One of the first items of business, when I’m working with a new nonprofit organization around advocacy capacity-building, is to talk through their advocacy principles.
In our work, principles come before the development of an advocacy agenda. In some cases, they replace an agenda altogether, providing the general guideposts that organizations need to navigate decisions in an advocacy context, without pretending that we can predict today the circumstances we’ll face tomorrow, or how we’ll make those trade-offs once we get there.
We talk through how the organization’s core values translate into an advocacy context. We discuss their preferences in public policy development. We discuss how having advocacy principles not only helps the organization stay true to its greatest goods in the event of conflict, but also serves as protection against the intrusive interests of others, by providing some parameters about the types of issues the organization does not take on, in addition to those that it does.
In my experience, organizational mission statements are often too broad to serve this purpose; they tend to be statements that absolutely no one could disagree with, but also that fail to really distinguish one organization from another (aren’t we all interested in ‘strengthening families’, really?).
What we need are guides that help us decide between two goods (Do we prioritize money for prevention or for rapid response? Do we emphasize children’s services or community-level interventions?) or, more often in a policy world, two rather poor compromises (Are we going to put more energy into fighting the repeal of the Earned Income Tax Credit or drug-testing in TANF?).
Done correctly, these advocacy principles also help nonprofits to articulate why they have ‘ranked’ particular policy outcomes as they have, which is incredibly important as we endeavor to preserve relationships in the conflictual climate of policymaking.
They are navigational tools, important symbols of organizational culture and decision-making, and guideposts–not prescriptions–for helping leaders maneuver through difficult choices.
I particularly appreciated this description of core priorities, a similar context somewhat removed from the advocacy context, in Decisive: “guardrails that are wide enough to empower but narrow enough to guide” (185).
That’s what we’re aiming for, when we work through the often-laborious process of settling on advocacy principles as the starting point for our advocacy work.
And, like so many other exercises in ‘centering’ ourselves and clarifying our deepest purpose, once we get that right, the rest of our decisions are, while not ‘easy’, at least easier.