We’ll only get truly strong fields when we stop leading organizations to believe that they need to possess all of what they need for advocacy success themselves. We need a field lens, and this type of capacity assessment–asking organizations to think about how they rely on others and how they can build on those alliances–takes steps in that direction.
  • Measuring adaptive capacity is tough: The AFJ capacity assessment has a few different questions designed to get at the concept of adaptive capacity–how well organizations can read their environments and adjust their strategies accordingly. This is laudable, but it’s still somewhat elusive, I think. When I talk with organizations, adaptive capacity is their goal, but it is somewhat hard to grasp, both because getting that ‘read’ on the environment can be difficult, and because few advocates have structures that are adequate to facilitate quick responses to changes in that context, even when they know that should be their aim.
  • The how matters: I have used advocacy capacity assessments with organizations where only one individual completes the assessment, and where multiple actors complete it. In my experience, that process makes a difference, in terms of how capacity assessment can serve to catalyze thinking, within an organization, about where you stand and where you want to go. I know that it’s not easy to get Board members and other key stakeholders to sit down and fill out an assessment that takes 30-45 minutes. But, really, if we can’t get that much buy-in around questions of how to position our organizations for advocacy, how can we get buy-in to take the steps that move us to where we want to be, in terms of advocacy?
  • Numbers don’t matter, much: When I’ve had organizations complete the Advocacy Capacity assessment, there’s a strong temptation to focus on the ‘score’. How many points did we get? How does that compare to others? And, I get that. It’s not that the numbers don’t matter, of course; it can be really helpful to have a sense of where we stand, within our sectors, and, especially, of where we’ve come. But, as I’ve said before, organizations can have very highly developed capacity and still not be deploying it strategically. Conversely, there are organizations that can be limping along, without some of the key investments we consider crucial, but still accumulating advocacy successes. Maybe not sustainably, but still. The important point is that the numbers are relative, and that the scores don’t mean as much as the analysis of how different elements of capacity build on each other, how organizations can invest in their capacities, and how to make sure that capacity translates into real advocacy ability and will.

What have you learned from participating in capacity assessments? What is your reaction to this tool? What do you wish existed, in terms of advocacy capacity measures? And how do you use these tools to spark conversations and build momentum, for advocacy, within your organizations?

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4 responses to “Making sense of advocacy capacity assessments

  1. Reblogged this on The Political Social Worker and commented:
    A great post including some very helpful links.

  2. What a wonderful resource, Melissa! I loved reading about the Advocacy Capacity Tool, and even spent some time reading through it. I’ve been thinking a lot about online strategy and engagement capacity, and creating some self-assessment tools as well, so the AFJ tool is a valuable comparable.

    I tend to believe that, above all, the how matters, as you put it. Of feedback that I’ve received about my social media capacity assessment tool is that the process of taking it as a team is as valuable as completing it, because of the buy-in that happens across the organization during the process of completing the assessment.

    • Debra, I’m so glad that you found the ACT helpful! What I’m most excited about, with this tool, is that the process can now include not only convening key stakeholders on the front end, to talk through where the organization sits, according to their perspective, but, also, with the aggregated results from other organizations in a field, we’ll eventually have more data to spark conversations about benchmarks, as well as helping us to understand some of the determinants that contribute to advocacy capacity. I think that leads to a richer sense of what capacity looks like and why, for advocacy, it matters so much. I’d love to hear more about your social media capacity assessment–will you be writing about it? Thanks, as always, for your comments!

  3. And of course…I meant to write Melinda not Melissa! Cannot find the “edit” button on my comment 😦

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