Tag Archives: consulting

Practice Reflections: Building Advocacy Capacity

This is the last post in this week’s series sharing some of my reflections from my advocacy consulting practice.

To me, there is a distinction between supporting advocates, as I wrote about earlier this week, and building advocacy capacity.

The former, to me, is about making sure that advocates have the scaffolding that they need, in the heat of a campaign or at critical decision points, to be effective and advance their issues.

The latter requires investing, over the long term, in staff skills and knowledge, in leadership buy-in, and in the confidence with which to make critical choices in the face of adaptive challenges.

This post is about that second piece.

I recently had the opportunity to debrief an advocacy capacity assessment with an organization, the first time that I have been privy to an extended conversation about an organization’s self-assessed capacity and, in particular, what they plan to do to build on their foundation. They used the TCC Group’s Advocacy CCAT and, while the organization shall remain nameless here, there are still some lessons, even absent that specific context, that I think can be instructive for our collective consideration of advocacy capacity-building.

I would love to hear from those who have used this or other advocacy capacity assessments, about your experiences with these tools, or from those who are in the process of advocacy capacity building. And I am so grateful to those who let me observe their work through organizational change, and to those who labor to build their strength, so that they can be better advocates for the causes and the populations they serve. It is an honor, always, to be along for the ride.

Thoughts on Advocacy Capacity-Building:

  • As capacity goes up, the goalposts may move: This particular organization had completed the Advocacy CCAT a few years ago, so this was a sort of post-intervention assessment for them, following a period of advocacy capacity investments. You can imagine their concern, then, when their aggregate scores in some areas were lower than that baseline. As we talked through the indicators they looked at in order to inform their scoring, though, it quickly became clear that at least part of the explanation lies with their increasing sophistication and, then, the higher standards to which they hold themselves. It’s a sort of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ phenomenon, and, know that they know, they are harder on themselves than they otherwise would have been.
  • Where capacity is held matters: This particular organization had to grapple with the reality that their actual, usable capacity is not as high as the aggregate ‘scores’ would suggest, since much of their capacity is held rather narrowly within the executive leadership. To have sustainably high capacity, organizations need to diffuse it throughout the organization. Advocacy capacity assessments can only take you part of the way towards this understanding; intentional exploration of the findings, with an eye toward organizational culture and change, is needed to ‘root’ advocacy capacity where it’s needed.
  • Sometimes, the ‘problem’ isn’t your problem: This particular organization also had comparatively low levels of strategic partnerships revealed through their advocacy CCAT. In discussion of this particular finding, we faced honestly the reality that much of this weakness stems from limited field capacity, rather than the organization’s unwillingness or inability to leverage the strength of that field. This can be tricky business, since there’s of course a natural human tendency to want to pin ‘culpability’ for exposed weaknesses on anyone other than ourselves. But, at the same time, failing to account adequately for the environmental constraints that limit an organization’s capacity can lead to frustration, as leaders spin their wheels trying to move the needle on something located beyond their locus of control.
  • Small shifts can help: There is a default, in any organization, to maintain equilibrium, especially when things are going relatively well. Part of the answer to breaking through this resistance to change rests, I think, in breaking off small changes that an organization can pursue that ‘inch’ towards their aspirations. It’s also essential to understand what motivates a given organization to deal with difficult tasks, since any task of organizational change includes some risk and loss.
  • You know your own recommendations: For this organization, and I think for many, while seeing the results of the advocacy CCAT was a very powerful experience, and the way in which the TCC tool aggregated these results was extremely helpful, the recommendations for how to build on their capacity were not that useful. They really knew what they needed to do, and what was realistically on the table, and there were very few examples of when the recommendations pointed them in a direction that was novel.
  • Culture is king: We spent the most time, by far, talking about the organization’s culture and the extent to which it supports advocacy. This includes thinking about how the organization celebrates successes, how people feel comfortable to take risks, how they publicly acknowledge those who contribute to their success, and, so, how they sustain their advocacy efforts through the continual feeding of a pro-advocacy climate. Constructing and nurturing a healthy culture is, of course, an inexact science, which is part of what makes it so important an area of emphasis. I appreciated how the advocacy CCAT pulled it out as a separate layer of analysis, but it was also crucial that we wove it into our discussion about every element of the organization’s advocacy capacity, since it will be difficult to build anywhere without a culture that prioritizes it.

Separately, I have been talking with some folks who are looking at ways to build an infrastructure to support advocacy capacity in nonprofit organizations and civic institutions throughout Kansas. These conversations are still very nascent, but it looks as though it will include investing in technical assistance providers, fostering advocacy among leaders, convening advocates across fields, building policymaker capacity to use advocacy effectively, and conditioning the environment for advocacy (including among philanthropists).

What is most exciting to me about this new direction is what it reflects: an increasing recognition that we have to get upstream a bit, not only with our issue analysis–getting to root causes–but with our advocacy preparation, too. With advocacy capacity building, we’re increasing the likelihood of tomorrow’s success and girding ourselves for the battles we can’t even see yet.

Even while we’re up to our necks in this one these many.

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?

Practice Reflections: Advocacy Evaluation

It occurred to me that I’ve been writing a lot, really over the past few months, about what I’ve been reading and about my work at the university–teaching and supporting policy activities at the Assets and Education Initiative.

But my advocacy consulting work continues, albeit at a somewhat reduced level, and so this week is a sort of ‘from the field’ update, checking in on some of the tremendous work happening in the organizations with which I have the honor and pleasure of working.

Today, some reflections on supporting organizations’ advocacy evaluation, which has been a growing part of my consulting ‘portfolio’, so to speak, over the past two years. There are national organizations and practitioners far more expert than I in the field of advocacy evaluation, publishing regularly and spending most of their professional energies dedicated to advancing this work.

But I hope that some of my insights as a practitioner supporting organizations’ efforts to incorporate advocacy evaluation in a way that is scaled so as to really fit with not just their advocacy capacity, but with the slice of their overall organization occupied by advocacy, may add some value, especially for those in the field.

I have written before about my work in advocacy evaluation, but not in quite a while, so these are sort of my thoughts over the past several months, hopefully adding value to that earlier conversation.

What Works, in Supporting Organizations’ Advocacy Evaluation Capacity:

  • Starting with a dialogue about what they really want to know: I know that this sounds really obvious, but there’s sort of a trick to this. As I discuss below, we cannot begin an evaluation exercise just asking what organizations want to learn about their work, because there can’t be good evaluation without a framework for what we are evaluating. That’s part of the value we have to add as evaluators. But, conversely, starting with the logic model and emphasizing that structured process, without attending to organizations’ sometimes urgent need for more information about their work, is a recipe for disengagement. Getting this right is an art, not a science, but I think it requires acknowledging this tension (see below for more), opening dialogue about the end game, and then continually holding each other accountable for getting back to those sought objectives.
  • Acknowledging their evaluation ‘baggage’: There is unnecessary tension when nonprofits think that evaluators are cramming evaluation down their throats and evaluators think that nonprofits are being cavalier about the enterprise. The truth is that we cannot improve–as individual organizations or as a field–without good evaluation and analysis. But it’s also true that evaluation can be a fraught experience for a lot of organizations, and no one wins when that history and context are ignored, either. That doesn’t mean making a lot of jokes about how horrible logic models are, but it does mean putting on the table everyone’s own background in evaluation–or relative lack thereof–as a dynamic affecting the work.
  • Demystifying ‘analysis’: This, again, sort of falls into the ‘obvious’ category, but sometimes we as consultants/experts/technical assistance providers seek to demonstrate our legitimacy (I think/hope it’s that, instead of our superiority) by enhancing, rather than deflating, the mystique around our work. But no one wins when research or evaluation or analysis (or, fill in the blank: fundraising, organizing, budgeting) is considered difficult or, worse still, mysterious. The biggest breakthroughs I have had in advocacy evaluation with organizations is when they realize how much this is just about putting form and structure to what comes instinctively to them: asking questions about their work and setting out to find the answers.
  • Bridging to funders: There is no more immediately applicable use of the advocacy evaluation enterprise than communication with funders about organizations’ strategies, adaptations, outcomes, and progress. We absolutely cannot engage in advocacy for funders’ sake, but we also cannot expect to be financially sustainable over the long term if we fail to consider funders’ need for information to drive their own decisions. As a consultant, I can broker this relationship, to a certain extent, simultaneously serving both ‘clients’.
  • Investing in process: The how matters, here and always. Sometimes this means bringing people into conversations who wouldn’t necessarily need to be there, because the organization wants to invest in their capacity. Or it means detouring to develop some indicators and measures relevant to a particular funder, because that will enable organizational staff to convince the Board of Directors that this evaluation work is valuable. Or it means going through the process of testing each of the assumptions embedded in an organization’s strategy, because only teasing those apart yourself can really lay them bare. This stuff can’t be rushed, so we have to allow the process to unfold.
  • Starting with sustainability in mind: Every nonprofit organization doing great work right now is, at least, plenty busy. Some are pushed to the breaking point. So it doesn’t matter how well you make the case for the value of advocacy evaluation, or how excited you get the staff about leveraging their knowledge for greater impact, or even how much funders appreciate the information. Unless there is a realistic way for an organization to take on the work of advocacy evaluation, it just won’t get done. To me, this means being willing to scale back an evaluation plan, to help an organization think about what they can glean of value within the resource footprint that they have available. That sometimes means cutting corners on tools or abandoning certain fields of inquiry, but that doesn’t mean failure; it can mean that there’s a real future for evaluation in the organization.

What Doesn’t:

  • Expecting organizations to care as much about evaluation as evaluators, at least at first: This is what we do for a living (well, not me, so much, but you know). It cannot be the advocacy organization’s reason for being, or they wouldn’t be doing advocacy that we could then evaluate. We can’t get our feelings hurt or, worse, assume that organizations aren’t ‘serious’ about building their evaluation capacity, just because it may not be #1 on their to-do list.
  • Prioritizing ‘rooting’ evaluation in the organization, at the expense of added value: So, yes, as I said above, we absolutely need to think about sustainable ways for organizations to assume responsibility for advocacy evaluation within their existing structures. But that shouldn’t mean relegating ourselves to a mere ‘advice-giving’ function, with the expectation that organizations take on all of the work surrounding advocacy evaluation, at their own expense. Sure, it would be great for them to have the experience of constructing their own logic models or designing their own tools. I guess. But, to a certain extent, that’s what I’m here for, and, while I get the whole ‘teach someone to fish’ concept, we get to greatest field capacity by getting over the idea that everyone has to be and do everything, and, instead, figuring out how to make expertise of the collective available to all.
  • Letting their questions totally drive the evaluation: This sounds contradictory, too, to the idea of starting with their questions, but it gets back to that whole question of balance–if organizations already knew exactly what they need to be asking, and how, they probably wouldn’t need my consultation. If I’m going to add value, it should be at least in part through informing their consideration of their options, and influencing their identification of the issues that most warrant investigation. This of course can’t mean driving the agenda, but neither are we in the ‘agency-pleasing’ business. My ultimate responsibility is to the cause, and to those affected by it, and sometimes that has to mean some pushing back.
  • Assuming evaluation is a technical challenge only: Organizations sometimes have real reasons to not want to embark on a particular evaluation project: maybe they are afraid of what the results will show, or maybe they worry about who will want access to their findings, or maybe they fear the effect on staff morale if strategies are exposed as less than effective. None of these are reasons not to evaluate, of course, but we can’t start from the assumption that it’s only lack of knowledge or skill that is holding organizations back from evaluation, when it may very well be will.

If you are engaged in advocacy evaluation or have worked with or as an evaluation consultant, what’s your ‘view from the field’? What do you wish consultants knew about engaging organizations in advocacy evaluation capacity?

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?

Asking the right questions

Building Movement Project’s second report in the 5% shift series was “Asking Powerful Questions”, and this one featured reStart, Inc., one of my advocacy technical assistance clients and an organization doing tremendous work to engage volunteers more deeply as cause ambassadors, using questions to provoke their thinking about what causes social problems and how we can combat them together.

I have always championed asking many, many more questions–maybe because I spend so much time with young children, who never let concern about how others might view them (or who might get tired of answering) stand in the way of asking all of the questions that come into their minds.

Their most frequent question, and the one that is most important for social justice advocates, I think, is “why?” (followed, of course, by “why not?”)

And reStart, Inc. asks ‘why’ a lot.

Why are people homeless? Why do we fail to fund programs that work? Why are so many people with mental illnesses on the streets? Why has homelessness among families worsened?

But, critically, they ask these questions not just among themselves, bemoaning their challenges or even analyzing data–they ask these questions as a form of engagement, a way to bring volunteers over to the ‘we’ side of the equation, part of the team that, together, will end homelessness, while they also serve those experiencing it.

This shift, befitting the series, didn’t require massive infusion of new resources, or new staff people, or even much more time.

It’s just that, now, instead of seeing volunteers primarily as a task to manage or a resource to exploit, reStart approaches them as co-creators of social change, and asks the questions that, collectively, invite volunteers to build that world together.

What questions do you ask? To whom? And what are you not asking that you think you should?

Advocacy principles and core priorities

Photo credit, Michal Dubrawski, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

Photo credit, Michal Dubrawski, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

One of the first items of business, when I’m working with a new nonprofit organization around advocacy capacity-building, is to talk through their advocacy principles.

In our work, principles come before the development of an advocacy agenda. In some cases, they replace an agenda altogether, providing the general guideposts that organizations need to navigate decisions in an advocacy context, without pretending that we can predict today the circumstances we’ll face tomorrow, or how we’ll make those trade-offs once we get there.

We talk through how the organization’s core values translate into an advocacy context. We discuss their preferences in public policy development. We discuss how having advocacy principles not only helps the organization stay true to its greatest goods in the event of conflict, but also serves as protection against the intrusive interests of others, by providing some parameters about the types of issues the organization does not take on, in addition to those that it does.

In my experience, organizational mission statements are often too broad to serve this purpose; they tend to be statements that absolutely no one could disagree with, but also that fail to really distinguish one organization from another (aren’t we all interested in ‘strengthening families’, really?).

What we need are guides that help us decide between two goods (Do we prioritize money for prevention or for rapid response? Do we emphasize children’s services or community-level interventions?) or, more often in a policy world, two rather poor compromises (Are we going to put more energy into fighting the repeal of the Earned Income Tax Credit or drug-testing in TANF?).

Done correctly, these advocacy principles also help nonprofits to articulate why they have ‘ranked’ particular policy outcomes as they have, which is incredibly important as we endeavor to preserve relationships in the conflictual climate of policymaking.

They are navigational tools, important symbols of organizational culture and decision-making, and guideposts–not prescriptions–for helping leaders maneuver through difficult choices.

I particularly appreciated this description of core priorities, a similar context somewhat removed from the advocacy context, in Decisive: “guardrails that are wide enough to empower but narrow enough to guide” (185).

That’s what we’re aiming for, when we work through the often-laborious process of settling on advocacy principles as the starting point for our advocacy work.

And, like so many other exercises in ‘centering’ ourselves and clarifying our deepest purpose, once we get that right, the rest of our decisions are, while not ‘easy’, at least easier.

Evaluation Capacity that Sticks

In honor of Labor Day, and with some grieving for the end of my summer, I’m fully embracing the contributions of others this week.

It takes a village to come up with these blog posts, I guess?

One of my projects this year is an advocacy evaluation capacity-building initiative, in partnership with TCC Group.

I have been really excited to get to work alongside their consultants–having spent a fair amount of time in TCC webinars, to co-present on advocacy evaluation with them is a real gift.

Recently, TCC distributed an article about some of their learning, from this project and others, about how to build evaluation capacity that truly transforms organizational practices, adding net capacity that transcends the period of intense consultant engagement.

It’s something we’ve been talking about a lot in the Kansas context, too: how do we ensure that we’re not just swooping in to do some evaluation with and for these organizations but, instead, helping them to build knowledge and integrate structures that will enable them to take on advocacy evaluation in a sustained and effective way?

A few points from the article and from my engagement with this project, that resonate more broadly, I think, in the consulting and capacity-building fields in general:

  • Organizations have a lot to learn from each other: The organizations in the cohort with which I’m working clamor for more time with each other. Consultants don’t have a lock on knowledge, and not all capacity-building happens within the confines of the consultant-grantee relationship.
  • Learning needs immediate application: One of the challenges with our Kansas project is that it started in the fall which meant that, by the time that organizations had outlined their evaluation questions and begun to select instruments, it was the legislative session and they had no time to implement their ideas. Learning not applied can atrophy quickly, and we’re considering how to restructure the calendar for future cycles with this in mind.
  • We need to acknowledge the resource/capacity link: Of course it’s easy to say that the way we build capacity is to add dollars. Of course. And there’s obviously not a 1:1 relationship between, in this example, evaluation capacity and organizational budgets. But it’s also true that we can learn everything there is to know and still be crippled, in significant ways, by scarce resources, which means that true, sustainable capacity building in any area of organizational functioning has to also take into account how we build organizational capacity. Period.

I believe in the process of helping nonprofit leaders ask good questions about what they’re doing, the impact that it’s having, and what they need to change.

And I want to ensure that they are positioned to keep asking those questions after I move on.

To make a real difference, it has to stick.

Root causes and urgent fires: Building an Advocacy Agenda

One of the most important, and most time-consuming, parts of my advocacy technical assistance with nonprofit social service organizations is to help them craft their advocacy agendas.

This isn’t just about making a list of changes we’d like to see in the world.

It’s not about checking ‘advocacy agenda’ off, so that the organization is recognized for advocating.

It’s about building an agenda that focuses the organization’s collective resources–people, knowledge, expertise, relationships–on those policy issues that are determined to be most central to the mission, most impactful for those they serve, and most ‘ripe’ for change.

Done correctly, an advocacy agenda can increase buy-in from constituents, who appreciate the chance to shape the organization’s priorities, bring along allies who look to the organization for signals about the policies that warrant attention, and complement direct services, by fostering changes in the conditions that create and perpetuate need.

Especially in a climate of recession and retrenchment, though, many nonprofit social service organizations feel pressure–internally, at least, if not from external players–to advocate primarily for restoration of critical services, investments in core infrastructure, and capacity to deliver programming.

When an advocacy agenda could easily be filled with 6-8 examples of really important services that have been restricted or even eliminated, it’s easy to understand why a lot of organizations stop there.

That kind of advocacy agenda, though–one where nearly every priority item relates to the organization’s ability to meet its own bottom line, in a way–does not wield the same moral authority, bring people together across sectors, or, ultimately, carry as much potential for fundamental change as an agenda that also addresses some of the root causes that could really change lives.

This need for balance, then, this sort of ‘dance’ between a desire to incorporate root causes and live up to the aspirational visions that many nonprofits have embraced for their work, with the urgency of defending the tools that allow them to meet people’s needs and advance their basic functions.

For example, one of the organizations with which I’m working addresses child abuse prevention. As they begin to shape their agenda, they are very open about these different ‘pulls’.

On one hand, there is a need for stronger criminal penalties related to some forms of child endangerment and maltreatment. Funds that sustain forensic interviewing and emergency supports are threatened, and funding for foster care programs–including tuition forgiveness for children who age out of care–is far below what it really needs to be. There are needs for more parenting classes and mental health services, especially as the child welfare system feels the strains of other systems that have suffered cuts of their own. The organization knows that it could do far more, for more families, with more resources.

On the other hand, the organization’s leaders are acutely aware that, as witnesses to what happens when society fails to invest adequately in families across the board, they are well-positioned to add critical perspectives to debates on education policy, workforce development, anti-poverty efforts, and health/mental health. They understand that even the best intervention for a family identified as at-risk of child maltreatment is, already, somewhat late, and they want to shape what happens long before that point.

So, as we bring clients and partners and staff into conversations about what should ‘make’ the organization’s advocacy agenda, they are intentional about seeking to balance the priorities that will warrant their attention between those that reflect those underlying root causes, and those that are urgent needs that cannot be ignored.

There’s no magic math to it. And pragmatism and limited hours in the day will likely always mean that blazing fires win out, at least to a certain extent.

But these conversations are important, and finding ways to carve out at least a little of the organization’s advocacy capacity to dedicate to stemming the need is, in its own way, urgent too.

As the proverb goes, we have to stop babies from being thrown in the river.

Even while we’re trying our best to pull them out.

An easy ask: Including advocacy in volunteer orientations

Boys Telling Secrets
Just ask–and pass it on!

As part of my consulting work, helping nonprofit social service organizations integrate advocacy into their operations, I am working with some agencies in 2013 that have HUGE volunteer operations.

As in ‘the equivalent of an 86-person full-time workforce, year-round’ volunteer operations.

It’s an awesome thing.

Kids are having their birthday parties packing food for pantries and shelters. Older adults are spending their time reading in classrooms to children in poverty. Families have a tradition of hosting birthday parties for children in foster care.

These organizations have figured out that, while working with volunteers is never easy, it brings huge dividends, not just in terms of any actual labor completed, but also in creating ambassadors, of sorts, for the organizations and their causes. When people come and have a meaningful and invigorating experience at the organization, they are much more likely to donate their money, encourage others to help, and champion the organization.

Which is exactly why we’re totally missing a golden opportunity when we don’t invite our volunteers to advocate alongside us.

I had the benefit of having volunteered in some of these organizations before starting the advocacy technical assistance process, so I knew that, at least in my case, I was never provided with information about the organizations’ advocacy priorities, the targets who needed to hear from us, or how writing a letter or making a phone call could be just as valuable–if not more so–than sorting through school supplies to fill a backpack.

My early assessment and planning work with the organizations confirmed this. For the most part, nonprofit social services don’t do a great job of asking one of their most dedicated constituencies–their regular volunteers–to join them in advocacy.

So that is one of the first pieces I’m working on with these organizations. We’re doing things like:

  • Including a write-up of the advocacy agenda in all volunteer orientations
  • Integrating root cause discussions, even briefly, in volunteer training and debriefing sessions (this can be as simple as, “Why do you think people are hungry in the United States? What kinds of policies would need to change to make it better?” as a starting point)
  • Weaving advocacy asks into the “How You Can Help” sections on organizations’ websites, where they offer volunteer opportunities
  • Providing letter-writing materials to groups of volunteers, as a continuation of their service
  • Signing volunteers up for agency newsletters, and including advocacy information and calls to action
  • Crafting job descriptions for more extensive advocacy roles (everything from 3 hours/month to 20 hours/week–students need internships!)

This isn’t just about roping another group of stakeholders into advocacy (although, of course, I’ve got nothing against that). It’s also about showing volunteers that we value them, completely, which is the same reason why we need to be inviting our donors to advocate, too. It’s about helping people to make sense of the need with which they are confronted, and providing them with the tools they will need to keep from feeling accusatory or hopeless or myopic.

It’s about creating a stronger, more accurate, more whole volunteer experience…while changing the conversation around the issues, too, by including these voices policymakers wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear from.

What experiences do others have in crafting advocacy ‘asks’ for volunteers? What works, and what doesn’t? Does anyone have any stories to share?

Inspiration for 2013 (and good holiday reading)

For my final post of 2012, I want to share the case studies that we did at the conclusion of the first phase of advocacy technical assistance with the four initial grantees. All of this work was made possible by the incredible efforts of the staff, Board, volunteers, and clients of these organizations, and also by the financial support and driving vision of the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City and the REACH Healthcare Foundation. The foundations’ role in this technical assistance project is really inspiring. Yes, they write the checks that pay me, but they also came up with the idea that organizations need more than just admonishment to “do advocacy”, guidance about the lobbying limits that govern nonprofits, or even money to put advocacy activities into place (although the foundations provided cash grants to the organizations, too).

They also need help, an infusion of energy and attention, opportunities to connect with other organizations going through some of the same struggles, and some extra people-power to build some momentum.

I am honored to get to be part of this work, and I am so looking forward to the chance to work with 5 more organizations in 2013.

Enjoy! See you next year!

El Centro case study

ReDiscover case study

Wyandot case study

reStart case study