Practice Reflections: Building Advocacy Capacity

This is the last post in this week’s series sharing some of my reflections from my advocacy consulting practice.

To me, there is a distinction between supporting advocates, as I wrote about earlier this week, and building advocacy capacity.

The former, to me, is about making sure that advocates have the scaffolding that they need, in the heat of a campaign or at critical decision points, to be effective and advance their issues.

The latter requires investing, over the long term, in staff skills and knowledge, in leadership buy-in, and in the confidence with which to make critical choices in the face of adaptive challenges.

This post is about that second piece.

I recently had the opportunity to debrief an advocacy capacity assessment with an organization, the first time that I have been privy to an extended conversation about an organization’s self-assessed capacity and, in particular, what they plan to do to build on their foundation. They used the TCC Group’s Advocacy CCAT and, while the organization shall remain nameless here, there are still some lessons, even absent that specific context, that I think can be instructive for our collective consideration of advocacy capacity-building.

I would love to hear from those who have used this or other advocacy capacity assessments, about your experiences with these tools, or from those who are in the process of advocacy capacity building. And I am so grateful to those who let me observe their work through organizational change, and to those who labor to build their strength, so that they can be better advocates for the causes and the populations they serve. It is an honor, always, to be along for the ride.

Thoughts on Advocacy Capacity-Building:

  • As capacity goes up, the goalposts may move: This particular organization had completed the Advocacy CCAT a few years ago, so this was a sort of post-intervention assessment for them, following a period of advocacy capacity investments. You can imagine their concern, then, when their aggregate scores in some areas were lower than that baseline. As we talked through the indicators they looked at in order to inform their scoring, though, it quickly became clear that at least part of the explanation lies with their increasing sophistication and, then, the higher standards to which they hold themselves. It’s a sort of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ phenomenon, and, know that they know, they are harder on themselves than they otherwise would have been.
  • Where capacity is held matters: This particular organization had to grapple with the reality that their actual, usable capacity is not as high as the aggregate ‘scores’ would suggest, since much of their capacity is held rather narrowly within the executive leadership. To have sustainably high capacity, organizations need to diffuse it throughout the organization. Advocacy capacity assessments can only take you part of the way towards this understanding; intentional exploration of the findings, with an eye toward organizational culture and change, is needed to ‘root’ advocacy capacity where it’s needed.
  • Sometimes, the ‘problem’ isn’t your problem: This particular organization also had comparatively low levels of strategic partnerships revealed through their advocacy CCAT. In discussion of this particular finding, we faced honestly the reality that much of this weakness stems from limited field capacity, rather than the organization’s unwillingness or inability to leverage the strength of that field. This can be tricky business, since there’s of course a natural human tendency to want to pin ‘culpability’ for exposed weaknesses on anyone other than ourselves. But, at the same time, failing to account adequately for the environmental constraints that limit an organization’s capacity can lead to frustration, as leaders spin their wheels trying to move the needle on something located beyond their locus of control.
  • Small shifts can help: There is a default, in any organization, to maintain equilibrium, especially when things are going relatively well. Part of the answer to breaking through this resistance to change rests, I think, in breaking off small changes that an organization can pursue that ‘inch’ towards their aspirations. It’s also essential to understand what motivates a given organization to deal with difficult tasks, since any task of organizational change includes some risk and loss.
  • You know your own recommendations: For this organization, and I think for many, while seeing the results of the advocacy CCAT was a very powerful experience, and the way in which the TCC tool aggregated these results was extremely helpful, the recommendations for how to build on their capacity were not that useful. They really knew what they needed to do, and what was realistically on the table, and there were very few examples of when the recommendations pointed them in a direction that was novel.
  • Culture is king: We spent the most time, by far, talking about the organization’s culture and the extent to which it supports advocacy. This includes thinking about how the organization celebrates successes, how people feel comfortable to take risks, how they publicly acknowledge those who contribute to their success, and, so, how they sustain their advocacy efforts through the continual feeding of a pro-advocacy climate. Constructing and nurturing a healthy culture is, of course, an inexact science, which is part of what makes it so important an area of emphasis. I appreciated how the advocacy CCAT pulled it out as a separate layer of analysis, but it was also crucial that we wove it into our discussion about every element of the organization’s advocacy capacity, since it will be difficult to build anywhere without a culture that prioritizes it.

Separately, I have been talking with some folks who are looking at ways to build an infrastructure to support advocacy capacity in nonprofit organizations and civic institutions throughout Kansas. These conversations are still very nascent, but it looks as though it will include investing in technical assistance providers, fostering advocacy among leaders, convening advocates across fields, building policymaker capacity to use advocacy effectively, and conditioning the environment for advocacy (including among philanthropists).

What is most exciting to me about this new direction is what it reflects: an increasing recognition that we have to get upstream a bit, not only with our issue analysis–getting to root causes–but with our advocacy preparation, too. With advocacy capacity building, we’re increasing the likelihood of tomorrow’s success and girding ourselves for the battles we can’t even see yet.

Even while we’re up to our necks in this one these many.

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