Category Archives: Questions you’re embarrassed to ask

Communication for advocacy’s sake

I have sort of backed into doing some communications consulting for the nonprofit organizations that are my advocacy technical assistance clients.

With the obvious (and repeated) caveat that I’m not a communications consultant.

I come to the study and practice of strategic communications only through the window of wanting to be as good as possible at convincing people to do what it is that I know believe really needs to be done.

I’m always learning and, I hope, improving.

And the organizations with which I work need to get better at communicating what they know, too, so message development and storytelling and integration of communications channels into a coherent campaign become part of how we work together.

I’m almost entirely self-taught, though, largely by trial and error, so it’s really reassuring when the experts’ advice aligns with my approach.

Except that I, like the commenter here, take issue with the characterization of this deliberate communications effort as ‘dumbing down’ your message. That runs entirely counter to what we’re trying to convey with advocacy-related communication: that we are all in this together, and that ‘my’ issue is just as much yours, as a result.

But I do appreciate the articulation of the primary objective of an organization’s communication as motivating others; in advocacy, we don’t necessarily need to win every argument or explain every detail.

We just need to get people to care enough to take the action that should lead us to a solution.


Because I’m such a novice, really, at all this communications work, I’m really eager to hear from others in the nonprofit world about what they need most to build communications capacity.

I have conducted storytelling trainings, helped advocates build message boxes, roleplayed media interviews, critiqued public presentations, drafted op-eds and letters to the editor, written press releases, and built campaign message ‘toolboxes’.

Certainly, the organizations with which I work are seeing some results, although I would never deign to take credit for their advances.

But what are your areas of greatest need, when it comes to equipping yourself for this particular part of your advocacy task–communicating with others about what you need them to do and why? Do you see your challenge as ‘dumbing down’ your message? If not, how do you view the core of this work? And what would help you get there?

Preventable Train Wrecks: Federal Budget Advocacy

The new federal fiscal year just started.

Which would be a noteworthy event if, say, we had a budget that actually started on the fiscal year, with new budget authorization for the federal agencies whose work is so important to our individual and collective well-being. If the new fiscal year meant the actual resources we need to do the critical activities that support the nation’s most fervent desires and greatest needs? Well, these days, that sounds nearly miraculous.

Instead, we have a perpetual mess that few can understand and no one can control, or even predict. The one constant for we social workers is that we will have to scrimp and scrounge to find the money to do what needs to be done, with a growing resentment towards a government, and a budget process, that isn’t supposed to make our jobs this much harder.

When I talk with social work advocates about the federal budget, as I do in class every fall and in conversations with nonprofit leaders throughout the year, their reactions to the whole affair are pretty much the same:

Disdain, disgust, disengagement…with periodic disaster, whenever the (usually very) small slice of the federal budget that funds their work is threatened, or rumored to be so, since few social service providers have enough direct information about the federal budget to know for sure.

This means that social work advocates have a rather spectacularly dysfunctional relationship with the federal budget. We fail in our federal budget advocacy in some rather routine ways, and those failures have implications not only for our own programs and constituencies, but, indeed, for the fiscal health of the nation as a whole.

The biggest errors are these (and, of course, it goes without saying both that these are not universal and that I include myself among the culpable):

  • We take as truth the common wisdom about the federal budget–today, that there’s a “crisis”, because we don’t understand enough about the process to make those analyses for ourselves.
  • We look only at a portion of the budget, very seldom weighing in on the big picture, so that our advocacy becomes a real elbowing match, as we fight for meager portions with others (mostly other social service types) relegated to our corner of the budget.
  • We totally overlook the revenue side, as though, somehow, the tax debate was not our fight, which essentially dooms us to vying for a tiny piece of a shrinking pie.
  • We get involved way too late, mobilizing our constituencies only when there’s a perception of real threat, and, even then, we don’t/can’t help those same constituencies understand all of the factors at play that create the crisis. This sets up our grassroots folks to make panicked phone calls, without much context, to “not cut the funding for XYZ”, which, while not necessarily an ineffective lobbying technique, is anything but empowering. We need those who receive our services to understand where the funding comes from, how to make the case year-round, and how the viability of those services is affected by other political and economic factors. Talk about teachable moments.
  • We let the ugliness of the process excuse our inaction. I hate the “shadow budget” as much as the next do-gooder. I’m appalled at our tax code and frightened about the future of our entitlements. I think it’s inexcusable how much money we spend on things that don’t really matter, and how easily our spending priorities are distorted by raw political considerations. Yes, yes, and yes. But that doesn’t mean that we can afford to sit this one out, or that the illogic and sometimes sheer nastiness of the federal budget process makes it an inappropriate or unnecessary realm for our best advocacy efforts.

    Because the results are predictable: when we’re not there, at least not until the end, our voices are not reflected in the budget, which is, after all, fundamentally a statement of values–the same way that my own checkbook register shows what I care about enough to spend money on.

    And we can do better. We must. Because the hard questions aren’t going to get answered if we’re not even asking them.

    And because our clients deserve far better than crumbs.

    I regularly read the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ federal budget analyses, even the footnotes that I sometimes struggle to understand. I scan the policy priorities of some of the other major advocacy groups that watch the federal budget. I read national news coverage of the budget battles, and I attend public forums and listen to commentary from my own congressional delegation. And I pay attention to discussion about process reforms–the ways that we could make our budget negotiations go better so that the resulting budget would be better, too, even though sometimes the appropriation v. authorization talk makes my eyes glaze over, too.

    Because advocating with and for those we have the honor to serve means being in the toughest fights.

    And the most tedious, nauseating, and overwhelming, too.

    Let’s make this the last federal fiscal train wreck we fail to prevent.

  • The Morning After: what it means for social workers

    This is NOT a conclusive analysis of every race from yesterday’s midterm election. It’s not even a post with links to the commentary flooding the Internet (although, if you’re in Kansas or Missouri, you can find it here.)

    Honestly, after working the polls for 13 hours, I couldn’t stay up late enough to see all of the returns, and I think my brain is still wrapping around some of the results I have seen, anyway.

    But I have seen enough to have some thoughts about what this election means for social workers, though, and I’d love to start a discussion with other politics watchers about what you think this all means, or will mean in the future, to the profession, to the causes we care about, and, most importantly, to those we have the honor to work alongside–our clients.

  • Much has been made of how the “Obama effect” that turned out so many young, ‘disaffected’ voters, including people of color, has “evaporated” in 2010. To that, I guess I’d say…of course it has. We’ve known for a long time that when the focus is on short-term Get Out the Vote, instead of building long-term relationships that help people who have previously been marginalized by society to weave political engagement into the fabric of their daily lives, through connection to organizations and issues that matter to them…that engagement evaporates. Social workers know how to do it better, and we have an obligation to make politics meaningful for those others only remember every two years.
  • People want change. And so do we. We know that framing is more than half the battle, and when it comes to talking about a vision for our country, social workers can tap into a growing desire for a new direction to talk about the problems we see in our communities, the types of strategies that could address them, and what working collectively to implement them would look like. After all, exit polls suggest that this was, more than anything, an election about people’s insecurities, about their fears that this economy won’t deliver the life they envision for their families. And social workers deal with fear and insecurity, and the injustice that creates them, all the time.
  • There is a hostility to government intervention in social problems that, to social workers who have seen what utter abdication of collective responsibility looks like, seems not only unwise but cruel. At the same time, those same polls I referenced above show a convergence of opinion about the greatest challenges facing our nation, some of the very challenges that we know only a powerful, wealthy entity is capable of taking on. What that dichotomy means to me, really, is the dynamic that I’ve seen dozens of times in advocacy and what, for me, is the central story of the past two years: we can mostly agree when it’s time to name problems, but the consensus falls apart when it’s time to choose solutions. I don’t have any words of wisdom to make the prospect of dealing with a Congress decidedly more hostile to social spending than the one we’ve had for the past four years. I wish I did. But I do believe that, if we can center on a discussion about the values that motivate us and the problems that plague us, then maybe we have a chance to take another running shot at this problem-solving exercise we call governance.
  • And, finally, in what is the ultimate glass-half-full assessment by someone who’s decidedly not that Pollyanna-ish, my 13 hours in the polling place reminded me that, really, this is a system that mostly works. I don’t mean that it works on the level of money in politics, which I continue to believe is a huge problem, or even the mechanics of how we do voter registration or how people learn about the issues. But I mean that, really, I think that last night’s results mostly reflect how people are really feeling right now, or at least a majority of the American public, and there’s something reassuring, in my democracy-loving soul, about seeing that reflected, even when I wish I wasn’t, personally, in the minority this time.

    So, social workers, are you spending a day doing self-care? How do you feel about last night’s results? More importantly, how do you feel about tomorrow?

  • What does civic engagement look like, really?

    photo credit, Library of Congress, via Flickr Commons

    Social workers, especially us “macro” types, use a lot of pretty fuzzy language sometimes. What does “empowerment” really mean after all? How do we know effective advocacy when we see it?

    And what, really, is “civic engagement”, and how in the world do we measure that?

    Answering this question is important not just because it’s never a good idea to spend energy talking about something without really having any idea what we’re actually talking about, but also because defining and measuring and evaluating our civic engagement work is about accountability and integrity, which, after all, are some of the goals towards which our civic engagement work is focused in the first place.

    We know that civic engagement is far more than getting people registered to vote, or even than getting them to the polls. I remember a course that I took from Ernesto Cortes, of the Industrial Areas Foundation, in graduate school, and how he talked about how reducing civic engagement, and the exercise of our citizenship, to voting alone, really makes it essentially another aspect of consumerism–choosing between this or that preformulated option, which, of course, isn’t very engaging at all.

    But the other stuff, beyond voting, is even harder to measure and truly conceptualize: what does it look like to be authentically involved in the governance of one’s own community, or one’s own life, and how do we begin to track and evaluate that engagement on a broad scale?

    The folks at the Building Movement Project (I know, I knowI’m a bit obsessed) have a new paper, Evidence of Change, which discusses evaluating civic engagement efforts and, I believe, offers, if not a roadmap, at least some sparks of guidance for organizations trying to be clear about their goals in this client empowerment work and, ultimately, demonstrate its tangible value.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because I really believe that there are particular opportunities for advancement of advocacy and civic engagement as legitimate activities, and, really, core strategies, of social service nonprofit organizations, but we’ll never solidify a place for them if we can’t figure out how to assess and communicate about what we’re doing, and why it matters.

    Some of the new insights for me from this, most recent, discussion:

  • We can’t measure civic engagement by looking only at the individuals (for example, our clients) involved; truly meaningful civic engagement should be transformative not just for those people, but also for the “host” organization’s capacity for social change, and for the society and institutional structures their engagement is aimed at changing.
  • Rigorously evaluating civic engagement work requires, for many nonprofit social service organizations, TWO significant culture shifts–first towards this kind of empowerment work as a core part of the agency’s operations, and second towards seeing formal evaluation as integral to the organization’s mission. No wonder it’s so hard, and so rare.
  • Just as we’re still in the process of developing new models of social service organizations that integrate advocacy and civic engagement in their direct service work, so, too, do we need to develop new models of evaluation, able to meet the demands of these kinds of nonlinear change processes. And we need the space, within academia and especially philanthropy, for these new evaluation methods to gain legitimacy.

    So getting out the vote among our clients and allies is obviously important. And being able to quantify the electoral impact of our work, and how it changes conversations about the issues we care about, is important in garnering the resources we’ll need to support its continuation. Absolutely.

    But we want more for those we have the honor to serve than a choice between candidate A and candidate B. We want them to be more than consumers–we see them and know them as stakeholders, capable of helping to build the kind of society we want for all of us.

    And that takes the kind of civic engagement that moves mountains.

    So we’d better be ready to measure how far they’ve come.

  • Pie in the sky? What cloud computing means for social justice

    Photo via Flickr Creative Commons, credit Library of Congress

    This is not the place for an indepth discussion on the components of cloud computing. I’m not that much of a technology expert.

    But I do think that social workers, and advocates for social justice, need to think about what the move towards less reliance on computer hardware (and even software) and more integration through ‘virtual’ networks means, for issues of access to information, consumer protection, and efforts to close the digital divide.

    One of my favorite philanthropy blogs (and one of the very few to actually reference the work of front-line social workers) had a discussion about many of these issues last spring, which prompted my research into the term ‘cloud computing’ and my thinking about what this might mean for social workers in the field and for social work advocates.

    Because this is beyond my area of strongest expertise, I’ve got links to share and a lot of questions to ask, and the hopes that some of you who are currently thinking about how you might use new technology to really do your work differently (and what transitioning to a more ‘cloud-based’ model might mean for your thinking about how you organize other systems within your organization, too, because I’m of course concerned that an ‘on-demand’ orientation to software might lead to an (increased) ‘on-demand’ orientation towards human resources) will share what these conversations are looking like and what information and/or connections would help you approach them.

    1. Will transferring sensitive client data to the cloud increase security, because cloud systems may be more sophisticated than what we have internally and because the vendors have a strong incentive to protect data, or compromise it (and, therefore, the trust our clients have in us) by putting data into the Internet ‘netherworld’?

    2. Is moving to the cloud going to help close the digital divide, because of the low costs of entry (compared with expensive hardware requirements) or expand it, because there are still many parts of the world (and, indeed, the U.S.) without the broadband access that’s essential to meaningfully interface with the cloud?

    3. Will making it easier for organizations to share resources and communicate real content facilitate breaking down silos in social services, or will this just reveal the real barriers (more ideological and political than technical) to collaboration?

    4. Will Executive Directors and CEOs of nonprofit organizations pursue cloud computing because of a belief in the value of socially-oriented technologies, or in the hopes of reducing capital outlays and outsourcing more previously-internal functions? This last one isn’t so important for the cloud computing discussion itself, but, again, for what it might reflect about the overall disposition of managers within social work organizations, a disposition which has significant implications for working conditions, labor rights, and worker empowerment within organizations.

    So, coming down from the clouds, what do you think? Is your organization engaged in this shift today? Do you call it ‘cloud computing’? Do you think it will really change how you work? What about how you connect with others around advocacy? Any answers to my questions?

    Celebrate your citizenship: (hint) It’s not a meritocracy!

    For several years, I spent the 4th of July at community festivals (like everyone else is watching fireworks, eating fried foods, and hanging out) at a booth with a big map of the world, asking people to put pins up to show where their families originated, with the goal of highlighting our nation’s history of immigration and the common ideals that bind us together. Part of this was always administering sample citizenship tests, too, to give people an idea of what prospective naturalized citizens are expected to know in order to ‘win’ admittance to our country. Inevitably, people don’t do as well as they think they will, and there were usually some nervous laughs about “you’re not going to take it back, are you?”

    No, I’m not.

    But I do want to challenge you, readers, with your own sample citizenship test. If you do wonderfully, congratulations! If you don’t do so well (or really, even if you do), please consider volunteering to help immigrants studying for the naturalization test (still one of my most rewarding volunteer experiences), or registering newly-naturalized folks to vote after a naturalization ceremony (contact the League of Women Voters in your area to see if they already have this covered).

    As the USCIS examiners do, I randomly chose 10 questions for your sample test. You must answer at least 6 correctly to pass. In my opinion, this is a pretty good reflection of the difficulty of the questions; you lucked out on the one about the 13 original colonies! Imagine, if you will, that these questions are all in a foreign language; that will make it more realistic. I’ll post the answers tomorrow. Buena suerte!

    1. How many amendments does the Constitution have?
    2. We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?
    3. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
    4. If both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?
    5. What are two Cabinet-level positions?
    6. How many justices are on the Supreme Court?
    7. Who is the Chief Justice of the United States now?
    8. What is the name of the Speaker of the House of Representatives now?
    9. There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Explain one of them.
    10. The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.

    What Makes a Good Policy Brief?

    There are quite a few resources available on how to write a policy brief, but I still find that students struggle somewhat with this assignment, in part because it is such a different writing task than they usually face. A part of me always feels a little bit guilty for assigning it, too, because the truth is that I just don’t find them all that useful in actual lobbying; at least on the issues on which I mostly advocate, policymakers are more interested in the political ramifications than a set of factual arguments. So I found myself using talking points, lists of endorsers, myth v. fact sheets, and other materials, slightly less dense with facts. Still, I think that the process of researching and writing a policy brief is a very important one for policy advocates; it forces us to familiarize ourselves with the existing information from multiple viewpoints, to hone our statement of the social problem, to clearly articulate why our policy option is the best one, and to identify those messages that will be the most concise and coherent as we move forward with the campaign. And, of course, instructors (like me!) keep assigning policy briefs, so students will need to keep grappling with this exercise, at least in the classroom setting.

    Some thoughts on what makes a good policy brief, based on my research into others’ instructions for policy brief preparation, my work preparing dozens of briefs, and my review of many more dozens of student and organizational briefs.

    The best policy briefs:

  • Are short, of course, which pretty much goes without saying, and also a little repetitive, because policymakers may just scan the page, so you want them to have multiple opportunities to notice your best points. Pictures, graphs, and other visuals (along with lots of white space) are also good.
  • Use common terms, spell out every acronym, and are in general highly accessible to people who are not familiar at all with the policy issue. You’ll create other documents (like talking points) for your hardcore advocates; policy briefs are primarily used by those with relatively little context or additional information, so they need to be able to stand alone.
  • Address a social problem. I know, it sounds elementary, but I have seen ‘policy briefs’ where the reader is still not exactly sure that anything is really wrong, or why the supposed social problem is, indeed, problematic. You don’t need to state that the world will come to an end if your policy isn’t adopted, certainly, but you need enough research to tell a convincing story about why change is needed.
  • Clearly state a policy preference, and why it is the best solution to the problem (as outlined). Social workers sometimes try to play too nice, and to give too much credence to every possible alternative, as though there were no really bad ideas. Of course there are, plenty, and too many of them are making their way into law! Say what should be done about the problem, and clearly and persuasively explain why it is the THE best option. If you want to outline, briefly, a couple of the alternatives (and this is a good idea if there are 1 or more that are ‘catching on’), and then why they are inferior, that’s fine, but just don’t backhandedly advocate for those alternatives. If you think people will have trouble figuring out which policy choice you’re for, then only talk about yours.
  • When in doubt, cite. Social work students get hung up on this, but ignore APA and use footnotes abundantly. Everything that’s even somewhat questionable should be cited, and make sure that you’re using reputable sources; it might be a good idea to have someone a bit neutral look at your sources to give you this opinion.
  • Follow this general format (unless, of course, your instructor has different instructions): introduction/problem statement (should include the scope and scale of the problem, and why it’s bad–you’ll want to judiciously include facts that document this, and this might be the place for a very compelling (and brief) story); status quo policy situation (you can use this section to expand somewhat on the problem statement, since, if you’re advocating change, the current policy must be part of the problem); your policy recommendation (with supporting arguments as to why it is best); refutation of alternative policy arguments (if you’ve decided this is necessary); and conclusion (restating the problem and the solution).

    Students often tell me that they want more examples of policy briefs, so, this year, I obtained permission from some of my students to share their well-done policy briefs. The links to these documents are below, along with my comments about what I find particularly appealing about each one, and the authors’ names. All of these students received their MSW degrees from the University of Kansas in May 2009–congratulations to them, and I look forward to seeing more of their advocacy as their careers progress! Thank you, too, for allowing me to share these.

    If anyone has a policy brief that they’d like to share, for comments or critique, please do so. Do you have resources that you’ve found particularly helpful in preparing policy briefs? When have you used a policy brief in an advocacy context to great effect?

    Sarah Brokenleg: This one is visually very easy to read and attractive. She makes her main points early and repeats them, and she covers the three main policy subtopics. My favorite part about this brief is that she refutes the main counterargument without giving it any real emphasis, which I think is very effective.
    Statewide Smoking Ban

    Kavya Velagapudi and April Rand: They were very specific about their audience–Lawrence-area policymakers, and the brief is very targeted towards them. I like that they highlighted the programs that would be negatively affected without turning it into a ‘policymaking by anecdote’ situation. We debated the inclusion of the revenue-enhancement alternatives, because I tend to argue that we should never be the ones backed into figuring out where to come up with the money, but they felt, from their conversations with decision-makers, that they really needed to put something on the table, and I respect that.
    Alcohol Tax Revenues

    Adam Timberlake, Susila Gabbert, Anna Giles: Adam did the design work on this, and what I like most about this particular brief is that I know that it is an issue that is very close to his heart, but he presents it in a way that is compelling but still very professional and well-researched. At the end, he makes the three main points related to his policy brief. He doesn’t back away from the ‘soft’ benefit of healthier communities, but he doesn’t rely solely on that. And I love the way that he incorporated the housing in the background.
    Housing Trust Fund