Root causes and urgent fires: Building an Advocacy Agenda

One of the most important, and most time-consuming, parts of my advocacy technical assistance with nonprofit social service organizations is to help them craft their advocacy agendas.

This isn’t just about making a list of changes we’d like to see in the world.

It’s not about checking ‘advocacy agenda’ off, so that the organization is recognized for advocating.

It’s about building an agenda that focuses the organization’s collective resources–people, knowledge, expertise, relationships–on those policy issues that are determined to be most central to the mission, most impactful for those they serve, and most ‘ripe’ for change.

Done correctly, an advocacy agenda can increase buy-in from constituents, who appreciate the chance to shape the organization’s priorities, bring along allies who look to the organization for signals about the policies that warrant attention, and complement direct services, by fostering changes in the conditions that create and perpetuate need.

Especially in a climate of recession and retrenchment, though, many nonprofit social service organizations feel pressure–internally, at least, if not from external players–to advocate primarily for restoration of critical services, investments in core infrastructure, and capacity to deliver programming.

When an advocacy agenda could easily be filled with 6-8 examples of really important services that have been restricted or even eliminated, it’s easy to understand why a lot of organizations stop there.

That kind of advocacy agenda, though–one where nearly every priority item relates to the organization’s ability to meet its own bottom line, in a way–does not wield the same moral authority, bring people together across sectors, or, ultimately, carry as much potential for fundamental change as an agenda that also addresses some of the root causes that could really change lives.

This need for balance, then, this sort of ‘dance’ between a desire to incorporate root causes and live up to the aspirational visions that many nonprofits have embraced for their work, with the urgency of defending the tools that allow them to meet people’s needs and advance their basic functions.

For example, one of the organizations with which I’m working addresses child abuse prevention. As they begin to shape their agenda, they are very open about these different ‘pulls’.

On one hand, there is a need for stronger criminal penalties related to some forms of child endangerment and maltreatment. Funds that sustain forensic interviewing and emergency supports are threatened, and funding for foster care programs–including tuition forgiveness for children who age out of care–is far below what it really needs to be. There are needs for more parenting classes and mental health services, especially as the child welfare system feels the strains of other systems that have suffered cuts of their own. The organization knows that it could do far more, for more families, with more resources.

On the other hand, the organization’s leaders are acutely aware that, as witnesses to what happens when society fails to invest adequately in families across the board, they are well-positioned to add critical perspectives to debates on education policy, workforce development, anti-poverty efforts, and health/mental health. They understand that even the best intervention for a family identified as at-risk of child maltreatment is, already, somewhat late, and they want to shape what happens long before that point.

So, as we bring clients and partners and staff into conversations about what should ‘make’ the organization’s advocacy agenda, they are intentional about seeking to balance the priorities that will warrant their attention between those that reflect those underlying root causes, and those that are urgent needs that cannot be ignored.

There’s no magic math to it. And pragmatism and limited hours in the day will likely always mean that blazing fires win out, at least to a certain extent.

But these conversations are important, and finding ways to carve out at least a little of the organization’s advocacy capacity to dedicate to stemming the need is, in its own way, urgent too.

As the proverb goes, we have to stop babies from being thrown in the river.

Even while we’re trying our best to pull them out.

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24 responses to “Root causes and urgent fires: Building an Advocacy Agenda

  1. “…bring along allies who look to the organization for signals about the policies that warrant attention, and complement direct services, by fostering changes in the conditions that create and perpetuate need.”

    I hadn’t thought about how much I did this, until I read your comments! I totally “look to the organization for signals about policies that warrant attention.” As someone who does not follow legislative agendas closely at all, I rely on non-profits that I value and respect, as legislative advocates, to tell me when something important is going on, AND to advocate on my behalf in a way, for causes that I care about.

    For example, I give money to Planned Parenthood because I respect that they take care women’s health needs for reduced/sliding scale fees, AND they do the very hard work of paying attention to legislation that would seek to diminish women’s access to health care as they need it.

    Another example, from our guests in class yesterday- Harvesters is such a respected agency in our community, that I would definitely pay attention if they said to pay attention to something. So advocating for SNAP benefits for example: if it hadn’t crossed my radar before, if I heard from Harvesters that it should, I would trust their call for attention and action.

    I place a lot of trust in these non-profits to “pay attention,” for me, when I can not possibly pay attention to all the issues that are out there all at once. So like Melinda said, non-profits can provide the greater community this service of “paying attention,” to legislative agendas that affect their mission. And I am a very grateful community member, and happy to support them for their efforts.

    • Thanks so much for this, Megan. One of the things that is really important, then, is for nonprofit organizations to recognize and claim this particular role and identity; sometimes, I think that they underestimate the extent to which others are looking to them for advocacy cues, which can lead to apathy in the public arena, or at least its perception, when the people who others are looking to are hesitant to step out on the most critical issues. We need to make sure that we let these organizations know that we appreciate their public policy roles, in addition to their direct services, to keep that virtuous flow of information going!

      On Sun, Mar 2, 2014 at 2:35 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  2. Reading this made me think about the HUGE advocacy that my agency has been pushing involving the KanCare changes in Kansas. The executive director has been involved with this change a lot. I loved to see my agency getting behind the clients that we serve and their families in fighting some of he proposed changes of KanCare. I wish I could see this kind of advocacy when it did not involved the bottom line for the agency. Do not get me wrong, I believe that the agency I work for is worried for the population we serve, but if the proposed changes were implemented to the Id/DD population, my agency would take a HUGE hit financially. My executive director was trying to get everyone involved. He would let us know the status updates and how to advocate for those that we serve. Dates and times of meetings and phone conferences were provided to all staff within the agency. The agency asked for staff to get the families involved that we serve as well. I loved to see the push for advocacy and the teamwork that everyone was being involved to make a change in legislature. I just wish that my agency could focus on stopping the throwing of the babies, rather than just rescuing the ones that are floating downriver. I love that analogy by the way. Props for that!

    • Thank you for sharing this reflection from your own practice, Matthew. Now, a challenge for you–how do you think you could help your organization build on its advocacy engagement on this ‘bottom-line’ issue, to take on root cause concerns, too? In other words, how can you make this a starting point for the kind of advocacy you want to see–and be part of? What skills and values can bridge to this broader approach?

      Melinda Lewis melindaklewis@gmail.com 816.806.6094

  3. tracie haselhorst

    In the past, I worked for a non-profit organization and had no idea how important advocacy is for the clients we serve. What I experienced with the agency that I worked for ten years ago, was meeting with clients as often as possible to pay the bills at the agency was the most important. It was not about advocating for the clients at all. After leaving the agency, I learned a new way of helping clients identify their needs and help them be more independent. Social workers need to be more politically competent to be able to make changes that are necessary to make policy changes that could positively affect our clients. I believe that agencies need to be able to provide some advocacy training for employees to be more involved in the community. If there is not knowledge about the importance of advocacy, then it is more difficult to be an advocate for our clients. I do believe that there are many non-profit organizations that are very important for helping our clients be independent and find ways to advocate for themselves.

    • Great point, Tracie, about the importance of investing in the organization’s key human resources–clients and staff, in particular–in order to equip them to take on advocacy, not just in terms of a skill base, but also an understanding about how and why advocacy can complement an organization’s mission, as well as rooting advocacy in the individual and collective value base. I am glad that you are in an organization where there is a greater ability to develop this aspect of your practice!

      On Mon, Mar 24, 2014 at 7:49 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  4. Richard O'Brien

    In thinking about the balance that non-profits need to maintain among the various needs, such as their advocating for funding and working with the governmental agencies that may supply that funding, advocating for changes in laws that may affect their client base, alerting the public to the needs of their clients and the support that the agency provides, and monitoring the political and social environment that exists and may affect the client base of the agency, it seems to me that the agency must build this type of advocacy into their core agenda.

    One way of doing that might be, as Tracie suggests above, is that the agency should be educating and training their employees about advocacy, and the need for the organization to be engaged in it.

    I was thinking that it also might be useful for the agency to consciously include advocacy, and the willingness and ability to do so, into their job descriptions, recruiting efforts, and interview process for new hires. It might be a good idea, upfront, for the agency to look for employees who are ready, willing, and able to do this sort of work.

    Or, as we all know, some people are better at some things than others, and if the agency can afford it, and this may be a big if, they may want to designate a position with a large portion of the employee’s time to be devoted to advocacy. It probably doesn’t have to be 100% of their time, but perhaps 30% or so, to analyze and strategize, keep on top of current developments, meet with the Board to select what specific issues to work on, and perhaps be the person to help motivate and train the other staff members.

    • Great points, Richard–I’m actually facilitating a workshop in May about ‘using your whole team for advocacy’, to help nonprofit organizations in the local community think about how to integrate advocacy into their work, including into agency job descriptions. It’s May 15th, in the morning, if you’d be interested in joining us! Yes, this is definitely not an ‘either/or’ calculation, but a consideration for organizations to think about how advocacy more directly related to their maintenance as organizations can simultaneously build their capacity for systems change, by increasing their visibility, crafting relationships to decision makers, and enhancing staff advocacy capacity. That way, organizations have the best chance of surviving to advocate another day, while also affecting the context that most dramatically affects their core constituencies. Thank you for your comment!

      On Sat, Apr 12, 2014 at 11:32 AM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  5. Richard O'Brien

    Melinda, That workshop sounds interesting! Where would it be taking place?

  6. Working in a non-profit, I see daily, the necessary focus on the bottom line. If we don’t do certain things, this organization that does such great things will not be able to function and stay afloat. Because employees are so immeshed in the work they do (pulling the babies out), it is difficult for them to step back far enough to see the bigger picture (who the heck is throwing these babies in the river??). A well constructed advocacy agenda is paramount because, without it, precious resources mean nothing. Extra funding for tuition forgiveness for children in foster care is worthless if those foster children are not mentally and emotionally prepared for college. All of our hard work means nothing if we are sending children back to unstable families without the necessary resources to succeed. Macro practice is crucial for making micro practice worthwhile. There will be more success overall when all social workers look at advocacy as a large and necessary part of what we do, as opposed to something we may or may not have time for at the end of the day.

  7. I love that statement, Jessica: “macro practice is crucial for making micro practice worthwhile.” And micro practice, I think, is essential for helping people to weather the tides as we push for macro change. Which is exactly why I am so grateful that social work encompasses both traditions. I really, really appreciate how you’ve stated this. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Choosing what is on an advocacy agenda is not a job that I would want to be in charge of. As stated above there is no magic list of what should or should not be advocated for. How do you address the “burning fires” while also focusing on preventative actions when resources are so often minimal? I agree that it is all a balance. You have to meet the immediate needs of the clients, such as hunger or housing, while also addressing prevention.

    My current agency does a fantastic job of advocating for clients on a clinical level. The Executive Director literally will go out into the lobby and ask the clients what they personally need, and then tries to tailor or create programs to meet these needs. While this is great I wish there was more communal or political advocacy. The agency focuses on employment services yet does not participate in advocating for fair labor or wages. To me that is counter intuitive. We may be finding jobs for our clients, but failing to ensure sustainable income.

    As I come closer to choosing a place of employment I realize how important advocacy at the macro level is to me personally and professionally. I want to work for an agency that can clearly outline a advocacy agenda that help immediate needs as well as structural issues. This combination is the only way to create real change.

  9. That is an awesome example, Olivia, of an organization’s commitment to client-centeredness. Wow. Truly, I would say that that’s less common than active advocacy presences, even, so I wonder what’s holding the leadership back from moving into a more public advocacy arena? I think that committing to transforming the organization to meet clients’ direct needs is a heavier lift, honestly, than carving out advocacy priorities to take to policymakers. How can you build on what is already happening at the organization to take that next step?

  10. Natalie Reeves

    I once was on a committee and our job was to form a mission statement for the organization. It was agonizing! We needed you! Admittedly, after our last paper I have a new appreciation for advocacy and organization. I went into it full steam, excited, and feeling very confident and came out tired and a little confused. It’s much harder then it seems. I am picking up on what it takes to do this type of work slowly. It simply makes sense for the future of the organization that it cannot limit itself to now.

    • Oh, group writing processes! Yes. I have been part of some of those painful experiences, too! Coming together to determine how you really want to communicate the organization’s purpose in the field can be tremendously valuable, but if you don’t do it well, it can be an exercise in futility and, perhaps worst, inadvertently send a message that the organization doesn’t know who or what it is. If you are able to take the advanced advocacy course, we go through a message development activity that I think would be very valuable to you in future challenges such as that. If you don’t take the class, email me, and I will give you the tools and talk you through it!

  11. Julie Thompson

    I very much enjoyed this post, particularly your comments regarding the relationship between nonprofit advocacy and direct services. My personal advocacy experience has been limited to work on behalf of individuals to whom I provided direct service, and while individual advocacy is incredibly important, I must admit there have been countless conversations between me, myself, and I, about how I might contribute greater impacts for clients of the future. In considering my options, there is an undeniable lure to nonprofit organizations with a focus on policy advocacy. Perhaps the most appealing factor involves that relationship mentioned above; I could not agree more with your analysis there — nonprofit advocacy has the potential to significantly complement direct services by fostering changes in the conditions that create and perpetuate need. Based on my experiences, the mission statements of direct service organizations typically orient the organization’s resources to providing services for individual clients which at least appear to address the most immediate needs of service consumers. Thus, the purpose of my work with clients was often to eliminate various barriers to their successful functioning within society, and to do so as quickly as possible. This inherently reduced my capacity to direct significant attention to enacting systemic change from within my agency. Yet, even the mission statements of nonprofit advocacy agencies that do not provide direct service fail to explicitly orient these agencies towards forms of advocacy that would best complement the work of direct service organizations. In the Kimberlin article on advocacy by nonprofits, a distinction is drawn between self-interested organizational advocacy, which seeks to protect agency funding, and progressive advocacy, which aims to address structural and power inequalities on behalf of the nonprofit’s identified constituents. It seems that progressive advocacy is therefore the most appropriate and promising method of delivering the greatest impact for those that nonprofits seek to serve. If this is the case, and so many nonprofits with a core mission of advocacy continue to split their focus between issues akin to micro-practice and those which are better addressed with the unique abilities of nonprofits, who is left to exclusively and powerfully advocate for the collective in the long term? Shouldn’t prioritizing those policies most capable of eliminating systemic oppression and discrimination not only be a part of a nonprofit social work advocacy organization’s mission statement, but a vast majority of its advocacy agenda? The pressures you outlined above are certainly relevant to the discussion, but at what point do we cease to allow these pressures to justify such a dramatic divergence from our professional obligation to attend to and transform not only the person but the environment in which they will inevitably continue to suffer should we neglect to make their voices heard and thus their needs met?

  12. It’s a critical point, Julie; when is ‘advocacy’ not really advocacy, but, rather, a self-preservation strategy? I struggle with this myself, I think because I’m reluctant to discourage nonprofit organizations from any advocacy work, since there’s more of it that’s needed on so many levels. But it’s not the truth that all advocacy is created equal, and we do nonprofit organizations, public policy, and society itself a disservice if we pretend that it is, or if we fail to distinguish between advocacy in the public interest and otherwise.

  13. I think that a huge part of why I haven’t learned a lot about advocacy at my place of work is because my supervisor really wants me to focus on direct service. I feel like if I was in a practicum where the person I was working with had a duty to work on advocacy I would get some of that training but it’s not a focus for those who are not in higher positions in the company. I feel like they tend to put the policy aspects of social work on the shoulders of a very few people in the company. I know of only two employee’s whose jobs mainly focus on social policy work and policy change. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t a company culture that believes that policy change and advocacy is a focus in the work.
    With that being said, focusing on advocacy for the client with direct practice looks more for me and my supervisor like making sure the client’s needs are met and that they have the availability of resources that they request in order to keep them stable but a lot of what I end up doing is more like crisis control than looking at the bigger picture. I find myself floundering in the realm of advocacy and macro practice. I almost feel like I need a hand to hold me through the macro practice and I’m not really getting that. I also wonder if it’s normal at social work agencies to have people feeling like they have no idea how to do macro work.
    There is one item of macro work that I have been given the okay to work on and the meeting time and resources for the meeting has been the reason for a lot of rescheduling and it’s been at least 3 months since the beginning of the idea with no advancements.

  14. Yes, Janny; I think that social workers (and students) absolutely need guidance and support as they’re starting out in macro practice. Or any kind of practice, but I think it’s much more sporadic and insufficient in the macro arena than in other areas of practice. What is the particular hang-up on the one macro change that you have been trying to push? Often, when people don’t schedule meetings or don’t follow through, it’s because they aren’t prioritizing this work or, even, are trying to find ways to avoid it. I’d be happy to help you think through how to frame the ask so that you might find some inroads.

  15. Focusing on the “root causes,” advocating for “restoration of critical services,” as well as the “capacity to deliver programming,” and prioritizing resonates largely from this blog.

    Prior to reading this blog, I was not aware of advocacy agendas or what they were. Yesterday during a visit with a client, I learned from a client perspective how dire the need for advocacy agendas are. This client was clearly depressed; not only did he express that he was depressed, but as he talked, it was obvious-as he shared some of his life experience. While visiting with him, he shared how a local agency was not delivering services as advertised (which was a part of his depression). Concern was my immediate reaction. As he continued to talk, he stated that as a result of the agencies lack of assistance, he began to receive help from a friend.

    According to the client, when the agency learned that the client was receiving outside help, they (the agency) notified the client, expressing that his services would likely end-as they believed he did not need their assistance since he was receiving help from a friend. The client shared that when he informed his friend about the agencies determination, the friend made the choice to stop helping as he did not want to interfere with-or be a factor-his services being cut. The client then shared that the main reason his friend was assisting him was because this state agency-as aforementioned- was not delivering their services as proclaimed.

    So, after reading this blog, and knowing that their is a such thing as “advocacy agendas,” it seems fair to say that this state agency in which this client is receiving services should work to better deliver their program. I understand that it may be difficult for such agencies to meet every client’s need, however, as mentioned in the blog, addressing some of the route causes could change lives. And having the opportunity to be a part of a non-profit organization, and direct contact with clients like the one mentioned, I understand the essence of sharing client experiences-which in turn helps meet the goal of of “building an agenda that focuses the organization’s collective resources” in order to best meet client needs.

  16. I’m so sorry that this client is having this experience and feeling so obviously trapped, Sandra, and I’m so glad that you were able to connect with him, so that he could see that people are committed to his well-being. What systemic issues do you see as causing the gaps in the service delivery system, through which this client is falling? If you were running a nonprofit organization within this landscape, what would you put on the advocacy agenda–where would you direct your energies–in order to improve the situation? What strategies would you use to drive toward those changes? In other words, how would you go about trying to make change?

  17. I work for a community mental health center that primarily focuses on ensuring that financial objectives are being met in order to remain solvent as an agency. Advocacy is often discussed in terms of the work we do for clients, that we as staff engage in actions that promote social justice for marginalized individuals as a function of our duties. I also hear advocacy referenced with respect to local and state legislature and the need to advocate for change in policy to increase awareness of the importance of mental health services (often sent in an agency wide email broadcast). However laudable those ideals are, they are usually framed in the context of financial constraints facing the agency. Which got me thinking…yes as social workers, our job is to advocate for clients and of course a community mental health center needs to find ways to stay afloat but shouldn’t there be room for more? Shouldn’t we strive as professionals whose passion is to fight against injustice and community change to do more than the bare minimum? Then comes the follow up thought….when is there time? I and every other employee I know at the agency where I work are lucky to find time in the day to eat lunch, let alone engage in extra advocacy. So how can an agency founded on the ideals of social justice carve out space for an advocacy agenda? I believe it needs to come from a recognition that simply because advocacy efforts don’t reap immediate remuneration does not mean that the value isn’t there. In fact, out reach and advocacy that addresses community needs has the potential to illicit a reciprocal response from appreciative community members who feel empowered by agency efforts, which ultimately is a benefit for all of us. So let’s find time for advocacy!!!

    • Crucially, Ben, I really think there is reason to believe that advocating on the ‘root cause’ issues can, at least over the long term, improve an organization’s ability to take on the urgent fires, too. The more organizational capacity and positive reputation you build, the more you’ll be able to angle for the funding and ‘clout’ you need. I’m not Pollyanna, pretending that it’s always easy to find enough hours in the day–really!–but I also think it’s not the case that it’s a 1:1 trade-off; there are ways to capture some synergy here, too.

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