Category Archives: My New Favorite Thing

The DeMarco Factor

There is a lot that is pretty cool about my new, full-time position at the university.

I mean, I get a parking pass. For real.

I love my students and my colleagues, and I love the magnolia tree outside my window.

I love that tree A LOT.

But the very best thing, hands down?

The review copies of books.

It’s like Christmas every time I have a new text to select for a class, and those catalogs are like treasure maps.

It’s hard to keep up with all of the good publications coming out, and my students would cry foul quickly if I tried to assign everything that I think is worth their time to read, but it’s still pretty incredible.

One of the books that I previewed for this semester’s Advanced Advocacy Practice course is The DeMarco Factor, a sort of case study of a particularly effective advocate for health investments and equity in Maryland. It’s so hard for my students to conceptualize what advocacy really looks like, and to think through how they can apply their social work skills to its practice, and so I think there’s great value in humanizing the whole endeavor.

It’s very readable and quite well-received, but here are some of the highlights, as you’re weighing whether it makes it on your summer reading list.

  • Another point for social work relationship skills, in the advocacy context: There’s so much here about the importance of personal connections in moving policy, especially in the face of political and social odds. I feel vindicated, really, in my continual exhortations to my students that they were born for this. One observer calls DeMarco a ‘mythmaker’, capable of connecting with people so that they believe that they are capable of even the grandest political wins. If that’s not empowerment practice, I don’t know what is.
  • It takes campaigns: What I appreciated most about this book is the demystification of the advocacy process, without ‘simplifying’ it. If anything, there’s an increased understanding of the sophistication needed to develop and execute an advocacy campaign, including the process of running a public awareness component to galvanize support and the development of an electoral strategy to influence who’s sitting in the decision maker seat. But it’s not smarmy or murky or opaque at all. It’s an intervention, not that dissimilar from the interventions that we implement all the time, to induce change. Again, we can do this.
  • In building power (and you must), intensity matters: If we want to build enough power to induce policymakers to follow our prescriptions, we need far more than just public opinion on our side. We’ve really already met that threshold on a lot of our issues, and yet we’re clearly not winning many of them. What we need is fervent support, support that will convince elected officials that there will be a price to pay for failing to deliver. Policymakers will only listen when we make them. That is power.
  • You can work your model, on issue after issue: That’s the core takeaway from this book, I think, given that the central figure–Vinny DeMarco–has successfully executed advocacy campaigns on a variety of progressive issues in Maryland. Using the same modus operandi, more or less, he distributes resolutions to get organizations on board, shops policy models that can test the political waters, demonstrates economic impact, works his relationships to build powerful alliances, and uses a combination of polling, grassroots agitation, and insider politics to get to the victory. It worked on gun control, tobacco control, health care reform…we can win on anything, with the right approach.
  • We can be players: We may not all want to be power brokers the way DeMarco became. We shouldn’t. But there is more than one path to power. My favorite passage in the book, which I find really inspiring, is this: “It’s intimidating because you know that, no matter where you go in your district, or in your church, or in your world, you’re going to hear about his campaigns on behalf of the children and families of Maryland” (p. 45). To this, we should all aspire.

There’s no great utility in lionizing a particular advocate, and I don’t think that was the author’s intention with the book. What it says to me is that public interest advocacy is a noble profession and an art form, but one that can be studied and learned, to our own advantage as advocates and in service of the causes we care about.

I’m glad that there is a Vinny DeMarco, for the people of Maryland, and I’m glad to know about him, so that I can be the most skillful, powerful advocate I can, here in my own backyard.

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Pulling back the curtain–technology for budget knowledge

My 7-year-old son has been testing out these interactive federal budget games for me over the past few weeks, especially the Budget Hero, which is quite cool, really.

And I’m intrigued by the increasing availability, born of the attention and vigorous debate around the federal budget, of multimedia content with which to engage our thinking (including that of my students!) around budget decisions, like this video.

What I find encouraging about these kinds of tools is their ability to bridge a particular challenge–making the federal budget (in its massive scale and far-reaching scope) accessible to Americans, without simplifying it to the level of a household budget, which is inherently distorting and, I think, somewhat destructive.

To get off the sidelines and really engage with these essential budget questions, we need to increase our understanding about the trade-offs involved and find ways to wrap our collective heads around the tough sacrifices inherent in the process of resource allocation.

But we need to do it on real terms, not those that would pretend that the U.S. government should operate as a family would, or that the stakes are comparable.

While an online game–or a documentary–can’t approximate the experience of really holding the nation’s fiscal future in one’s hands, if Sam’s enthusiastic ‘refreshing’ of his game, to start over when he doesn’t like the way it ended up, is any indication, they may be helpful tools for bringing our knowledge up to a point where we’re able to have real conversations.

Have you discovered, and tried, any budget tools like these? Do you have any favorites? What functionality do you think would improve these experiences? What role can you imagine for this technology, in our national deliberation of the budget?

Storytelling, advocacy, and social change

In my advocacy capacity building work with nonprofit direct service agencies, the tasks we tackle together are intentionally individualized.

Each organization gets to direct the work, based on its own assessment of the types of capacity most needed.

So the process ends up looking quite different, depending on the leadership and the landscape.

But nearly universal is an emphasis on storytelling, a sort of global recognition that nonprofit advocates need to get better at telling our own stories–about why this work resonates with us–and at identifying and deploying stories about the need and the impact (especially about the need and the impact, side-by-side).

So I end up doing a lot of storytelling workshops, helping nonprofit staff and clients ‘unpack’ their own stories and get more comfortable inserting them into the collective narrative about these issues and why they matter.

And, so, I’m always looking for new resources to help with that.

Recently, I found this Storytelling and Social Change guide, available for free download.

It’s part compilation, part how-to guide, part inspiration, and part theoretical foundation–bringing together how and why storytelling works, the different forms it can take (case studies, video testimonials, storybanks, theater, individual narratives), the purposes it can serve (learn, organize, educate, advocate), and the motivation we may need to prioritize story compilation and story deployment as part of our communications approaches.

It’s written primarily for grantmakers, but there is valuable content for nonprofit organizations, too, as well as the important advantage that comes from thinking about how your funders think.

The profiles included also reference the funder that supports them, which is a practice I wish more nonprofit publications would employ, as it helps to demystify the ‘advocacy funding’ world for nonprofits trying to break into it, as well as break down the power divide that separates foundation from grantee.

And it has examples of storytelling for social change today and throughout social movement history, in very brief snapshots, which may help reluctant Board members, employees, clients, or partners recognize how their own stories can be valuable.

It has already informed some of my storytelling training, particularly in brainstorming other story modalities and thinking about how I frame the ‘why’ of storytelling. I’d love to hear from anyone else who has reviewed or is using the guide, about what you find valuable, what you think is missing, and what role stories play in your advocacy.

We all have a story to tell, and we can all get better at telling it.

Increasingly, I am coming to believe that, if we want to change the world, then we must.

Can Nonprofits Increase Voting? Short Answer: Yes!

It’s an election year.

An important one.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one, too.

But it’s certainly not too early to think about precisely how we can engage in the civic participation/Get-Out-the-Vote/voter empowerment process, as nonprofit service providers.

So, in case you missed it, here’s a really inspiring report from Nonprofit Vote, with case studies about what different nonprofits did to increase voter participation, and what lessons they learned in the process.

A few highlights, just to tide you over until you get through the 73 pages:

  • Don’t forget to register your staff. Really. Don’t forget that.
  • If you want people to register to vote, ask them. Individually. Posters are not an invitation. Asking people if you can register them is an invitation. And it makes a difference.
  • You can register people beyond your walls, and getting out to register voters also means building your name recognition and community presence, too.
  • Figure out what you want to measure, and then measure it. Do you care most about the total number of registrants? Voter turnout among those you register? Increasing participation among a specific population? Set goals and then hold yourself accountable.
  • Invest in staff training. Now. Voter engagement doesn’t necessarily come naturally to nonprofit staff, so staff development is essential.
  • Get people to pledge to vote–if they’re already registered, if laws prevent you from registering them, if you just registered them and you want to make sure they vote. Of course it’s no guarantee, but it gets you their contact information, and it gets them to acknowledge–at least briefly–that it matters if they show up. Both are huge.
  • Use peer pressure, like in group sessions where the interest of just a few can prompt broad voter engagement.
  • Partner. Remember that you don’t need to know/do everything, and you absolutely can rely on your field to carry some of the weight here. There are organizations that specialize in civil rights law, and they can help you with complicated questions/concerns about voting eligibility and restrictions.
  • Don’t assume that clients will view electoral engagement as a ‘distraction’–some organizations found that there was tremendous interest in talking about the election and issues and their rights as voters. You may find yourselves having to bracket this work so that it doesn’t spill over into other programs, instead of it being seen as an intrusion.

I’d love to hear others’ reactions to these case studies, or, especially, your own lessons learned from your organization’s civic engagement work. What do we need to be doing in February to ensure that our clients’ voices are heard in August and November? What capacity and support do you need now to make that happen?

What will you do to make sure that we keep answering, “yes!” to the question: Can Nonprofits Increase Voting?

Inspiration Week!

So we started the year with a giveaway, and the love is still coming!

This week, I’m sharing posts on topics and resources that I find inspiring, in the sincere hope that you will, too.

First, the third report in the Building Movement Project’s 5% shift series. I was honored, last fall, to be part of a national webinar for Grassroots Grantmakers, with BMP, to talk about the 5% shift project and how nonprofit, direct service organizations, can make changes within the footprint of their current operations that help them to move towards a social change orientation.

This third report highlights organizations whose transformations are a bit more fundamental, though, in my assessment, since both integrated a social change orientation into multiple parts of their organizations’ operations, albeit in steps that, individually, were not radical.

What I love most about this effort from Building Movement Project is that it practices what it preaches, in essence–by approaching the work from a nonjudgmental and affirming perspective, it encourages organizations to find a way–any way–to weave advocacy and addressing root causes into their operations, rather than expecting agencies to pivot dramatically.

And it connects the dots, so that revising staff job descriptions to include advocacy, for example, is seen not as a token effort or a disconnected process, but as part of a larger effort to align organizational resources with a pursuit of transformational change.

In this way, lots of 5%s can really add up.

Advocacy Anytime Everywhere

book

Chapter 3 in Social Change Anytime Everywhere is really the heart of the book, I think, for many nonprofit practitioners. There are tons of great examples about organizations effectively using multichannel strategies (email, Facebook, text messaging) to engage and activate their constituencies around their causes.

And there are specific suggestions about how to make these tools work for you, which is why I can imagine some busy nonprofit communications/resource development/advocacy professionals skipping right to chapter 3 and making notes on a legal pad of things that they just have to try.

Among the ideas that were bookmarked in my copy:

  • Share progress on your interim goals–particularly when looking at long-term policy changes–with your online community.
  • Outline the specific actions you want people to take, but don’t oversimplify; if there’s no obvious alignment between the action and the seriousness of the problem, people won’t do anything, not because they don’t care or they’re too busy, but because you haven’t made the stakes explicit.
  • Choose your targets carefully–we are too quick, I think, in advocacy, to think that our targets have to be members of Congress, or state legislators, when there are valid reasons to identify non-governmental actors or, even, elected officials from other levels of government, as the targets. And you can use different approaches, different messages, and different appeals to different constituencies with these targets, which enlarges your potential sphere of activism.
  • Tailor your messages not just to your audience, but also to your channel. Yeah, we can’t just cut and paste our policy briefs into emails, but we shouldn’t have our Facebook feed into our Twitter, either. We can’t engage people through multiple channels if we are saying the same things across all platforms.
  • We are way, way, way underutilizing mobile technology; nonprofits in the developing world, by necessity, are considerably ahead of us on this, using missed calls, for example, as ‘petition signatures’ on campaigns, following up on advocacy alerts with brief texts, sharing data through QR codes, adding real value to our constituents with well-done mobile apps.

Question: What challenge, relating to online advocacy, is your organization grappling with right now? What questions do you think that you have to overcome, in order to move forward? What potential outcome excites you most, in thinking about the advocacy ‘pay off’ of multiple channel engagement? What question are you embarrassed to ask, that is keeping you up at night?

Principles for ‘Anytime Everywhere’ Advocacy

book

The five principles for ‘anytime everywhere’ social change identified in the book are:

1. Identify your community from the crowd
2. Focus on shared goals
3. Choose tools for discovery and distribution
4. Highlight personal stories
5. Build a movement

When I started reading, #5 stopped me.

I mean, ‘build a movement’ as an item on a to-do list? Sure, we would all like to have a movement around our issues, but I had a hard time seeing how instructing us to build one counts as a ‘principle’, as reminding us that we can’t get to engagement without leveraging personal stories is.

But the way that the authors talk about movement building, I get how this commandment is an important reminder about the way we need to work. It’s about co-creation, letting go of our imagined control so that people are working our issues alongside us, not ‘under’ or ‘for’ us. Most significantly, the book has several very concrete examples of how this movement-building can look, including what it ‘costs’ an organization, psychically, to commit to this style of engagement.

Movement building, understood in this space, requires identifying the collaborators who can help your organization ‘open up’, so that your next campaign is about the larger movement/cause, instead of about your organization. It means unbranding, to an extent, and getting out of the way. It focuses on impact, and rigorous assessment through metrics, so that ‘loose’ doesn’t devolve into ‘untraceable’.

It’s about more than crowdsourcing, because you’re not trying to get the ‘crowd’ to circle back to you. It’s more of a ‘send the dove forth from the ark’ sort of thing. When your movement leaders don’t come back, you rely on your measures to let you know that’s a very, very good thing.

Question: Who are your collaborators? Who would carry forth your cause, if you encouraged them? Who is already free-agenting for you? What shifts would it take within your organization to get more comfortable with these movement actors and their roles? How can you cultivate those?