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.