Shepherds and Backbones

This is my second post this week about advocacy within nonprofit organization structures–yesterday, about Boards of Directors–and, today, about essential roles that can be played by anyone strategically positioned within an organization.

In a training and debriefing around nonprofit advocacy a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues talked about what it takes to catalyze advocacy within an organization.

The language she used really resonated with me, and I think it evokes some key elements of advocacy success within an organizational context.

She said that any organization needs, for advocacy to root within the culture and operations, “shepherds and backbones”.

Shepherd: “One who tends; one who oversees; (v) to tend or to guard”

Advocacy needs champions, and those champions need not only passion but attention to the mechanics of advocacy campaigns, too: the tactics and the logistics that make them happen, the relationships and the work it takes to nurture them, the continuous scanning of the horizon to see where new opportunities or threats await. Especially when an organization is newly embarking on an advocacy journey, there are many dangers–like the lions that wait for the sheep–and ways that encountering risks can cause an organization to step back from the breach. Shepherds cannot always avoid those dangers, but they can carefully guard the core values and the sacred principles of the organization’s advocacy commitment.

And they must.

Backbone: “The foundation or most substantial or sturdiest part of something; firm and resolute character”

We need free agents. We need articulate spokespeople and steady worker bees and those who drop into our issues even briefly to energize our campaigns. Absolutely. But we also need backbones, those whose unwavering commitment makes up the ‘sturdiest’ part of the advocacy work, and whose strength and resolve provide a foundation on which others can rise. The backbone is not all of the body, but, without it, the rest cannot stand.

What metaphors illustrate your advocacy approach? What roles do you see yourself playing, within your organization, to make advocacy happen? Have you ever seen the effects of lacking a shepherd or a backbone?

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