Category Archives: Background Reading

Let’s not be turtles

I do yoga.

I sometimes even curl up on the couch and read. Yes, it’s usually a book about human rights or climate change or sociology, but, still.

I understand the need to turn off our compassion and to console ourselves.

But we cannot retreat, not really, from the horrors of tragedy and the mundane suffering.

We cannot.

We cannot lull ourselves into thinking that caring for ourselves requires hiding from the world, or that we are somehow entitled to ‘peace’, if peace is purchased at the price of tremendous injustice and pain.

In One Nation Under Stress, this idea of ‘stressism’, of stress as a mentality and a sort of collective infatuation, is related to our self-talk that tries to convince ourselves that what we need (and deserve) is solitude and release and ‘free time’, when what we really need is improvement in the conditions that prompt this stress response in the first place.

Because there are two ways to respond to the unimaginable and the predictably wrong: to resolve to respond with all energy and passion or to draw into our shells and hope that things will somehow go away.

Our desire to flee the discomfort of stress leads us to retreat, when what the world craves–and what, in the end, is the only thing that can bring real relief–is concerted action to address the factors that contribute to our stresses.

We cannot be turtles, withdrawing in timidity, when our age demands tigers.

We cannot.

Starting in the Classroom: Blended Instruction for Policy Practice

I can definitively say, now, almost 4 years after the university started its experiment with instruction that is part traditional classroom format and part-online, that, for teaching social policy, I totally love it.

I promise it’s not because scheduling class around my practice and my kids’ schedules is easier when we meet only 7 times/semester, instead of every week.

The late nights on the discussion boards and trolling the Internet for new content that I want to introduce (and, still, sometimes, soothing students anxious about the long stretches we have between class periods) sort of make up for that.

No, what I like the best is how much more closely it parallels how social work practitioners engage with social policy, as compared to having access to an instructor like me for 3 hours every week.

Students learn to navigate policy information online, evaluating the respective biases of each perspective, just like they have to in practice.

They build communities of other social workers who can support them through the often isolating experiences of unraveling the layers of social injustice that constrain their effective work with clients. They pivot between untangling root causes and applying salve to the wounds of those injured by our society. They turn their attentions to the ways in which clients experience policy most–in the policies that agencies develop in order to operate within these external parameters.

They find ways to weave advocacy and investigation and constituent development into their direct practice, without overwhelming their days or (hopefully) antagonizing their practice organizations (too much).

And, I guess, that’s our hope for students in any social work policy class, but, again, year after year, my students have returned to tell me how much harder it all gets, when they graduate and no longer have the classroom experience to ‘root’ their social policy studies.

It’s one thing to stay grounded in a dual micro/macro practice approach when you have half a work day, every week, set aside for that express purpose.

It’s quite another when you’re literally on your own.

So, while I don’t consider my responsibility to my students any less in a blended course than one where I’m in front of them every week–quite the opposite–I know that they do experience me differently, and, so I leave a different impression on their social work identity.

It is my hope, and I think, it has been affirmed at least somewhat over these past few years of experimenting, that this instructional format equips my students to take on social policy in the arena where they’ll need to be effective, as policy practitioners.

In the ‘real world’, which is to say, increasingly in today’s context, online.

The best of both worlds, I hope.

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.

Practice Reflections: Supporting Advocacy in Field

Yesterday, my practice reflection post focused on my advocacy evaluation work, and later this week I will have something about supporting organizations in building advocacy capacity.

Today, though, I want to share some thoughts on what is a smaller part of my consulting practice, but something very meaningful to me:

Supporting advocates ‘midstream’, as they wage campaigns and seek to influence policy, right now.

I never wanted to be a contract lobbyist, despite receiving several offers after I left my full-time position as a nonprofit policy advocate.

I love lobbying only for what it can accomplish in pursuit of human well-being and social justice. What I miss, from my long days and late nights in the state capitol and my days going from door to door in U.S. Senate office buildings, is the thrill of partnering with powerful policymakers to do good for those who need champions, not the ‘game’.

And, as much as I do miss that aspect of my direct lobbying days, I had to face the reality that being a nonprofit lobbyist just isn’t super compatible with how I want to parent. I missed too many student award banquets huddled in the hallway on the phone with other lobbyists. Legislators don’t really get ‘Thursdays we have playgroup in the morning’. And media on a deadline don’t appreciate babies cooing in the background.

And that’s why, I think, even though I feel a particular calling to helping organizations build advocacy capacity, instituting systems that will sustain their efforts over the long term, facilitating tough conversations about the principles that should guide the identification of their advocacy priorities, and training nonprofit staff to take on leadership roles in the macro practice arena, I really can’t give up any opportunity to feel, vicariously, part of an advocacy campaign.

So I do some work supporting organizations’ development of materials and construction of strategies and communication with policymakers, even though I acknowledge that I’m always mediating this work through a lens of ‘how can I build longer-term capacity here?’. It can be one of the most frustrating parts of my work, since there are so many variables that constrain our joint effectiveness here, even if we’re ‘working’ our strategies exactly right.

And I want that experience, over and over again, because I believe that it keeps me grounded, right alongside my clients, in the frustrating parts of advocacy for them, too. I never want to lose track of how hard this is.

Mainly, I want to know from everyone who is advocating within a nonprofit organization: What do you need most, to win the campaigns that you’ve outlined for the coming 12-18 months? I’m asking not what would most build your long-term efficacy, or what would set you up with the strongest foundation for future advocacy, but what you need, in the field, right now, to make a decisive difference?

Here’s what I hear, in response to that question, from the organizations with which I’m working. How does this small sample align (or not) with your experiences? What should those of us who care about how nonprofit advocacy will unfold in the near term need to be doing to increase the likelihood of its success?

As part of the team: What I do to support advocates in the field

  • Advocates don’t need more information; they need help sorting through it: Nonprofit staff and leaders often point to ‘lack of information’ as an obstacle to their effective advocacy engagement, but my years of working with advocates has convinced me that, well, they don’t really mean it. We are really inundated with information, today, about advocacy and otherwise. What busy nonprofit staffers–direct service providers, program managers, executive directors–need is a good way to sort through information, to filter it through their organizational imperatives and political analysis, and to prioritize what deserves action. This is the role that I play for some organizations with which I work, as a sort of breathing Tumblr, aggregating some information, highlighting other pieces, and helping them to situate input within their broader context. It’s not about overly simplifying; they can handle complexity. Instead, it’s about bracketing information, and the gathering of it, so that they aren’t paralyzed in the act of synthesis.
  • Communication isn’t second-nature: SO much of advocacy is communication, and, while nonprofit leaders often have strong general communication skills, these don’t necessarily lend themselves perfectly to this specific type of communication. I do a fair amount of public speaking for organizations, and media work, too, not because they can’t tell their own stories or speak to their own issues, but because the ‘ramp up’ time for them to polish their communication skills (and build the capacity to feel comfortable there) may be considerably longer than mine to bone up on their specific issues. Again, this is not to say that there isn’t a need, long term, to build precisely those capacities, just that, in order to get a good article in the paper tomorrow or convince this civic group to sign their resolution, a communications shortcut may be in order. The same goes for policy briefs, talking points, and advocacy newsletters: sometimes, advocates need to be able to hit an easy button.
  • Action planning is an art: A lot of my time supporting organizations’ advocacy is spent helping them think through strategies to get to their advocacy goals. Working with activists and organizers, the action planning is usually the most fun part–we have to fight the temptation to jump straight to thinking about round-the-clock prayer vigils targeting the Speaker of the House or priests getting arrested or making American flags out of immigrant children’s handprints (or, what, is that just me?). But the direct service providers who mostly make up the advocates I’m supporting in the field are steeped in a tradition of program development and more direct intervention, and even pivoting to the macro scale doesn’t immediately make them feel comfortable taking on public action. That doesn’t mean they can’t and don’t get excited about it, certainly, but it takes some prompting, sometimes, to get their creativity flowing that direction. It’s very rewarding work, this translation of the advocacy world to the social work organization. Especially when we get to break out the posterboard.
  • Advocates need sounding boards: Doing advocacy work can be isolating, which seems paradoxical, since it’s all about relationships. But alliances aren’t the same thing as friendships, and social work advocates can feel like islands, sometimes, since they are alone among social workers in taking on advocacy (or feel that way) and alone among advocates in standing for justice (or feel that way). They can even feel adrift within their own organizations. So sometimes I feel as much like a lifecoach as anything, helping advocates reflect on their work, make plans for the future, and process their use of self in the advocacy world. It’s capacity building, in a sense, but it’s also debriefing and sustaining and crisis managing, which are sometimes the supports that advocates most need in this precise moment, too.
  • Coalitions hate a vacuum: Coalitions can be very powerful tools for advancing nonprofit organizations’ advocacy objectives, but steering them in the right direction can be difficult. Sometimes, that’s where I come in. Often, a coalition just needs an infusion of energy and sheer human sweat to get going, and the individuals–and organizations–responsible for that push usually get to determine the ends towards which the coalition is deployed. I sometimes provide legislative updates to coalitions or staff their legislative committees. Sometimes I just represent the organization on the coalition leadership. Sometimes I recruit new members to populate the coalition. This can be time-consuming work that may be hard for the organization to justify initially, but we can usually demonstrate significant return on investment. Sometimes, we can tip the scales.

There are other elements, of course, including grassroots outreach, which is a favorite part of my work with immigration rights groups, but these are the core pieces, at least in my experience. What’s missing that you identify as a gap? What do you have well in hand within your own operations? How do you see your areas of needed investment, and what are your preferences for how you’ll fill these holes?

Practice Reflections: Advocacy Evaluation

It occurred to me that I’ve been writing a lot, really over the past few months, about what I’ve been reading and about my work at the university–teaching and supporting policy activities at the Assets and Education Initiative.

But my advocacy consulting work continues, albeit at a somewhat reduced level, and so this week is a sort of ‘from the field’ update, checking in on some of the tremendous work happening in the organizations with which I have the honor and pleasure of working.

Today, some reflections on supporting organizations’ advocacy evaluation, which has been a growing part of my consulting ‘portfolio’, so to speak, over the past two years. There are national organizations and practitioners far more expert than I in the field of advocacy evaluation, publishing regularly and spending most of their professional energies dedicated to advancing this work.

But I hope that some of my insights as a practitioner supporting organizations’ efforts to incorporate advocacy evaluation in a way that is scaled so as to really fit with not just their advocacy capacity, but with the slice of their overall organization occupied by advocacy, may add some value, especially for those in the field.

I have written before about my work in advocacy evaluation, but not in quite a while, so these are sort of my thoughts over the past several months, hopefully adding value to that earlier conversation.

What Works, in Supporting Organizations’ Advocacy Evaluation Capacity:

  • Starting with a dialogue about what they really want to know: I know that this sounds really obvious, but there’s sort of a trick to this. As I discuss below, we cannot begin an evaluation exercise just asking what organizations want to learn about their work, because there can’t be good evaluation without a framework for what we are evaluating. That’s part of the value we have to add as evaluators. But, conversely, starting with the logic model and emphasizing that structured process, without attending to organizations’ sometimes urgent need for more information about their work, is a recipe for disengagement. Getting this right is an art, not a science, but I think it requires acknowledging this tension (see below for more), opening dialogue about the end game, and then continually holding each other accountable for getting back to those sought objectives.
  • Acknowledging their evaluation ‘baggage’: There is unnecessary tension when nonprofits think that evaluators are cramming evaluation down their throats and evaluators think that nonprofits are being cavalier about the enterprise. The truth is that we cannot improve–as individual organizations or as a field–without good evaluation and analysis. But it’s also true that evaluation can be a fraught experience for a lot of organizations, and no one wins when that history and context are ignored, either. That doesn’t mean making a lot of jokes about how horrible logic models are, but it does mean putting on the table everyone’s own background in evaluation–or relative lack thereof–as a dynamic affecting the work.
  • Demystifying ‘analysis’: This, again, sort of falls into the ‘obvious’ category, but sometimes we as consultants/experts/technical assistance providers seek to demonstrate our legitimacy (I think/hope it’s that, instead of our superiority) by enhancing, rather than deflating, the mystique around our work. But no one wins when research or evaluation or analysis (or, fill in the blank: fundraising, organizing, budgeting) is considered difficult or, worse still, mysterious. The biggest breakthroughs I have had in advocacy evaluation with organizations is when they realize how much this is just about putting form and structure to what comes instinctively to them: asking questions about their work and setting out to find the answers.
  • Bridging to funders: There is no more immediately applicable use of the advocacy evaluation enterprise than communication with funders about organizations’ strategies, adaptations, outcomes, and progress. We absolutely cannot engage in advocacy for funders’ sake, but we also cannot expect to be financially sustainable over the long term if we fail to consider funders’ need for information to drive their own decisions. As a consultant, I can broker this relationship, to a certain extent, simultaneously serving both ‘clients’.
  • Investing in process: The how matters, here and always. Sometimes this means bringing people into conversations who wouldn’t necessarily need to be there, because the organization wants to invest in their capacity. Or it means detouring to develop some indicators and measures relevant to a particular funder, because that will enable organizational staff to convince the Board of Directors that this evaluation work is valuable. Or it means going through the process of testing each of the assumptions embedded in an organization’s strategy, because only teasing those apart yourself can really lay them bare. This stuff can’t be rushed, so we have to allow the process to unfold.
  • Starting with sustainability in mind: Every nonprofit organization doing great work right now is, at least, plenty busy. Some are pushed to the breaking point. So it doesn’t matter how well you make the case for the value of advocacy evaluation, or how excited you get the staff about leveraging their knowledge for greater impact, or even how much funders appreciate the information. Unless there is a realistic way for an organization to take on the work of advocacy evaluation, it just won’t get done. To me, this means being willing to scale back an evaluation plan, to help an organization think about what they can glean of value within the resource footprint that they have available. That sometimes means cutting corners on tools or abandoning certain fields of inquiry, but that doesn’t mean failure; it can mean that there’s a real future for evaluation in the organization.

What Doesn’t:

  • Expecting organizations to care as much about evaluation as evaluators, at least at first: This is what we do for a living (well, not me, so much, but you know). It cannot be the advocacy organization’s reason for being, or they wouldn’t be doing advocacy that we could then evaluate. We can’t get our feelings hurt or, worse, assume that organizations aren’t ‘serious’ about building their evaluation capacity, just because it may not be #1 on their to-do list.
  • Prioritizing ‘rooting’ evaluation in the organization, at the expense of added value: So, yes, as I said above, we absolutely need to think about sustainable ways for organizations to assume responsibility for advocacy evaluation within their existing structures. But that shouldn’t mean relegating ourselves to a mere ‘advice-giving’ function, with the expectation that organizations take on all of the work surrounding advocacy evaluation, at their own expense. Sure, it would be great for them to have the experience of constructing their own logic models or designing their own tools. I guess. But, to a certain extent, that’s what I’m here for, and, while I get the whole ‘teach someone to fish’ concept, we get to greatest field capacity by getting over the idea that everyone has to be and do everything, and, instead, figuring out how to make expertise of the collective available to all.
  • Letting their questions totally drive the evaluation: This sounds contradictory, too, to the idea of starting with their questions, but it gets back to that whole question of balance–if organizations already knew exactly what they need to be asking, and how, they probably wouldn’t need my consultation. If I’m going to add value, it should be at least in part through informing their consideration of their options, and influencing their identification of the issues that most warrant investigation. This of course can’t mean driving the agenda, but neither are we in the ‘agency-pleasing’ business. My ultimate responsibility is to the cause, and to those affected by it, and sometimes that has to mean some pushing back.
  • Assuming evaluation is a technical challenge only: Organizations sometimes have real reasons to not want to embark on a particular evaluation project: maybe they are afraid of what the results will show, or maybe they worry about who will want access to their findings, or maybe they fear the effect on staff morale if strategies are exposed as less than effective. None of these are reasons not to evaluate, of course, but we can’t start from the assumption that it’s only lack of knowledge or skill that is holding organizations back from evaluation, when it may very well be will.

If you are engaged in advocacy evaluation or have worked with or as an evaluation consultant, what’s your ‘view from the field’? What do you wish consultants knew about engaging organizations in advocacy evaluation capacity?

Colleague Week: Academics Making a Difference

Here’s another post for ‘Colleague Week’.

Aka ‘academic lovefest’.

Do you ever read someone’s article in an academic journal and think, “I bet she is a really nice person?”

No?

Maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, I think, by this point, that I could recognize Jennifer Mosley’s work even in a blind test. She has developed a scholarly voice that is so recognizable, and occupies such a critical place in the field, that I have come to gravitate to whatever it is she’s putting out.

I mean, with titles like “Recognizing new opportunities: Reconceptualizing policy advocacy in everyday organizational practice”, I feel like we must have been separated at birth.

There are several elements of her research and writing that I particularly appreciate, including her inclusion of the actual experiences of service providers and impacted populations, really without fail; her attention to nonprofit organizations’ real constraints in engaging in advocacy (and treatment of them as sophisticated actors making hard trade-offs, rather than novices somehow feeling their way–toward that end, I like this one a lot, “Institutionalization, privatization, and political opportunity: What tactical choices reveal about the policy advocacy of human service nonprofits”); and her inclusion of global perspectives, in recognition of how much U.S.-based charities have to learn from the activist traditions of, in particular, developing nations.

As I navigate a research and publishing agenda in my own relatively nascent academic career, I look to Jennifer’s work for a sense of where I might make contributions, and I rely heavily on her CV for readings for my classes and my literature reviews.

Part of what I value, then, most about her presence in the field is that presence itself, as a reminder that there are other social work academics who view nonprofit advocacy as a legitimate target of inquiry and a prominent dynamic in the profession.

Sometimes macro practice–and the study thereof–can be isolating, but seeing a familiar name in the e-journal citations makes it, somehow, less so.

Colleague Week: Academics Making a Difference

I could call this just ‘shout out’ week, I guess, because I don’t necessarily have a real treatise on these professionals’ work. In some cases, I’m not even sure what I could really add of tremendous value.

But I wrote an email to one of these colleagues last fall, expressing how much I appreciate her writing and her professional voice and her leadership in the field, and she responded saying that it is quite rare, really, for academics to receive this particular kind of appreciation and accolade and, well, since I don’t live close enough to make all these folks quick breads, the way I normally do to thank those to whom I owe a debt, I thought this was sort of the next best thing.

I have used some of Benjamin Shepard’s work here before, about the use of play in organizing.

But there are other pieces that I have discovered more recently and enjoy tremendously, including an article on social work and community gardening as environmental activism, a sort of case study on mixing direct services and social action, in the life of one transgendered activist, and some Huffington Post articles (on my life list!) on Occupy and direct action in New York City.

One of the coolest things about those Huff Post pieces, in my opinion, is the byline. It’s really gratifying to me to see an “Assistant Professor of Human Service at New York School of Technology/CUNY” writing about the planning for Occupy street protests, in a popular press publication.

It’s colleagues like these who I think deserve more attention and commendation. They’re demonstrating every day (in some cases, literally!) that academics don’t have to stay within the walls of the academy, that there is a role for analysis and theory in grassroots movements, and that progressives of all professional persuasions should join common cause.

I’m proud to call these folks colleagues. Hopefully our paths will cross someday, at a conference or on the streets.