Tag Archives: coalitions

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?

New (?) Thinking: Megacommunities


I was pretty excited to get this book at the library; I heard about it on the awesome Rosetta Thurman’s blog as a recommended book for an elite group of nonprofit folks and leading thinkers about the future of leadership to address social problems. It took me awhile to track it down in the library system, and then I dove in.

And, really, while there are some pieces in here that I found quite useful, I had a little of the Emperor’s new clothes feeling the whole time…um, aren’t they really just talking about really good coalition building? And what about that is really new?

Megacommunities is written from a pretty corporate perspective (when they called the World Social Forum anti-globalization, that was a hint). Some of that was actually helpful; for example, they argue that having multisector career experience aids in building relationships and building the ability to understand multiple perspectives, which made me think that, in my own work, I could probably really benefit from working within the government, so that I can best understand how to influence it (if I could stomach it, noncomformist that I am).

The basic thesis of the book is that we need to be building ‘megacommunities’ to address our most difficult social problems–defined, rather loosely, as coming together of corporate, nonprofit, government, and community interests to address common concerns with a mentality that surpasses a ‘winner takes all’ approach. This collaboration must be based on self-interest, not altruism; must reflect empathy for other sectors’ constraints; and must optimize, not maximize, benefits for each interest. This is where they really started to lose me, because, again, doesn’t that sound like putting together a really strong coalition?

They make the case that there are latent megacommunities all around, just waiting to be activated, and I can’t really take exception with that–they give examples of fair trade coffee and health care in Rhode Island, and those are pretty good cases. But, at the end, I just can’t buy either the idea that this is really groundbreaking (include opponents as stakeholders, overcome hubris and defeatism to build authentic connections, take advantage of weak ties to present a more effective advocacy position, learn to see conflict as an opportunity for your communication…this is basically what I teach aspiring coalition leaders) or, perhaps more importantly, that somehow bringing these folks together is the key to all of our problems. Bill Clinton (a leader of a ‘megacommunity’, apparently) is quoted in the book stating that, with alliances in other sectors, civil society can make up for the erosion of the public sector. I fundamentally, wholeheartedly do not agree that that’s either a wise nor a truly achievable goal, and if building megacommunities makes an excuse for more attacks on our safety net, then we’re headed in the wrong direction.

I took away some value from the book–they have a great diagram on weak ties within a network that is helpful for thinking about why diversity of sector/experience/position works in advocacy, and they talk about the importance of identifying hubs with the resources to serve a pivotal role in the (my words) coalition building. And, towards the end of the book, they make the claim that we are nearing the end of planning, that things are changing so quickly that long-term plans, and the process of long-term planning, is really becoming obsolete. That’s the kind of statement of which I’m generally quite skeptical, but they presented it somewhat compellingly, and I’m still thinking it over.

On the whole, though, I’m a little concerned. Not, really, by the book. I’m sure that the authors are nice, bright people, and probably readers with less coalition background could take away some valuable insights. Nothing they say is really harmful in any way. No, what concerns me is that this, in particular, was seen as required reading for those tasked with figuring out how the nonprofit sector is going to confront the greatest challenges of our times.

I’ve been part of a lot of coalitions. I’ve organized several coalitions. I believe in the power of coalition work, even as I cringe at some of the baggage that comes with it. But I do not labor under the belief that a coalition, no matter how multisectorial or well-funded or visionary, can change the world. And that’s the kind of new thinking we really need.

Giving new meaning to the phrase “coalition politics”

Like most community organizers and policy advocates, I have spent A LOT of time in coalition meetings. I have invested considerable energy in forming coalitions, trying to improve the functioning and increase the power of those of which I have been a part, and figuring out how to gracefully exit those that are no longer providing me with any real benefit. I have learned that, while coalitions are absolutely essential in many of our campaigns for policy change (because very few nonprofit organizations have adequate power on their own to push through our agendas), there is such a thing as a counterproductive alliance. Coalition work is practiced by almost everyone, yet few people do it really well, and marginal or actually destructive coalition experiences are all-too-common. During my years of advocacy practice, I was part of many coalitions: United we DREAM, Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, Campaign for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Low-Wage Immigrant Workers, Faith/Labor Alliance, Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, and more. Some of these experiences were very positive, some were OK, and some were, at times, toxic and painful.

When I stepped away from full-time advocacy to teach, then, one of my areas of research interest was in coalition practice–figuring out what scholars have learned about what makes coalitions work (and not), what principles need to be incorporated into coalition practice, and even the conditions in which coalitions may not be worth it! I didn’t find as much as I would have liked, and I still have a lot of unanswered questions, but several readings, including a few by Terry Mizrahi, who has done more thinking than most social workers on this topic, have shed some light on some of what I found in the field.

For one of the class sessions in my Advanced Advocacy Practice class, I present some content on the essential tasks of a social change coalition, drawing comparisons to social work group practice and the stages of group development with which my students are usually more familiar, and then we spend quite a bit of time discussing some scenarios of coalition practice. I challenge students to think about how they would handle these situations and to practice simultaneously attending to the coalition’s internal development and its pursuit of its external goals, a balancing act I consider the preeminent challenge of coalition practice. Too often, I see that coalitions develop rather organically, without adequate attention to questions of membership, roles and responsibilities, and processes for decision-making, so, then, we should not be surprised when these same issues cause problems in coalitions later.

Here are some of my thoughts about coalitions, with a link to the scenarios I have developed (all reflective of actual issues from my own experience, with some significant modifications). If you are involved in an advocacy coalition right now, how is it going? What are the coalition’s strengths and weaknesses? How might you improve the coalition’s functioning? Why did you develop a coalition, and do you still believe that it was necessary? How might you have accomplished your goals without a coalition?

Tasks in Development for Social Change Coalitions–asking the often-unasked questions:

  • Deciding whether to start–what about funder-imposed coalitions? If we don’t have a choice in starting a coalition, how can we make it as helpful as possible? When is a coalition necessary, rather than a looser ‘collaboration’?
  • Establish criteria for membership—who do we need? What must organizations contribute? What resources/strengths does each organization bring? How do we decide who’s worth their attendant liabilities?
  • Establish a structure—how will we allocate power? Who will make decisions? How will organizational representatives be accountable simultaneously to their constituencies and our joint constituency? How can we attend to internal issues while exerting influence on our external targets?
  • Establish a vision—why do we exist? What is the need that we are attempting to fill? What can organizations get out of membership that they could not get on their own? What is our common message? How will we ‘police’ this?
  • Develop leadership—who will lead us? What rights and responsibilities will come with leadership? Do we need different leaders to handle different leadership tasks? Do we need to invest in leadership development of some of our members in order to find the right ‘fit’ for our core tasks?
  • Manage conflict—how will we handle differences in ideology? What about disagreements about appropriate means? How much dissent can our coalition accommodate? What about differences based on professional staff v. grassroots leaders, gender, race/ethnicity? What about differences of opinion on issues tangential to our common work?
  • Evaluate success—how will we set our goals? How will we measure our accomplishments? When will we decide if our goals have been met? What if we fail? Who gets credit for success and ‘blame’ for failures?
  • Negotiate transition—when is our work together ‘done’? If we evolve, will we do so with static membership? If we disband, how will we handle resource distribution, any ongoing relationships? How do we message our termination with the public, our targets, and our allies?

    I have been part of coalitions that resulted in deep new friendships, powerful political victories, and truly transformational practice. I have been part of (indeed, played leadership roles in) coalitions where people just went through the motions and continued to operate in isolation. And I have been part of coalitions that were paralyzed by dissent, overcome with personal attacks, and ultimately distracting us from the work at hand. I believe that social workers’ skills in attending to the person in the environment and dealing with interpersonal relationships as well as task functions can be especially valuable in coalition practice. One of our jobs, then, is to figure out how to make our coalitions work, and to bring our formidable talents to the development of this tool for advocacy.

    Time to practice:
    Scenarios for Coalition Practice