Tag Archives: advocacy

Practice Reflections: Supporting Advocacy in Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The DeMarco Factor

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

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

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

I love that tree A LOT.

But the very best thing, hands down?

The review copies of books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colleague Week: Academics Making a Difference

Here’s another post for ‘Colleague Week’.

Aka ‘academic lovefest’.

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

No?

Maybe it’s just me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, really. Really. Words matter.

Maybe I should have been a linguist.

Because I find that I’m a little bit obsessed with language.

Specifically, the language that we use to talk about the issues that matter, and how what we say shapes what we see.

Two thoughts leaped out at me from Generation Roe, related to language:

First, how the frame of ‘pro-choice’ evokes a certain perception of how women come to abortion, and, conversely, how being, then, framed as on the other side of ‘pro-life’ triggers undesirable conflicts, too. Because it’s a very different equation, to pit ‘life’ against a ‘choice’. When the lines are drawn that way, where we end up feels different.

And, second, how we define ‘access’–to any service–is very important for marking the parameters of equity and justice and, truly, meaningful access. Because is it really ‘access’ if people are too poor to get to the service? If it’s not offered in their native language? If they don’t feel comfortable in the neighborhood where we’re located?

For me, the first of these language concerns relates to how we let others define us, and how we need to be intentional about how we describe where we stand, on a given issue. And the second is about intellectual honesty and ethically representing the limits of our own efforts, rather than using language to console ourselves unjustifiably.

One is about not allowing ourselves to be boxed in unnecessarily and inappropriately.

The other is about not giving ourselves more wiggle room than is warranted.

Words matter.

The budget is us

One of the most powerful moments in my social policy class (and, yes, I think there are more than one; I love when students realize all of the ways in which their families depend on ‘welfare’ benefits, for example, especially through the tax code) is when we talk about budgets as reflections of our collective values.

That was a point emphasized in the book Red Ink, too, the idea that the “budget is driven by the things that people want” (p. 23).

Budgets tell the story of who we are and, in this way (and very few others), the federal budget does parallel your household budget. Looking at where you spend your money, one would get a clear sense of what you think is important.

That’s true for our national appropriations, too.

There’s a breakdown, though, in our shared conversation about budgets as a tool with which to accomplish the things that we think matter. Our budgets tell the story of who we are as a country, but we’re unable to see some critical aspects of that narrative.

When 44% of those on Social Security think they’ve never been on a government program, there’s clearly a disconnect.

When the budget is demonized as a problem to get rid of, instead of recognized as a mutual commitment to take care of each other (and ourselves), we clearly need a more honest accounting.

Individually, we may object to specific budget line items–I’m not at all sure that I want to spend $11 billion on an aircraft carrier, and I’m not certain about the advisability of spending billions on hip replacements, either–but we cannot start the conversations about whether those are the choices we want to make, and the legacy we want to leave, until we at least see them as choices that leave legacies.

The federal budget may be crafted and approved in Washington, DC, but it is not an autonomous force.

Instead, it is created by us, to reflect us.

It is of us, which means that we have the right–and the responsibility–to shape it in the image that we envision for our shared futures.

If we don’t like what we see, it is incumbent upon us to push for changes.

Review Week: Red Ink

It’s hard to imagine a time when there has been more attention paid to the federal budget than in the past several years.

When my students have to do a media analysis of coverage of the budget, it’s an embarrassment of riches these days.

But I find, for my students, that sometimes this familiarity can breed contempt.

When they learn that, in 2009, for the first time every dollar of revenue was committed for past promises–entitlements–it can be hard to message around why their advocacy is imperative.

When they question whether any crisis is sufficient to prompt leadership in today’s budget battles, I worry that they will cringe and turn away.

When I explain rules like Pay As You Go (PAYGO), I worry that, instead of committed to learning more about how to navigate the constraints in order to be effective advocates, they will toss up their hands in disgust.

In the fall semester, I teach a survey of social policy. For the most part, my energies are focused on helping students untangle what they thought they knew about the social policy landscape in which we live–and our clients struggle–and helping them articulate alternatives that could bring better outcomes.

And, now, in the spring, I teach advocacy practice.

For the first time, I’m finding it harder.

My students who are ‘coming of age’ (of any chronological age) in this particular climate are at risk, I fear, of tuning out, in a way that I couldn’t imagine just a few years ago.

It’s not that the policy climate is any more adverse than it was then; we cannot let ourselves be lulled into complacency by imagining that this is any worse than a time when ketchup was declared a vegetable for school lunches, or certainly when long lines formed for free meals.

It’s the process that concerns me, and my students’ difficulty in visioning a role for themselves within it.

Because their voices are needed, of course, now more than ever.

I consider it, then, one of my most sacred duties, to keep them from abandoning these fights.

What sustains you, as an advocate, and gives you enough hope to continue to engage? What should be my approach to cultivating that same engagement among my students?

A roundup, of sorts

As I look toward spring break (oh yes, professors count down, too!), I am cleaning out my ‘blog about this’ folder in my inbox.

And running out of time to write posts about all of them.

So, with only a bit of context and introduction, here are some things I’ve been thinking about and wanted to share. I’d love to hear your feedback, either now or when I get back, ready to finish this spring semester strong, in class and on here.

  • Social Services and Social Change Webinar: Last fall, I had the chance to participate in a webinar for Grassroots Grantmakers with Building Movement Project (so, yes, I was sort of awestruck). I found the PowerPoint and recording for the webinar online and wanted to share it. You can listen to me talk about my work with reStart, Inc., integrating advocacy and social change into their volunteer outreach and orientation efforts. And you can hear Frances and Sean lay out how BMP works to engage social service providers around the country. It’s cool stuff.
  • reStart, Inc.’s move to focus on permanent solutions to homelessness: Related to the above, here’s a blog post from the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City about reStart, Inc.’s shift in their services and approach to more intentionally focus on permanent solutions to homelessness, rather than services for those experiencing homelessness. It’s visionary and bold and kind of scary, and I think it’s awesome.
  • ‘Clash’ between immigrant rights groups and DC advocates: He calls them ‘power brokers’, which isn’t necessarily inaccurate but a little pejorative. Still, this used to be my world, so I read with much interest this piece on the growing divide between grassroots immigrant rights groups and those working legislation in the beltway. I believe that there are roles for both in a movement, but also that holding them together–even when their ultimate visions are similar (and, here, in some cases, they are not)–is hard. It’s a fascinating case study, of sorts, and, again, one close to my heart.
  • Social workers are joining the ‘tell our own story’ revolution: This post from Social Work Helper underscores the importance of telling our stories, as social workers (here, child welfare workers). What I like most is the reminder that the narrative goes on, with or without us, so others will tell our stories for us if we don’t tell our own.
  • Getting out of the U.S. echo chamber, for a different perspective on social policy: This piece from David Bacon exposes the extent to which U.S. policy on immigration is out of step with global trends. We have a tendency–maybe most nations do–to think that our ‘consensus’ is more of less in line with where policy is heading. We even seek out media and other affirmations of that belief. But it’s often not true, and, in the case of global policies like immigration, this distinction is important.
  • Storify of my live Twitter chat on nonprofit advocacy, for Social Work Helper: I love how they aggregate this, and I love remembering the great conversations we had about living our values and acting as advocates within social work organizations.
  • Poll shows America is ready for equity: Need some good news? Me too. After posting about inequality a lot lately (and some more coming up, I think, after break), it was encouraging to see this poll about Americans’ support for policies that would move in the direction of greater equity. Some interesting findings: while Americans mostly overestimate the current and future diversity of the U.S. population, they are far from panicked about these changing demographics. More than 70% support increased funding for training and infrastructure and education, all steps that would move in the direction of greater equity.
  • Head Start pushing back against sequestration: Nothing warms my heart–not even Florida sunshine!–like service providers standing up for those they serve. So I love getting emails about the effects of sequestration on Head Start funding, even though I hate what these funding cuts are doing to young children who, after all, will never have another chance to be 3.

What have I missed? What has lingered in your inbox, waiting to be shared?