Category Archives: Tips and How-Tos

Dodging Bullets and Stall Tactics: Defensive Policy Advocacy

I don’t know that I have ever been this glad to see a Kansas legislative session end.

And, given some of the sessions I’ve endured over the past 9 years, that’s saying a lot.

But this one was particularly rough.

Much of that is due to the November 2010 elections; the Kansas House, in particular, has many new faces, many of whom we’ve learned, the hard way, are not super interested in forging compromises in pursuit of good governance. Ahem.

And some of it is attributable to the budget, which is, by any account, pretty dreadful.

But what made this session particularly unsatisfying for me was that my time was ALL occupied with defense–trying to stop bad things from happening. That’s why I’m so exhausted. And why I was so glad that they went home.

Because, really, I got into policy advocacy because I wanted to make the world a better place. I get a kick out of working with dedicated elected officials, affected constituencies, and other allies to forge new public policy solutions that take us towards a vision of economic and social justice, not because I like throwing up roadblocks and exploiting procedural maneuvers to stall for time.

And yet.

With the thought that perhaps many social work advocates had sessions that looked not unlike mine, I’ve done some reflecting about why this session (and these defensive tactics) were so hard for me, and how I can reconcile myself to this kind of advocacy as part of my quest for justice. I don’t have any magic secrets; in fact, I’d love to hear from others about what this session has looked like for you, and what you learned that has helped prepare you for next year, defensive or not. But I’ve found that sharing our disappointments and frustrations, and even our heartaches, makes these sessions (how can 4 months feel like an eternity?) more bearable. And, sometimes, sustaining ourselves to fight another day is an important part of our overall strategy. And, sometimes, it’s the best we can do.

  • Remember that stopping bad policy IS promoting social justice–the fewer steps we take backwards, the less we’ll have to walk. Sometimes I get really down about having to defend against bad policy because, as I said above, that’s not why I decided to become a policy advocate. It helps me, at least in a small way, to remember that sometimes standing still is progress, or at least the foundation of it. Holding the line can keep people’s lives from getting seriously worse.
  • Build a coalition in support of your vision, not just in opposition to someone else’s. It’s relatively easy to get people fired up about a horrible, immediate threat: we had more than 60 people show up at a meeting, called at the last minute, to oppose Kansas’ effort at passing an Arizona-style anti-immigrant bill. But we have to build that effort around principles that articulate WHY we oppose that bill, so that we can use those same principles to advance legislation that takes us forward.
  • Process always matters–sometimes, the how is more important than the what. There are always ways to kill things quietly–finding ways to run out the clock, getting a friendly committee chair to bottle up a bill, generating serious doubt about a fiscal note’s validity. And, this year, we needed to use all of those “tricks” in Kansas. But, if you can, it’s often better for your movement to kill things loudly and emphatically. Lining a bill up for a vocal chorus of “no”s does much more for your momentum, and your constituents’ sense of power, than a promise from the Senate President to make something go away (even though, we promise, we appreciate those promises, Mr. President). If your eyes are always on the goal of building a movement that can win affirmative victories, not just making the “bad guys” lose, then you’ll look for opportunities to salvage a bigger win by opting for a different process, even if the outcome is the same.
  • Celebrate those victories, and those allies, even in a losing battle. I received more heartfelt appreciation from the 50 representatives I personally thanked for standing with Kansas’ instate tuition policy for immigrant students than I ever did when we were on the winning side. Our elected official allies, or at least many of them, feel as bewildered and thwarted as we do, and they need us more than ever. I built some new relationships this year, including with people I’ve somewhat known for a long time, that I believe will serve us well in the future, especially when (is it 2012 yet?) they have more allies with whom to vote in the future.
  • Don’t write anyone off, but don’t be afraid to draw lines in the sand, either. We picked up support on immigrant rights issues from a couple of new legislators in western Kansas who others thought we’d never get. In part, it’s because these are folks who see the future in their communities and want to work with it, not cling to a racially-idealized past. I love that about western Kansas. And, in part, it’s because they are thoughtful people who appreciated not being taken for granted and responded well to our efforts to reach out. That taught me a lesson I should have never forgotten: there are potential allies everywhere. At the same time, when a new Kansas legislator said that she could tell someone was an illegal immigrant because of her “olive complexion”, it’s not the time to fear burning bridges. Uproar about the revelation of the obviously racist underpinnings of the attacks on immigrants helped to galvanize our allies, both within and outside the statehouse.

    Today, I’m mourning some of what could have been this session, and I’m very worried about the implications of some of the budget cuts and other policy decisions from this year. I’m also very aware that it could have been much worse, and that our defensive work did make a difference. And I’m committed to campaigning for the senators who stood between us and destruction, because we can’t take for granted that they’ll still be there if we don’t.

    Did you play defense this year? Did you win? What did you learn? And how will it feed your offensive goals for next year, and the years to come?

  • Hey, it’s good exercise!

    In this digital age, I want to make the case for a return to old-fashioned door-to-door work.

    Yes, as in actual doors.

    And actually knocking on them.

    I know, why would we bother to “waste” all of that time, when we have email addresses and Facebook and so many “easier” ways to organize people?

    In short, because sometimes there’s just no substitute.

    There are still some ways in which door-knocking campaigns are superior to online engagement strategies:

  • You can collect really valuable information about people, the conditions in which they live, and their relationships to their communities by physically traveling in their space. No virtual community gives you exactly this same sense of people’s places.
  • You get a certain credit for showing up that can be helpful in, especially, your efforts to recruit new people to your cause. Precisely because email is so much easier, it’s also more easily tossed away. Yes, some people will slam the door in your face, but, honestly, it doesn’t happen that much. We’re willing to give a little bit more respect to those who actually come to see us.
  • Door-knocking is a great way to get your advocates/members/activists more comfortable telling your story; once you’ve knocked on a stranger’s door (to ask for a petition signature, or a membership pledge, or a vote), you’re much less scared to ask an elected official to take a certain stand. There’s a real comraderie in door-knocking, too, that you don’t get with online strategies.
  • You can multitask on the doors. A good online campaign can get you members and contributions, and maybe petition signers, too. And a well-executed door-to-door effort can get you all that plus some media coverage (because knocking on doors, these days, for anything except a political campaign is really kind of news) and intelligence about your target community, and maybe some good volunteer connections, too.
  • Door-knocking can be part of a multifaceted online and in-person organizing campaign. Of course, these days, you don’t have to choose one or the other. You can collect email addresses when you’re talking with people on the doors, sign up canvassers on Facebook, and vice versa. My point is not to get you to abandon online efforts in favor of traditional neighborhood ones, but rather to rediscover the potential of the door-to-door campaign as part of your overall approach.

    There’s a reason why local and state elections are often won or lost on the doors, rather than with paid advertising or mailing: people build relationships and connect with issues in a different way face-to-face. That’s still true today.

    There are many sources of information about how to put together a good door-to-door campaign (including how to choose your target area, how to prepare your door script, how to train volunteers, how to protect your folks in the field, how to debrief your canvass, and how to follow up once you’re in the office).

    But I think that most of these campaigns fail not in any of these areas of detail, but in the most fundamental respect: we’re just not trying them anymore.

    Really, any social justice issue lends itself, potentially, to a door-to-door campaign, but those with a strong geographic component (think: school finance, environmental justice, zoning, unemployment, city services, law enforcement) are especially well-suited. Here, there’s really no substitute for constructing a strong connection among neighbors, and awakening a specific, localized population so that they can advocate on their own behalf.

    And, from my own experiences, 10 minutes on someone’s front stoop can do that. Really.

    So happy knocking.

  • My mother was right

    I can remember, at least twice in my life, getting a thank-you note from my mother, thanking me for my thank-you note.


    My husband thinks it’s bizarre that I still send thank-you notes to my parents and to his, when they give a present to the kids.

    We buy them in bulk, to have on hand just in case.

    And I still follow the rules my mother instilled in me more than a quarter-century ago now: each thank-you note should be handwritten, no matter what; there should always be a specific reference to the gift or deed that warranted the thanks; and the thank-you note should be prompt, written no more than 48 hours after the occasion.

    It hadn’t occurred to me, until I was reading Fundraising for Social Change, the extent to which these lessons in gratitude have permeated my advocacy work.

    But they have; I say thank-you to elected officials all the time.

    I thank losing candidates for having run good races, especially if they have raised issues that would have otherwise been overlooked. I thank my own members of Congress and state legislators for their votes on a variety of issues I support. I thank elected officials and non-elected leaders for their statements in the press, their willingness to attend certain events, and their attention to pressing problems.
    And, you know, now that I think about it, they have an even higher rate than my own Mom of thanking me for the thanks. I received a very heartfelt thank you for my thank you from my member of the U.S. House after his vote in favor of health care reform, and from my state senator after she supported the Kansas revenue increase. In the latter case, she said that I was the only constituent to have thanked her for that vote. Just last week, I got a thank-you note back from a state senator (not my own) thanking me for my thank-you note for his vote against the instate tuition repeal (and, no, he’s not even related to my mother!).

    I can think of several instances where my thank you resulted, later, in a stronger relationship with an elected official, an entry point on a subsequent issue, or even a slightly healed breach where there had been conflict. Especially for those who are not my own representatives, sometimes these “thank you” relationships are the start of much deeper communication and an ability to work together on issues important to me.

    People, whoever they are, really do like to be thanked, especially when they’re so used to be asked, or even harassed, instead. So, in honor of my mother and her lifetime commitment to thankfulness, here are some tips for thanking policymakers in an advocacy context, with an eye towards how today’s “thank you” just might help with tomorrow’s “would you please?”

  • Promptness still does matter, especially because our requests are so often time-sensitive. We don’t want to be seen as only respecting the urgency of the policy process on the front end. Especially on tough votes, the criticisms will roll in immediately, and our thanks need to as well.
  • Hand-written notes do receive more attention, I think. I’ve often written a note out by hand for Congress but then faxed it there so that it would arrive quickly, given the delays of mail screening at the Capitol.
  • Include supplemental materials, if at all possible–one of my favorite tactics is to include supportive editorials from a local paper when thanking a state legislator, for example. You can reference this in your thank you, “I’m not alone in appreciating your stance on this issue. I’ve included for your reference a letter from the Garden City Telegram applauding your vote.”
  • Ask others to join you in thanking the elected official. This has the dual purpose of increasing the number of thank yous someone hears as well as strengthening your network (because it’s an easy ask and gets people in the habit of contacting elected officials, when they know that there won’t be conflict).
  • Be creative in your thanks. I received more than 10 personal “thank yous” for the thank yous that we generated as part of our DREAM Act campaign–student groups at universities around Kansas came up with their own thank you ideas, ranging from signed t-shirts from their school to photos where they spelled out “thank you” in a sort of human letter thing. We also generated special diplomas, signed by students, thanking people for their commitment to higher education. These ideas were nearly free, but very thoughtful, and I’ve seen at least a few state legislators with those diplomas still up in their offices, more than six years later.

    Nonprofit fundraisers tell us that thanking people for their contributions can mean the difference between continued and increasing support or publicly denigrating your organization to other would-be donors. I’ve never known of an elected official to change a vote because he/she wasn’t thanked, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be the advocate asking someone to take a courageous stance without having thanked them for their past support.

    And I think my mom would be proud.

  • Why Advocates Make the Best Fundraisers

    One of those books that I’ve had on my nightstand for months (thank goodness for really long checkouts from the university library) is Fundraising for Social Change.

    Once I finally opened it up, I found not only some still-relevant and very applicable (although my edition is somewhat outdated, technology-wise) fundraising strategies, especially for grassroots social change organizations, but also even more parallels between advocacy and fundraising than I had contemplated before. This has me thinking about how fundraisers are advocates for their causes, and how advocates should spend more time asking for money, and I want to hear from those who are fundraisers and those who are advocates (and those who consider themselves both!) about your reactions to these areas of overlap. In the weeks to come, I’ll sprinkle in some posts with some specific ideas about how some of the strategies suggested in Fundraising for Social Change might be applied in an advocacy context, but, here, I’m more interested in the big picture, a sort of “Venn Diagram” of how the worlds of asking for money and asking for policy change collide.

  • Organizations that ask most frequently get the best response: This is true in fundraising, and explains part of why people give so many of their charitable dollars to religious institutions, and it’s true for advocates, too. I’ve won at least one legislative battle, in particular, because I refused to go away, and I’ve garnered more than a couple of votes by having the audacity to just ask.
  • You need strategies to acquire, retain, and upgrade: We can’t use the same messages to bring in new people, keep those we have, and move people from peripheral to central involvement, and that’s true for fundraising and for the realms of organizing and advocacy. We lose people when it’s obvious we’re not exactly talking to them, and we can miss out on valuable opportunities to help people take the next step, too.
  • Nonprofit Boards matter…a lot: I’ve never seen a successful advocacy program, over the long term, in an organization without a supportive Board of Directors, and without the active participation of those core community leaders, fundraising efforts stagnate, too.
  • Emphasize your passion, but don’t forget to close the deal: I’ve debriefed with advocates often, only to find that they can’t tell me whether they have the support of the person they just lobbied. They didn’t directly ask. We get the most sympathetic attention when we stress our connection to the cause and the reasons it matters, but we have to stop talking at least long enough to listen to the other’s response.
  • Don’t apologize: I never felt bad about asking an elected official to do something morally correct but politically unpopular. I was giving them the valuable chance to do the right thing. Asking for money is the same way. People give because they want to invest in a collective response to a social problem, which is why people decide to support certain courses of policy action, too. They’re grateful for those opportunities, and we provide a valuable public service by providing them.
  • There’s no substitute for preparation: Fundraising for Social Change emphasizes the importance of understanding your donors, and your prospects, and of entering the conversation with the data and the practice you need to succeed. Obviously, that’s true in many life and professional endeavors, but especially in advocacy, where (as in fundraising) you may only have 5 minutes or so to make your case. You need to maximize every moment.

    I don’t love asking people for money. Just as I don’t naturally love confrontations with elected officials or media representatives, or policy debates with my neighbors. But I know that I can do it, and I have, and I will, because I know that winning advocacy campaigns requires money, and that money which is raised from our constituency is money that is more secure and more empowering than that which is begged from distant benefactors. I see raising the money to fund social change as an extension of my belief in it, and so it must be part of the equation.

    And you, advocates, can fundraise too.

  • Crowdsourcing: your new anti-burnout strategy?

    I don’t deny that there are strains of this all throughout American culture, but social workers and nonprofit folks seem particularly susceptible: the one-up battle of “who is the busiest?”!

    I see it in organizations where people are afraid or embarrassed to leave at 5PM, because they incur the wrath or disdain of their coworkers who take late hours like a badge of honor.

    I see it in my students, who before their careers have even started, are convinced that they are busier than anyone can possibly understand.

    I see it in social work colleagues, who inevitably answer even “how are you?” with something along the lines of “crazy busy, of course!”

    And, of course, I see it in myself, when I complain to my husband about how I’ll be up until midnight again tonight and I can tell he has to bite his tongue not to ask, “um, why?”

    And, so, it was this malady that was on my mind when I read the part in The Networked Nonprofit (thanks, too, for putting it in italics so we overly-busy could notice!): You have too much to do because you do too much.

    I know what you’re thinking: but I HAVE to do all of this.

    But, really, even if it does, indeed, have to get done (and, probably, that’s a question for another day’s post, related to information overload and mission-centered management), do YOU have to be the one to do it?

    And, I think, given my infatuation with crowdsourcing, that the answer is most likely “no”.

    I’m not just talking about getting volunteers to do some of your behind-the-scenes work, although I think that’s worth thinking about (yes, I know that it takes longer initially, but you’re bringing people more fully into your organization and building their capacity to take on work in the future, rather than just spending your weekends folding newsletters).

    I mean crowdsourcing the “real” work, the stuff that right now you can’t imagine anyone but you doing. As in, really tapping into the power of your leaders and your networks so that you really, really don’t do as much anymore.

    I would love to hear from people who have tried turning to their crowds to lighten their own loads (or from those who have found paths to organizational simplicity and work management that weed out the nonessential tasks, too, as I think about how I want to approach that topic). What have you tried? What might you consider? What barriers can you anticipate from your boss(es) as you shift your work? What advantages can you imagine, in terms of your leadership development, as a bonus to the workload reduction? And what factors, other than sheer amount of work, contribute to your burnout, that might be more implacable?

    Obviously, every too-busy social worker will have to decide what makes sense in her/his own context, but here are some ideas that I’ve tried, albeit without thinking of them as “crowdsourcing”. I’ve tried to estimate the number of hours of work saved per tactic, too!

  • Report preparation/editing: I don’t mean just proofreading here, although I almost always do that with a crowd, too. When I wrote El Centro’s big research analysis of our surveys into the lives of Latino immigrants, I would often convene a group of immigrants, service providers, and community leaders, prior to report preparation, to share some of the raw findings and get their take on what was most important, what warranted further study, and how to explain seemingly perplexing results. Hours saved: ~10/year
  • Identifying representatives for coalition meetings: People like to be asked to represent your organization/cause at important meetings and, if you explain how the transfer of power and the preparation of the individual is working, your partners can be comfortable with it, too. Hours saved: At least 10/month
  • Constituent “maintenance”: To keep your network engaged, you need to communicate with them often. But it doesn’t have to be you. In today’s digital age, this might mean finding folks who can take on blogging or Twitter updates, but I used extensive phone trees to activate participants for events, keep people informed about legislative updates, and “listen” to rumors and concerns in the community. Hours saved: More than 40/month

    These are all things that I could have done, in fact, used to do, but things that I recognized I didn’t need to do anymore. They are things that others could, in fact, do just as well, leaving me to do, well, other things that others could have done, too, if only I’d figured out a better way to crowdsource those, too!

  • With you, not “of” you: Free agents and your nonprofit

    While we may not often refer to them this way, most of us who have worked in community organizing have had encounters with the people that The Networked Nonprofit refers to as “free agents”. They’re the folks out talking about your work, lifting up your causes, and even bringing in dollars, just because they have a passion for what you do.

    The authors of The Networked Nonprofit make a convincing case that new social media tools make it easier for free agents to operate (they have access to more information about nonprofits and their work, and they have improved ways to communicate and share that information with an ever-wider set of potential converts, through expanding social networks), and also provide traditional nonprofits and the folks who staff them with new ways to find, reach out to, and even “organize” free agents, too.

    Kanter and Fine understand how to approach free agents, without scaring them off, but social workers, administrators, and even community organizers used to working within set structures, and with established roles of engagement, are often less comfortable with the ambiguous and fluid ways in which free agents can add value to our work (starting with, of course, the fact that they’re seldom preoccupied with adding value to our work, but rather passionate about an issue that happens to overlap with our efforts).

    If you’re asking yourself why you can’t get people to “take more initiative”, or if you yourself feel stunted by the confines of organizing committees or certain protocols, thinking about free agents and how you might pull them into your orbit, without expecting to put them under your wing, may open up new, untapped fonts of energy and, in the process, help you rethink how you approach the “agency” of each and every individual alongside whom you labor for social change.

    I’ve done some additional reading and talking and contemplating about these ideas, and here are my takes on the list of dos and don’ts, so to speak, from the book (pp. 19-21). I want to hear from free agents hard at work on causes of all kinds: how do you find organizations worthy of your efforts, and do you attempt to reach out or coordinate your work in any way? If so, what kinds of responses have you found? And, organizers, how does viewing your leaders through a lens of “free agency” change how you approach your leadership development? What have you found that works, and doesn’t, in collaborating with these independent operators?

  • Get to know free agents: in many ways, this comes back to the whole question of listening; if we’re only putting our advocacy message out, without listening to what others are saying in the same issue space, we’ll never find people who could be potent allies. Going beyond the online world, though, we need to look for free agents in our physical organizing, too–the person who has shown up at your last three protests without saying much (because, also, it could be someone doing opposition research, so we need to get to know him/her!), the volunteer who’s faithful behind the scenes, the soccer league coach who has access to thousands (from my own work–he turned into a turnout machine!). If we’re so focused on what we’re producing, or on who didn’t come to an event, we’ll miss those who are obviously motivated by some internal fire to contribute (relates to “Don’t ignore the newcomer”, another piece of advice from the authors.)
  • Break out of silos: Again, this has offline applications as well; we need to do our listening, and our outreach, not just among the usual allies, but in unlikely places, too. I made a point of skimming the letters to the editor in a very conservative religious publication in Kansas, to have a sense of how issues of immigration were resonating in this particular faith circle. That’s how I found an evangelical pastor fervently committed to justice for immigrants, who, while he never became a core part of our organizing work (and never developed really strong relationships with the other, mostly Catholic, mostly liberal clergy), delivered the votes of several conservative members of the legislature, out of his own (supported and shaped by our work) advocacy.
  • Give free agents a place to learn about issues and sort out their feelings about them: We too often expect advocates to arrive “converted” and ready to recite our talking points, instead of remembering that people feel most strongly those values and positions to which they come on their own terms. We need public events on our issues that are really for the public, and blogs and discussion boards where people can ask questions and forge their own beliefs, even when that makes us uncomfortable, or even when they don’t “come around” as quickly as we’d like.
  • Keep the welcome sign lit and Let them go: These related mantras remind us that free agents really are free, and must be, to come and go as their passions wax and wane, and as life intervenes. But, really, this is how we should regard all of our leaders; if people are only engaged out of some sense of obligation to us, not a commitment to community or cause, it’s hollow leadership at best. We need to structure organizations, and campaigns, so that there are roles that people can play in various capacities, and not take it personally when others have different parameters for their involvement.
  • Don’t be afraid to follow: I like this final piece of wisdom the very best. Unfortunately, I’ve seen more than a few organizers feel really threatened by the outstanding leaders in their midst, and, when good ideas get ignored because they came from outside instead of in, or when leadership gets squashed because other leaders are intimidated, it’s our causes and the people most affected by them who lose the most. We’ve all got too much to do, right? So why, again, are we worried about being the ones to direct every action or develop every strategy?

    Finding free agents, and working with them, even if they won’t work for us, should, after all, make us all more…free.

  • Putting advocacy in your strategic plan

    This is not a “how-to” post on strategic planning.

    There are certainly other resources, and others far more expert than I, to address the theory and practice of quality strategic planning (you know, the kind that is actually strategic and is actually planning).

    But I’ve been working with a couple of nonprofit organizations (on advocacy, research, and capacity-building) that have just completed or are undergoing strategic planning processes, and that has me thinking about two kinds of intersections between advocacy and strategic planning: first, using your advocacy skills to influence your organization’s direction and, second, incorporating specific advocacy objectives and activities into the strategic plan, to increase their acceptance within the organization’s resource distribution and power hierarchies.

    Before we get to that, though, it’s worth saying that I agree with the authors of The Networked Nonprofit that “strategic planning” as we understand it today–a discrete, time and resource-intensive, relatively insular process–will soon be a relic of the past, at least for the most nimble and responsive organizations.

    In its place will be real-time, continuous, transparent, collaborative listening and analysis and thinking about current opportunities, future possibilities, and how to best position the organization within them. Such a process, integrated seamlessly into how the organization talks with staff, donors, constituents, and community leaders about their work, their environment, and where they’re headed, would guide not only big decisions like staffing and program development but also the daily ones, related to message development, event planning, and fundraising appeals.

    And it wouldn’t require three-day-long retreats.

    Or those colored dots.

    But, today, as you work to steer your organization towards a simplified and opened up planning ‘orientation’, how can you use your advocacy skills to shape agency decisions, while also positioning the organization to value advocacy as you know it should?

    Some tips here, from my own participation in five separate strategic planning processes, as a consultant, Board member, and staff member.

  • Approach the strategic planning process as an advocacy target. Do research the way you would for any campaign–who will be the key decision makers, what are the entry points to the process, where are there relationships that you can leverage to influence the outcome? This isn’t, of course, about trying to strongarm anyone, or “rigging” the process, but about preparing to approach the process with an eye towards your preferred outcomes, applying your skills of education, persuasion, and storytelling, just as you would in another change context.
  • Use your crowd. Someday, hopefully, nonprofit organizations’ strategic plans will be truly transparent, so that constituents and volunteers and the general public have an opportunity to participate and an additional tool for accountability. Until that day, think about how you can use those who are invested in your work to contribute to the analysis and brainstorming that are essential to any good strategic plan, and also about how sharing some of the results of the plan can help you in your efforts to increase organizational follow-through (because more eyes will be watching).
  • Be prepared with arguments about how advocacy can advance the other strategic goals of organizational leaders. This requires, of course, having some sense of what those goals are likely to be, and then being able to talk about advocacy in a way that will resonate with those other agendas. Maybe your leadership wants to enhance the organization’s profile? Reduce staff burnout and turnover? Build relationships with influential supporters and potential donors? You can make a strong case for how advocacy complements all of those goals.
  • Get advocacy included in the strategic plan, in some form. Maybe, at this point, your leadership is only willing to consider an ad hoc Board committee to explore a public policy agenda, or cosponsoring a learning conference with other agencies in your field, or allowing staff to use some of their professional development time for policy-related content. It’s a start. Once your strategic plan outlines advocacy as a legitimate component of your organization’s work, you’ve begun to shift the thinking about who you are and what you do, and that’s often the biggest hurdle to overcome in engaging more actively in social change.

    Obviously, I want to hear from practitioners involved in strategic planning today. What has worked, for you, in terms of advocacy conversations within this process? What advice do you have? Have you attempted to use your advocacy skills on your own organizational targets? What have been the results? And, what are your thoughts on the future of this “future-planning” exercise?

  • Crowdsourcing your Board?

    What if you didn't need a chair to have a 'seat at the table'?

    While I wrote about some reflections on The Networked Nonprofit in December, it has taken me quite awhile longer to think through Chapter 11: Governing through Networks, where the authors make some recommendations about how integrating social media thinking, not just the tools, can improve the performance of Boards of Directors and, in the process, revitalize nonprofit organizations in some critical ways.

    I’m not a governance expert, although I’ve certainly had a lot of experience with nonprofit Boards, as an employee, consultant, volunteer, and Board member. I’ve seen a few really effective Boards create powerhouse organizations that excel at achieving their mission, and many more lackluster Boards that fail to do much except eat the free lunch they’re given every month.

    It’s the latter kind of Board that Kanter and Fine argue social media principles, such as transparency and equality and collaboration, can help to avoid. Importantly, this doesn’t mean just friending your current Board members on Facebook, but, instead, an emphasis on how to truly transform governance to make it more congruent with today’s social media climate of openness and fluidity.

    This means, of course, that we stop looking only to the ‘usual suspects’ for potential Board members, and that we think, instead, about how members of our crowd can participate in shaping our organization’s future.

    And I believe that this orientation to Board recruitment, development, and process could, in turn, create new kinds of nonprofit organizations that would, among other things, be more open to risk-taking and stand-making, which the nonprofit sector desperately needs.

    The book is worth reading for Chapter 11 alone, really, especially if your current Board is anything less than spectacular. Here are a few of the authors’ key suggestions about how to begin to open up a Board within the social media space, with my commentary about the implications for creating advocacy-friendly nonprofits, too.

    I want to hear from Board members, employees, volunteers, and students within nonprofit organizations. How does your Board currently operate, and what might applying some of these principles mean? What are your Board’s guiding imperatives today, and how might those change under a social media perspective? How would you crowdsource governance at your organization, if you could?

  • Include your Board members in a public social network: While it’s not the end of the process, making sure that your Board members play an active role in your organization’s online presence can help to communicate your mission and objectives (and, for example, policy priorities) while also providing a vehicle for others to weigh in.
  • Create an open invitation to Board meetings: It always baffles and alarms me when students say that they’re not invited to even participate in their own agency’s meetings. What’s the big secret? I can’t help but hope that organizations would take stronger stances on advocacy issues, in particular, if they had to do so with clients and the public listening.
  • Post draft agendas online: Your crowd, including donors, volunteers, and clients, will be much more engaged in conversations about how you can enhance your work if they see a meaningful mechanism through which their participation will matter. Allowing the public to comment on Board agendas won’t generate a groundswell of retweets, certainly, but those who do care will know that you do, too.
  • Make sharing the default: Instead of expending energy trying to keep things private, Boards should be oriented towards opening up real conversations with their stakeholders, not in controlled bursts but as part of a larger dialogue about the change they want to be in the world. This may mean, as the authors suggest, meeting outside of the Board room (like your state capitol, during the session!), or including online participatory tools in your strategic planning process, or having ad-hoc or standing committees that include not just Board members but also interested members of the public, or inviting leaders and clients to interface with your Board, or asking for Board nominations through social media channels, or…all of the above.

    Aren’t the functions of a real nonprofit Board–setting the course, monitoring the progress, providing the tools–too important to be left to just the Board?

  • In search of the tipping point: Lobbying Lessons

    Finding a way to make it stick

    One of the first messages that social work activists learn, upon entering the lobbying arena, is that, unfortunately, the quality of our messages is not that directly related to whether people will remember them.

    Yes, it’s true.

    We can have terrific facts.

    We can have beautiful visual aids.

    We can even have heart-wrenching stories.

    And, still, sometimes, the targets of our advocacy efforts won’t remember what we said.

    Legislative sessions are starting up all around the country. Congress is heading back to work. And, so, as we prepare for the real work of building power, nurturing relationships with decisionmakers, researching issues, and constructing solid policy proposals, I have advice that seems rather trivial:

    Make your message sticky.

    I’m sure it’s a testimony to how frequently my brain turns to nonprofit advocacy, that I can find lessons for that work even in a business book. But, you knew that already.

    In The Tipping Point, there were dozens of examples of the importance of ‘stickiness’–the need to figure out two key things:

    1. The one piece of information that you want to “stick” with people
    2. A trick, of sorts, to make it stick

    The latter, while seemingly more challenging, is actually the easier part. Think of every jingle you remember, every random fact that sticks in your brain, everything you may have learned in a freshman introduction to marketing class you took for general education requirements in college.

    Use juxtaposition–people remember things that are surprising.

    Use imagery–people remember pictures better than words.

    Use linguistic techniques like alliteration–people remember things that they can’t get out of their heads.

    The harder part, for most of us, is the former.

    There’s just so much we want to say, and so much we want people to learn, about these issues about which we already know so very much. We think that we have an obligation, a duty, to communicate everything.

    We use smaller and smaller margins to try to fit in everything we think people should know.

    But we know that doesn’t work. We know that we, ourselves, tend to only be able to remember a few things at a time, and we know that we tune out, are even put off by, those who try to cram in more.

    And we can’t afford to have our messages discarded like that.

    So, this legislative session, we’re going to make our messages stick.

    And we’re going to change conversations, shift thinking, and…we’re going to win.