Category Archives: My New Favorite Thing

Links, from me to you

I’ve never done this before, and you all might tell me you hate it, in which case I’ll probably never do it again.

But my ‘interesting stuff I’m not sure what to do with” email folder has gotten pretty full, and my calendar has gotten super tight, and I’m quite candidly not as diligent about Twitter as I should be, so I thought I’d give this a try.

Here are some links that I don’t want you to miss. I’d love to hear your reaction to them, and I’d be delighted to discuss them, but I just don’t know how to pull each into a coherent blog post of its own.

So, instead, a sort-of early holiday present:

some links, from me to you.

What do you think?

There is little in this world that brings me more joy than seeing nonprofit advocates really hit one out of the park.

Kids who go to bed right on time, maybe; fresh peaches off the tree; my allium when they bloom in spring.

But, really, extraordinarily successful advocacy campaigns are near the top of the list, especially when they also cultivate grassroots engagement and address critical social issues.

At the site, the Economic Policy Institute unveils economic inequality, as real, personal, expensive, created, and fixable.

It’s all interactive, accessible, and compelling.

What’s not to love about Robert Reich making the history of recent economic policy make sense to laypeople, in cartoon form?

But it’s not just a gimmick; policy prescriptions are woven throughout, and the real experiences of those on the losing end of the U.S. economy feature prominently.

And it matters, urgently and deeply, because inequality is a threat to our economic foundation, our societal fabric, and our democracy.

The site is super well-done, not only a resource for those seeking to better understand economic inequality, but also those wanting a tutorial on how to make their issue more salient, and how to use technology to draw others in.

Check it out.

The new ‘mommy wars’


I am all for more Mommy Wars.

Not the ‘stay-at-home’ v. ‘work-full-time’ type.

Those are offensive (because they totally ignore the reality of families’ economic needs for two incomes, and the policies that have driven them, as well as the ongoing gender imbalance in the workplace and in domestic responsibilities), soul-sucking (because being a mother is hard work, and the last thing we need is more alienation), divisive (our biggest challenges are not each other), and, ultimately, really misguided.

No, I want more of the ‘Moms v. Injustice’ type of Mommy wars, the kind where Senator Mitch McConnell has to walk past lines of moms in strollers to get to his office, after leading the charge against mandatory background checks.

The kind where mothers and children celebrate Mothers’ Day by demanding immigration reform that will stop separating families.

The kind where mothers (and fathers) work together, across lines of class and race, to demand sick-leave policy to protect their families and preserve their jobs.

The kind of collective ‘mom war’ on what’s besieging our families, perhaps starting with the lack of recognition of the value of the caregiving work that women do–whether they also work for pay outside the home or not–and the need for society to share all of our responsibilities.

This year, for my birthday, I’m making donations to MomsRising, and I would love for you to join me.

My hope for this next year of my life is that moms–self included–feel less ‘stressed’ and more angry, together.

  • Angry at lack of affordable childcare and flexible workplace policies
  • Angry at society’s failure to take basic steps towards protecting our children
  • Angry at the gendered nature of caregiving and the reality of ongoing pay discrimination
  • Angry at the politicization of health care–for women and also for our families
  • Angry at how often women, in the U.S. and around the world, are expected to pick up the slack created by policy gaps, and at how unrecognized women’s work is, despite being the lifeblood of the economy
  • Angry at messages that convince us to compete with other moms or to focus inward on achieving ‘balance’, rather than seeking justice at home and work
  • Angry at forces that push us to tear each other down for our ‘choices’, instead of revealing the false nature of many of the options we face

We need a war on the system that tries to turn public failings into personal problems.

And Moms are just the ones to wage it.

It’s here! Report from Advocacy Capacity Tool Users

I’ve never camped out for a new record release, or a new iPhone, or, well, anything.

I’m not really much for sleeping under the stars.

But I have been eagerly awaiting the release of some aggregate data about the organizations that have taken the Bolder Advocacy (Alliance for Justice) Advocacy Capacity tool, especially since these data were one of the major impetuses for moving the ACT to a free format. It’s sort of a trade, really; in exchange for access to the assessment at no charge, organizations agree to let AFJ learn from their responses (anonymously).

Since organizations can then compare themselves to other organizations within their sectors, or of their same sizes, I think examining these results can spark some critical conversations within nonprofit Board rooms.

But I’m even more interested in what looking at these findings can do for grantmakers, capacity builders, and others interested in catalyzing advocacy fields. And that’s how AFJ has framed this first analysis of the initial Advocacy Capacity Tool users: what do organizations need, to move forward?

The Executive Summary is only five pages long and well worth your time, but in the interest of even speedier access, here are the most important pieces, from where I sit (as one training future professionals and providing technical assistance today):

  • Yes, organizations want more advocacy funding, but better planning is perceived as even more important, to advance their advocacy. I do quite a bit of campaign planning with advocating organizations, and I definitely see this need, too. To me, it also relates to their adaptive capacity, because it’s hard to quickly pivot your strategies–and, so, to develop better plans–without having engaged in an intentional reflective process from the beginning.
  • The areas that nonprofit organizations most want to improve, in their advocacy, did not necessarily correspond to their weakest areas. AFJ theorizes that this is because organizations are prioritizing the areas that are most important to their advocacy, but I think it could also reflect that adage that it takes capacity to build capacity, so maybe some of the other elements are places where organizations feel overwhelmed, or, possibly, that organizations feel that they have complementary relationships with other sectors/providers that fill these needs, which, for thinking about field capacity, would be a very promising thing.
  • Legislative advocacy is the best developed, an unsurprising finding that, nonetheless, deserves some of our attention, particularly as elected officials around the country evidence considerable resistance to social work policy priorities, emphasizing the importance of using the entire spectrum of tools with which to induce change. At the same time, a large number of organizations indicating that they are not taking the 501(h) election suggests that there may be room to enhance this legislative advocacy, too.

There is so much about which to be excited here–the availability of a strong tool, for free; organizations’ willingness to share their data, including intimate data about governance and funding; AFJ’s commitment to making this information available in a transparent way.

I look forward to future cohorts’ findings and to the ongoing conversation about what we’re learning.

I’m not pulling out the lawn chairs to camp out on the sidewalk yet, but I’m eager.

In pursuit of ‘boring’

One of my favorite parts of Room to Read was the statement that the organization’s goal is to create, around the world, schools so ‘normal’ that “no documentary film crew would want to cover them, because they are so boring” (p. 114).

And I love that.

Sometimes, at least in my practice, there is a pull of the ‘exotic’, a fascination, almost, with the pains and the hardships that my clients experience, that can feel uncomfortably like voyeurism. And we take such pride in helping clients to change their lives that it feels amazing, almost miraculous.

But they deserve justice, not gawking.

And we need scale and systems change, not rare miracles in a sea of tragedy.

So what would it look like, in your work and in mine, if we normalized the lives of the communities we served so much that there’s really ‘nothing to see here’?

And what would it feel like if that goal was an animating value and driving vision of our work? If we were striving, always, to make sure that our clients’ lives could unfold in the mundane ways that we know we find comforting and that, indeed, we rely on?

And, taking the boring concept even further, what difference would it make if truly transformational and extraordinarily excellent nonprofit organizations were not, at all, extraordinary, but, instead, completely expected, ‘ordinary’, and boring, in every way?

If stories like that were a dime a dozen, and organizations like that were on every street corner?

I am ready to be bored.

Between A and B

Photo credit RyanBSchultz, Creative Commons license via Flickr

Photo credit RyanBSchultz, Creative Commons license via Flickr

I have my Dad to thank for some of my best life lessons:

  • “Don’t ever leave your car door open when the vehicle is running.” (it’s just a bad idea, people)
  • “Choose the right partner and the rest of life’s decisions will be easier.” (as I’m drinking the mocha my husband just made me, listening to him clean the kitchen)
  • “Never choose yes or no on ‘A’–you always want to choose between A and B.”

It’s that last one that I thought of while reading Decisive.

The book asserts that ‘whether or not’ decisions fail 52% of the time long term, compared to 32% of decisions between two or more alternatives.

Just like my Dad said.

But in advocacy, how often do we skip straight to our preferred option, often forgetting that there even are alternatives, and then wonder why we are unsuccessful in getting people to sign up for our ‘choice’…or why it doesn’t work as well as we had envisioned, even if we can get it through?

What would it look like, instead, if we crafted our advocacy such that policymakers can choose between two options, instead of asking them to say yes or no to one?

They would have to be real options, not just shams designed to make our ‘choice’ look better by comparison.

Which would mean that we would have to envision actual, viable, even desirable alternatives to our ‘pet’ approach.

Not easy to do, especially when we have invested so much, so often, in a particular route to change. Decisive addresses that by encouraging multitracking, so that we don’t become so wedded to a particular idea that we take any criticism of it completely personally (p. 55).

I am doing a lot of multitracking right now for my advocacy work around improving college outcomes for low-income students. Should we push for changes to Pell Grants such that they offer ‘early commitments’ to students whose trajectories could be influenced by the knowledge that assets are set aside for them? Encourage financial institutions to offer college savings accounts with low minimum balances? Work with states to pass progressive elements in their 529 plans? Reform student loans so that they do not strip as much wealth out of graduates’ households? Increase funding to public institutions to constrain tuition increases? Make tax policies refundable, so that low-income filers can benefit?

Yes and yes and yes and yes.

Because, really, what we want is the problem solved, right?

Is it that devastating if policymakers want to solve it in a different way than we might initially prefer, really? Are we so certain that our first option is the best?

One of the mental exercises suggested in Decisive, to help generate options, is to imagine that you can’t have the policy you’re advocating for today (p. 47).

What would you want to happen then? What’s your ‘B’?

And how could you use this to generate options that may bring unlikely allies to your side? And to salvage victory from the precipice of defeat? And to test innovations that just might yield some significant impacts?

Thanks, Dad.

And, no, I never buy those warranty protection packages.

I promise.

Tripwires in social policy

One of the greatest insights that I gleaned from Decisive was this idea of ‘tripwires’.

First, let me say that this is not anything like the automatic budget cuts that triggered the sequester, nor, certainly, the border security ‘benchmarks’ that received so much attention during this summer’s congressional debate on immigration reform.

Not like those at all.

Instead, tripwires are sort of like signals that we need to make a decision about something. They don’t tell you what the decision should be, necessarily, but they can be used to jar you out of continuing on autopilot, without recognizing when a new course of action–or at least the consideration of the same–is warranted.

And that has me thinking about what smart use of tripwires might look like in the social policy arena.

How could we use social indicators to identify when a problem demands our attention?

Would tripwires have helped us to mobilize more quickly around rising obesity? Should we have tripwires set now to draw our attention to the dramatic increases in Americans receiving federal disability? Would clearer economic tripwires have helped us to notice–in a real, actionable way, not just analysts connecting dots–warning signs in the housing and credit markets?

Would having tripwires set encourage innovation and allow greater focus, with the relative certainty that, when something gets to the level that it demands our attention, we’ll know?

In Decisive, the authors explain tripwires this way: “[they] allow us the certainty of committing to a course of action, even a risky one, while minimizing the costs of overconfidence” (p. 231).

We are committing to revisiting critical questions, even when we might otherwise overlook them.

Again, we’re not pretending to know now what the answer should be then, but we are reminding ourselves, possibly in statute, that we need to intentionally ask the right questions, when we get there.

Sort of like when I put huge sticky notes in my calendar to remind me of certain needed actions, such that I can’t write anything on that day until I do something about whatever issue the note prompts, so that I can take it off.

Sort of.

The idea, cognitively, is that we can be coached to recognize patterns of threat or opportunity. Indeed, history is replete with examples of some people noticing the signs, but we have not established mechanisms to capture this wisdom in our social policy decision making.

Or, even more importantly, to do anything with it.

Where do you see a need for tripwires? How could we build them into policy? What concerns would you have about instituting this kind of structure? What could we gain?

Acts of conscience and resistance

We need to find examples of humanity amidst suffering.

We need them.

That’s why I love the story, related in The Forger, about Christians who put their identity passes in the offering plates at church in Nazi Germany, which forgers then turned into lifesaving documents for Jews targeted for deportations (p. 98).

What I find so compelling about this particular story of resistance and acts of conscience, though, is how ordinary it is.

It illustrates what I believe is a critical point about these opportunities to exert moral courage:

We seldom have as much to lose as others have to gain.

Especially when we are willing to leverage our relative power–that afforded by our education, perhaps, or our social class, or even our race–we can often stand up with those threatened with comparably little at stake.

It makes all the more indefensible the many, many occasions when we fail to exercise even this limited risk, when we fail to look for opportunities to resist.

Last week, when I raised the uncomfortable issue of inequities in school finance among neighboring counties–a sensitive issue in my privileged district and one that usually doesn’t go over well with my peers–I thought of those identity passes in the collection plates.

Not flashy or particularly daring, but principled and, ultimately, collectively, huge.

What are your acts of conscience and resistance? How do you measure them, sustain them, multiply them?

How do they define you?

How would nonprofits fare, on trial?


This post from White Courtesy Telephone described a scene at a philanthropy conference a few years ago, when a jury of the field’s peers ‘put philanthropy on trial’.

Prosecution and defense, both from the philanthropy world, presented evidence on either side of these critical questions:

“Was philanthropy, or was it not, underperforming in its quest to help create social change? Should it, or should it not, be convicted for its lackluster outcomes?”

And 10 out of the 12 audience members chosen to deliberate philanthropy’s fate voted to convict.

The post emphasizes that there was little discussion, afterwards, about the significance of that verdict, or about the evidence that jurors, respectively, found most persuasive, or about the criteria that should be used to determine the relative effectiveness of the field.

And, interestingly, there has never been a retrial.

I would encourage you to read the post; nonprofits and nonprofit advocates certainly have an interest in how philanthropists are debating these questions of impact, and how their perception of their progress in this area may speak to the need for changes in how foundations interact with their nonprofit grantees.

But I am wondering how a similar trial would go for our nonprofit social service sector, itself.

Should we be convicted for failing to make significant progress on some of the most pressing social problems of our day? Or should we be excused, given the increasing pressures put on the sector, and the abdication of government, in particular, regarding its responsibilities for the same?

By what criteria would we be gauged to be ‘succeeding’, or not, in our quest for impact?

Are there parts of our sector that would fare differently than others? Are organizations working in health care, for example, doing better than those combating poverty? Is it even possible to dissect our field this way?

Would certain voices in our sector be more critical than others? Has this role of internal critic fallen mostly to particular voices in the field today, or are some actors just positioned so as to make them more or less concerned about nonprofit performance?

How would you vote, as a juror deciding the fate of our sector? What evidence would you present, as a prosecutor or as the defense?

And how would you feel, as a defendant?

What if we were judged not by other nonprofit actors, but by our most important ‘peers’–the clients whose interactions with our organizations give us our legitimacy?

How would they judge your specific organization and the overall field with which they engage?

What might we learn from such an exercise? What do we stand to lose?

Reach your imaginary advocates

There are moments when someone presents an insight, in an area you think about all the time, that is so completely perfect that you really feel like smacking your forehead, for not thinking of it earlier.

To give you an example:

Last spring, in my Advanced Advocacy Practice course, my good friend Jerry Jones, an organizer with Communities Creating Opportunity, was talking with my students about power. He talked about how people are often reluctant to build power, or even to claim the power they have, because of power’s negative connotations. We’re afraid of it. I talk about this a lot, so my students were nodding.

And then he said, I talk about power in the context of electrical current. Because just like electricity, power can be dangerous.

If it’s not channeled, power can maim. It can cause chaos and destruction. But, put to the proper use, power can be tremendously valuable. Indispensable, really. (Having just come through a power outage with the kids, I concurred.) We should have a healthy respect for power and what it can do. But we shouldn’t shy away from it just because it can hurt people. Because, without it, we give up so much.

And that was so totally beautiful and simple and clear. I saw literally all of my students start frantically writing, at that moment, to get down on paper the image he had created for them.

Recently, reading through some of Beth Kanter’s archives, I found something that struck me almost the same way. She had a guest post about audience research, discussing how nonprofit organizations should think about those to whom they are trying to communicate, in order to increase the likelihood that we are preparing messages that will resonate with those precise targets.

The author recommended creating fictional profiles for these members of your audience, so that, in your mind, you are preparing messages for particular individuals, even if those individuals do not exist.

And it hit me:

That would work with advocates, too.

Because rather than thinking, “What would make people–in general–respond to this advocacy alert?” “What would move ‘the public’ on this issue?” “Or, even, what would appeal to ‘our advocates’ at this particular time?”, we could craft much more effective calls to action if we were thinking as though we were specifically trying to get an individual to advocate.

Today, with sophisticated technology and the ability to build databases with a tremendous amount of information, we can characterize our advocates fairly precisely. We can track who opens which emails, who has requested information about state legislation v. congressional action, and who lives in which legislative districts. We often know a lot about our core advocates, in particular, sometimes even what brought them to the issue in the first place, what their greatest passions are, how often they have contributed financially to our organization, and what their number one issue priority is.

But, then, when it comes time to mobilize people, the targeting that we do usually stops at the asks we make of them (like, is she in this senator’s district or not?), instead of how we make those asks. So we can end up crafting communications–newsletters, blog posts, calls to action–that speak more to ourselves, or to a lowest common denominator, or to a different target entirely.

So it ends up sounding as though we were appealing to some other advocate entirely. And it falls, predictably, flat.

So what if, as this post recommended, we instead thought, “What would make our Board President Carol call her legislator about this issue?” “What would get Susie, a single mother of one young child, get motivated about proposed cuts to early childhood education?” “What messages would Megan–mother of 3 and part-time pastor–feel most comfortable carrying to her senator about gun control?” And, then, we approached the creation and delivery of our advocacy communications with an eye towards how they would be received by those particular individuals, real and imagined.

We would think about graphics that might catch their eyes, specifically, and the types of advocacy actions that we’d like them to take on (keeping in mind a ladder of engagement), and the messages that would connect with them and then move them to where we want them to be. It might make advocacy communications more real for nonprofit staff, too, especially those most comfortable with more 1:1 interactions. I mean, yes, here we might be talking about pretend 1:1 conversations, but, still.

To be certain, that type of targeting would mean that some who see our advocacy information will be turned off. Since we’re not trying to engage everyone, anyway, that’s OK.

What do you think? Do you do this, at all, in your advocacy work today? Does it sound helpful or contrived? Or both?

Who are you talking to, when you make an appeal to your advocates? And how do you know if they’re hearing you?