Tag Archives: consulting

Making sense of advocacy capacity assessments

If you haven’t already checked out Alliance for Justice’s new(ish) site, Bolder Advocacy, I’ll wait here while you go do that.

Regular posts about nonprofit advocacy news, interviews and profiles of changemakers in the nonprofit advocacy field (including foundations, community organizers, nonprofit lobbyists), all of their valuable materials on the legalities of nonprofit work in ballot measures, electoral activity, lobbying, and broader social change…

and a revised version of their Advocacy Capacity Assessment, which I have now used in practice with several nonprofit organizations here in Kansas.

It’s certainly not the only good capacity measure out there, and, indeed, there are others that have some features that I really appreciate. There’s a lot to like about AFJ’s, especially this newer version, which has ‘advanced’ options for organizations whose advocacy is a bit more well-developed, and the ability to compare an organization’s assessment against an aggregate, thanks to the free access to their tool and the categorization and clustering their site does behind-the-scenes.

This post is not an evaluation of the evaluation tools, though, but, instead, some thoughts on advocacy capacity, and the assessment thereof, culled from my work in advocacy capacity-building over the past year.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has used AFJ’s tool, or another advocacy capacity measure, about what they found helpful, and not. Similarly, if you’ve embarked on an advocacy capacity-building process, what reflections can you share? Next week, I’ll link to some case studies of organizations with which I worked on an advocacy capacity technical assistance project. Their experiences, I believe, hold a lot of lessons for we capacity-builders, for organizations committed to advancing their own capacity, and for the foundations that make this work possible.

Today, though, some thoughts on baselines–how we know what we need to do–and on using advocacy capacity assessments to measure our progress towards that goal of ‘capacity’, with, perhaps, some thinking about what capacity is, and why it matters so much, anyway.

  • Partners matter: One of the things that I appreciate most about the new version of the AFJ assessment is that it includes an option for “relying on partners”, when asking organizations about their abilities in specific areas. This isn’t a liability, but, instead, reflects a sophisticated understanding of the capacities of partners and how to leverage them to complement organizations’ own strengths. We’ll only get truly strong fields when we stop leading organizations to believe that they need to possess all of what they need for advocacy success themselves. We need a field lens, and this type of capacity assessment–asking organizations to think about how they rely on others and how they can build on those alliances–takes steps in that direction.
  • Measuring adaptive capacity is tough: The AFJ capacity assessment has a few different questions designed to get at the concept of adaptive capacity–how well organizations can read their environments and adjust their strategies accordingly. This is laudable, but it’s still somewhat elusive, I think. When I talk with organizations, adaptive capacity is their goal, but it is somewhat hard to grasp, both because getting that ‘read’ on the environment can be difficult, and because few advocates have structures that are adequate to facilitate quick responses to changes in that context, even when they know that should be their aim.
  • The how matters: I have used advocacy capacity assessments with organizations where only one individual completes the assessment, and where multiple actors complete it. In my experience, that process makes a difference, in terms of how capacity assessment can serve to catalyze thinking, within an organization, about where you stand and where you want to go. I know that it’s not easy to get Board members and other key stakeholders to sit down and fill out an assessment that takes 30-45 minutes. But, really, if we can’t get that much buy-in around questions of how to position our organizations for advocacy, how can we get buy-in to take the steps that move us to where we want to be, in terms of advocacy?
  • Numbers don’t matter, much: When I’ve had organizations complete the Advocacy Capacity assessment, there’s a strong temptation to focus on the ‘score’. How many points did we get? How does that compare to others? And, I get that. It’s not that the numbers don’t matter, of course; it can be really helpful to have a sense of where we stand, within our sectors, and, especially, of where we’ve come. But, as I’ve said before, organizations can have very highly developed capacity and still not be deploying it strategically. Conversely, there are organizations that can be limping along, without some of the key investments we consider crucial, but still accumulating advocacy successes. Maybe not sustainably, but still. The important point is that the numbers are relative, and that the scores don’t mean as much as the analysis of how different elements of capacity build on each other, how organizations can invest in their capacities, and how to make sure that capacity translates into real advocacy ability and will.

What have you learned from participating in capacity assessments? What is your reaction to this tool? What do you wish existed, in terms of advocacy capacity measures? And how do you use these tools to spark conversations and build momentum, for advocacy, within your organizations?

In search of elusive collective impact

This summer, I spent a lot of my time working on a sort of landscape assessment of the advocacy capacity–individually and collectively–of organizations working to combat obesity and support healthy eating and active living in the Kansas City area.

It was a tremendously exciting project, for me–a chance to learn more about work happening in an area that I care about but have relatively little experience in, and an opportunity to try out some of the tools I’ve been reading about, like a new network mapping system and a different method of analyzing coalition advocacy capacity.

For me, that passes for absolutely thrilling. Seriously.

I may have some other insights from this work to share in the future, but, for today, I want to highlight what was an unexpected development:

Everyone was talking about collective impact.

OK, so not technically everyone.

But, where I was expecting to have to prod folks into thinking, not about what their own capacity looks like or how they leverage that towards policy change, but, instead, how their capacity fits with that of others in the field, for greatest combined impact…

They were already there.

Several informants (I interviewed almost 40 people working in the field) talked about things like the need for shared metrics and a common vision, the importance of a network mentality so that individual organizations’ capacities were truly available to others, and the need for ‘backbone’ organizations that can catalyze a field approach.

They didn’t have the answers, certainly. It’s one thing to know that we need complementary skills and strategies AND the will to use them collaboratively, and another thing to really make that happen.

But they’re thinking about it. And talking about it.

And hoping for help–from foundations (who can fund in ways that encourage consideration of combined contribution, rather than individual attribution), from consultants (who can help them to map the capacities of others and focus on their best ‘niche’ in the network), and from each other (because impact is, after all, what we should all be in this business for).

I can’t definitely prove that this attention to collective impact comes from this Stanford Social Innovation Review article, although more than one informant mentioned it (and one even emailed it to me after we spoke).

It’s definitely worth reading, though, if you haven’t.

And I’d love to hear from you, today.

First, what about collective impact? What would it look like, in the field where you work? What would it take to get there?

And, second, has there been an article that has really ‘echoed’ where you work? A particular way of thinking about organizational change, or capacity, or advocacy, or, really, anything, that has shaped how you and your colleagues see what you do, and what you need to do differently? I’d love to see it.

We mostly face complex problems that have multiple potential intervention points, in this world.

It seems that most of the quick ‘technical’ fixes already have been. Fixed, that is.

So it’s going to take thinking, and working, collectively, in order to get to the scale where we can make a difference.

Evaluating Advocacy, for us

I mentioned the Kansas Advocacy Evaluation Collaborative the other day; one of the super-cool parts about it is that I get to work with the Center for Evaluation Innovation, including the really smart and incredibly fun Tanya Beer.

On top of that, I’m really encouraged by the way that advocacy evaluation–and the reason for building evaluation capacity–is introduced to these health advocates, all of whom are very busy and would be justified in not really jumping on the ‘please do this, too’ train.

It’s about figuring out how to advocate better.

I mean, yes, there are a lot of foundations in the room. So, yes, there’s the expected angst about their reporting requirements and how to explain a given advocacy effort in a way that it can gain foundation support, and how much do you share about strategy…all of those very real constraints that I cannot forget, just because I am lucky enough not to have to worry about them anymore.

But, last month, when I sat down to talk through, with the advocacy organizations in Kansas with whom I’ll be working most closely, to provide technical support, what they would like to assess, I was really, really excited by their responses.

One organization already has a quite sophisticated system for looking at the capacity and engagement of their grassroots allies; they rank them in terms of their commitment to the issues and progress them as the grassroots advocates move along a continuum of leadership. This way, they can figure out not only how to deploy people effectively, but also where to target their efforts for investing in specific people, specific issues, and specific capacities.

Very cool.

The organization expressed, however, that they lack this same capability when it comes to their partner organizations, even though they know that their coalitions, too, vary in terms of their capacity and their authentic connection to the issues. They recognize that the strength of their network relationships affect how they engage on a given issue, and the likelihood of their success.

On some of their issues, they are literally surrounded by fairly well-functioning coalitions, such that, taking a field capacity view, this organization does not need to be well-positioned on ALL of the essential elements of capacity, since there are others who can fill the inevitable gaps.

On other issues, though, they stand almost alone. Or, at least, there are few other voices raising the same nuanced angles on the issues that they do, which means that they can’t count on others to carry that work forward in quite the same way.

This calculus makes them particularly cognizant of the need for field capacity, so they want to look at a partner assessment or network mapping, to get a better sense of who has what, and can do what, on which issues. They may even want to solicit financial support for some of their partners, as part of a collaborative, in order to indirectly strengthen their own capacities. And they need help to know where to focus on partnerships that are particularly promising, but still weak, the same way that they do with individual allies.

The other organization with which I’ll primarily work is still fleshing out what they want to focus on, but the common theme is this:

If advocacy evaluation is going to work, really work, and not just be a series of hoops we jump through to please funders, then we have to do it for us.

We have to see evaluation as an opportunity to ask the questions to which we want answers. We have to construct evaluation methodologies that fit with our practices and our skills. We have to work on timelines that align with our advocacy campaigns. We have to produce results that we can digest, and act upon, and build from.

We have to see evaluation as a part of how we adjust our strategies, how we increase our power, and how we make our work stronger.

We have to want it, really, and see that we need it.

Because we do.

The Mundane…and the Profound

I have been very occupied lately, even more than usual.

It means a lot of late nights working, which isn’t that different than normal, but also a lot of multitasking, trying to answer emails or respond to discussion boards while my kids are entertained by the dynamic duo of Phineas and Ferb.

Some of this is work that matters a great deal to me, some of which I hope to share here soon, including the conclusion of my technical assistance consulting for direct-service organizations in advocacy, strategy planning for how to use the defense of Kansas’ instate tuition law to build momentum among immigrant students granted deferred action, some potential civil rights litigation I think is very promising, a new advocacy evaluation collaborative with advocacy organizations and foundations in Kansas, work ‘translating’ the research of some of my social work colleagues (in the impact of asset accumulation on the college trajectories of low-income students), and an exciting project mapping the networks and advocacy capacity of entities working to combat obesity regionally.

Good stuff, really, and I feel very privileged to be part of it.

And some of what keeps me busy until the early morning is far more mundane, including a communications problem that forced me to redo my syllabi at the last minute, a new server which necessitated reloading all of my online content, a seemingly endless string of those Doodle meeting scheduling emails, and the so tiresome power struggles that are present everywhere, social justice advocacy not excluded.

As we pivot fully towards fall, and as my kids get into the rhythm of school (with its own mundane elements, certainly), I was thinking about how we stay focused on the profound.

On the central.

On the really, potentially, transformative.

And that made me think about my favorite moment of every day, after long daylight hours of mingling parenting and professionalizing, and before the longer nighttime hours of inverted workdays, when my oldest son and I have finished that day’s ‘bubblegum reading’, and I snuggle next to him and ask him what lullaby he wants.

And he inevitably chooses My Country ’tis of Thee, and then sings it with me, so that, every night, we end with a duet.

It’s not as well-pitched as his favorite version from Marion Anderson, on the steps of Liberty Memorial on that memorable Easter.

But for this Mommy, who can sometimes get too busy to remember,

it’s pretty profound.

“I have not forgotten”: little so humbling as time with direct-service staff

In one of the focus groups that I conducted with consumers at a community mental health center a few weeks ago, a client referred to her prior career as a product engineer in offering her assessment of the greatest problem in social policy development today:

“When I was an engineer, I had to go down to the factory floor, to actually see how my designs were working, and the problems that people were having on the machines. I learned a lot there, that changed how I designed, and I kept those workers in my mind when I was at my computer. I wish that the politicians had to see how their policies are actually working, on the ‘factory floor’, and that they would keep that in mind when they’re designing laws, too.”

Pretty compelling, no?

And I had that testimony in mind recently, when I sat down with a group of staff members who work with individuals experiencing homelessness. I was going to facilitate a focus group trying to help prioritize the advocacy agenda for the organization; I think of it like a funnel, with the organizational leaders needing help figuring out which of the items added to the top of the funnel should emerge at the end.

And, before I got started, several of the staff members were talking about how they routinely give clients money from their own pockets to wash their clothes, in part because of fear of a bedbug infestation, otherwise.

And it occurred to me, then and especially in many moments since, how far my professional life is now removed, in some ways, from the strains and sorrows of direct practice.

I don’t have to use my own money to buy clients toilet paper or shower curtains anymore.

No one calls me, crying, at 2am, having just found out her husband was detained by ICE.

I haven’t had to call the police on anyone in years, and I don’t usually work on Sundays anymore.

When I set out to work in the morning, I have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen that day, and a ‘bad’ day doesn’t include attempted suicides or evictions or tragic deaths.

All of this makes me committed to trying to ensure that what I bring to the organizations–and the staff–with which I work adds real value, and is rooted in their actual experiences.

I have been there, at least in parallel worlds at different times, and I know that I have knowledge and skills that can provide new context for their work, equip them with some additional tools, and connect them to resources.

And, yet, I leave these conversations, always, struck by how very insignificant my contributions feel, compared to the forces against which we are arrayed, and in light of the battles they wage on the front lines every day.

Because I care, about the divide in our profession between macro and micro, about the inanities of public policy when felt in practice, and about the strains that are placed on staff we expect to be capable of miracles. And I know that I can’t make real progress there if I’m too comfortable.

Yes, I believe in social change on a big scale, and I think that my talents are particularly well-suited for systems reform.

And, yet, I’m not sure that I understand well enough anymore.

Maybe it’s time for me to get back to the factory floor, at least in some more sustained ways, to be sure that my designs–for organizational effectiveness and advocacy engagement and policy impact–match the realities of production.

Building a better agenda: inclusive advocacy agenda processes

One of the most exciting parts of my advocacy technical assistance with these four organizations has been the work helping them to build (or, in two cases, rebuild) their advocacy agendas…starting from where their clients are.

Often, we build advocacy agendas for our organizations (those documents that get our Board of Directors’ official approval and signal to the world–or those who are watching–the issues on which we will take a stand, usually in the legislative session) by having someone sit down and craft a list of priorities, sometimes with some prior input from the Board (but usually not). These lists are often far too long, because we care about everything, somewhat less than aspirational (because we don’t want to set ourselves up to fail), and determinedly ‘relevant’ (in the eyes of policymakers and observers, not necessarily those we serve).

I know, because I have crafted more than a dozen of these agendas, over the years.

It’s not a fruitless exercise; we know that having a formalized advocacy agenda is associated with significantly higher expenditure of organizational ‘effort’ towards policy change, and, in turn, correlates with greater advocacy capacity.

But I think we can do it better.

Because, if we think about our reasons for advocating in the first place as stemming from our desire to see the brick walls we encounter taken down, we have to truly understand the nature of the obstacles our clients encounter, and how we can address them through policy.

And, if we hope to engage all of our organizational assets–including our clients and our staff–in our advocacy, that task will be a whole lot easier if we’re asking them to help us move their priorities, instead of ours.

This certainly isn’t rocket science. Mostly, I work with staff to create some surveys for staff members to think through how they would prioritize the issues that might command the organization’s attention, and to rate them based on mission congruence, the likelihood that the organization could make a real difference in that area, and overall importance.

And, the most fun for me, I sit down and talk with clients and staff (usually separately) about the organization, the challenges they encounter, what would make the biggest difference in their lives, and how they would like to play a role in advancing these issues.

I’m careful to frame this as only the beginning of a process of engagement; we can’t make the mistake of assuming that once we’ve asked people their opinion once, we’re good. Nor can we expect that any one group of clients ‘speaks’ for any other, or that staff members will participate across the board, at least not in the way we might hope.

But the act of asking, and of acting on the insights shared, is yielding some distinct differences, and the process has made me even more convinced that our advocacy agendas can be far more than signals to our elected officials about the changes we hope they’ll make.

They can be tools that we use, internally, to make it more likely that those changes are realized.

What I’ve seen:

  • Some of the policy priorities clients identify are obvious, and, so, often overlooked. One homeless youth identified a need for the SNAP eligibility process to change, so that youth don’t have the responsibility to prove that they are no longer considered part of their parents’ households; the onus should be on the parent receiving SNAP on behalf of that child. When this was presented to representatives of congressional offices, they reacted in surprise, and said, “I think we can make that happen.”
  • The priorities often align considerably. In one community mental health center, the CEO had been talking about housing for months, and then, when I sat down with several groups of clients, ‘housing’ was the first need they emphasized. They had stirring stories about how lack of appropriate housing options results in unnecessary institutionalization, and they identified policy and programming changes that could make a difference.
  • And, sometimes, they don’t. Clients at several different organizations stressed the need for access to identification, as a foundation of access to other services. None of the organizational leaders had identified this as a priority, though, and, indeed, resisted somewhat, primarily since figuring out the levers to push for those changes is somewhat elusive.
  • Some of the policy changes identified will be internal agency policies, and, if organizations are going to really live values of empowerment and communicate to clients that their opinions are not mere tokens, these have to be at least somewhat openly received. One organization’s clients took issue with the smoking policy and the practice of handling Medicaid spend-down regulations. I believe that the leadership’s willingness to hear people out on these pieces is tangibly impacting how willing clients are to advocate moving forward.
  • There has to be a ‘so what’. We know that we do more damage than good if we unintentionally send people the message that we asked them for their stories, and for their insights, and then just filed them away somewhere. Organizations should be clear about the purpose of the information-gathering, about the opportunities for people to continue to engage in the process, and about the anticipated timeline. This is also a great chance to help people understand the other factors that go into setting an advocacy agenda, including a power analysis and assessment of the advocacy landscape.

How do you build your advocacy agendas? What role do all of your organizational stakeholders play? How do you structure the process? And what product do you receive in return?

Building our own auxiliaries

I had the opportunity, recently, to see some ‘free agents’ in action, and it is pretty awesome.

One of the organizations for which I’ve been doing advocacy technical assistance has this auxiliary, they call it: a group of (mostly) women, all connected to the organization in some way (but not current employees) who get together every month to socialize and support each other…and plan ways to live the mission of the organization.

See? Awesome.

Some of them are former employees, which makes them a great example of why we need to do a better job retaining the passion and enthusiasm and expertise of these would-be advocates when they move to another career opportunity. Some of them are family members of employees, which sort of blew me away, and has sparked so much thinking about what our employees can do through their own social networks, to excite people about the missions to which they dedicate their working hours. Some are family members of clients and former clients, a tremendously valuable extension of the organization’s self and peer-advocacy work with consumers. And some are, really, community members, connected through friendship ties to others in the group, and deriving meaning and companionship from the gatherings.

As one long-time auxiliary member told me (some have been participating for more than 10 years), “Some people go to book clubs. We support this organization.”

Um, wow.

Since spending the evening with this group, and seeing them in action (when I presented about the organization’s advocacy initiative, the members went to work quickly, making a list of policymakers with whom they had some connection, signing up to be part of a speakers’ bureau, offering stories for the storybank, and suggesting that they could hand out information about the organization’s advocacy agenda at their next fundraiser–a bakesale), I have peppered the chairwoman and the organization’s CEO with questions about the group, its origins, and how it sustains itself.

From these conversations, I have some thoughts about how organizations can best cultivate this kind of free agency (hopefully, I’ve already convinced you on the ‘why’):

  • Free agents flourish in a culture of empowerment: This auxiliary group was started by the CEO’s administrative assistant, who told me that she just wanted to find some way to do more to feed the mission. Are all of our employees vested with the confidence that this kind of free agent action is welcomed?
  • Small investments can yield big dividends: The organization makes a point to have staff members (oftentimes, the leadership) attend the auxiliary fairly regularly, not to do the work of the group, or to make it their own, but to help the auxiliary members feel connected to the organization, to answer questions, and to thank them. The organization also provides food for each of their meetings, a fairly small cost but one that contributes to the social gathering-ness of the group’s meetings. Auxiliary members told me that they “own” this group and its efforts, but they feel very much a part of the larger organization, and it’s clear that they act on its behalf, not just in support of the diffuse cause.
  • Social rewards matter: These people are friends. This is not like a committee meeting where people might chat a bit informally before they start. This is a group of folks who come together because they care about this organization’s work and because they really, really like to be with each other. They are friends first, and it shows. Are we paying attention to the fun in our work? Is our advocacy something to which people would like to invite their friends?
  • Official recognition, and structure, make a difference: This group is “the auxiliary”, not just some agency volunteers. They identify that way, and the members could all tell me the number of years they have been “with the auxiliary”, even, sometimes, as a subset of the years that they have volunteered with the organization. This, despite the fact that there’s no membership application, no nomination process, and no entrance criteria. People need to belong and to feel valued (we know that, even without Maslow). How are we building such affiliations into our work? How can we become places of identity for the people we want to attract?
  • Ownership has to be authentic: When the administrative assistant, who is an auxiliary member, first mentioned the group to me as a potential connection for the advocacy work, she was clear in her phrasing that we could “take the idea” to the auxiliary. This is not a force to be deployed at the organization’s will. It does not do their bidding. It complements their work and supports their mission. That makes them free agents, even if they giggled a bit when I framed it as such. If we can’t be comfortable with sharing ownership, we’re missing out on so much potential.

I’m a bit obsessed, now, with finding other examples of groups that function like this one, in other nonprofit social service organizations. Do you have experience with auxiliaries of your own? Or ideas of how you might build one? Or stumbling blocks in your pursuit?

Parenting and Dead Ideas

We’re all affected, perhaps infected (?) by dead ideas.

It’s almost eerie, really, when you stop to think just how little we think about how things could be different–really, radically different–instead of just slightly modified.

And when you realize how imperceptibly dead ideas infiltrate our way of seeing the world.

Because they’re in my parenting.

And they’re impacting my kids.

  • The idea that school funding should be local, which not only traps some kids in really ill-equipped and under-funded schools but also creates a climate in which my children grow up without a full understanding of how we all share responsibility for the education of the entire populace. The truth? That real autonomy–read: the power to educate our children as we must–only comes with the robust resources and collective commitment that would accompany a more centralized financing.
  • The illusion of upward mobility for future generations, and my realization of its falseness, and how that means that my husband and I are trying to prepare to shelter our kids from the unknown ravages of a future economy. It also affects how we live pretty modestly, so that our children do not become accustomed to goods that they don’t need and may not be able to secure. But it surrounds us, still; our local high school had new fewer than three screenings of Race to Nowhere last year, since so many parents are so eager to make sure that their children’s educations prepare them for ever greater career triumphs. And I find myself daydreaming, every once in a while, about what my kids might be when they grow up. And it’s something satisfying, which, because of how our economy is structured, means fairly prestigious.
  • The myth that the ‘company should take care of you’, and the disinvestment in any alternative retirement or health care systems, which means that, on a very practical level, I could not afford to do what I do–teach and consult and take on work that fascinates me–if not subsidized by my husband’s company, and privileged by the status our marriage gives me. It’s odd, then, to tell my kids about my work and know that they can’t see the ways in which it is subtly gendered, or know how precarious our lives could be without a corporate safety net that is increasingly tattered for so many people.

What does this mean?

How, then, do we resist the pull of dead ideas?

Some of it, as a parent, means encouraging my kids to ask ‘why’…a lot.

It means being helping them to question assumptions and the way things are, and being okay with messy answers.

But, beyond my private sphere, it means challenging myself, my friends, our institutions, and our policymakers. It means pointing out that a school finance approach that expects each to take care of her own only works if you have enough. And being upfront about the privilege that affords me the career opportunities I have. And not falling for the conceit of telling my kids that if they just work hard enough, they can have anything they want.

It means not running on autopilot, even when coming up with new ideas is harder.

Coasting never works well in parenting, anyway.

“I helped put a man on the moon”: Using advocacy to create “we” in your organization

You’ve seen that picture, right?

What I thought about, when I saw it, is not just what it says about our President, but what it says about how we should view all who work within our organizations (and, by ‘work’, I mean all whose presence is essential to our success, including our volunteers and our clients, too).

It’s about who we consider to be part of the “we”.

There’s a story in Zilch about a janitor at NASA who, when asked to describe his job, said that he helped to put a man on the moon.

And, of course, in a very real way, he did.

You try figuring out rocket science if the bathrooms are filthy.

Yet we know that, all too often, there are so many divisions in our organizations, divisions that mirror those in our society.

We split up, the clinical staff and the administrators; the children’s services and the adults; the ‘professional’ and the whatever we call the others (if you can’t tell, I really don’t like that particular dichotomy).

And those barriers should bother us not just because we have an ideological resistance to categorizing and labeling like that, but also because we know that organizations that don’t coalesce, that lack a common purpose around which everyone can unite, are organizations that just don’t do as well in reaching their visions.

And, so, the picture of the President fist-bumping the janitor makes me think about what we might do to truly bring everyone within our organizations into the work.

How can we enlarge our ‘we’, and how can we make people feel that collective identity more fervently and more deeply?

Perhaps not surprisingly, I think that advocacy holds part of the answer to that.

What if we invited all of our direct service staff to participate in our advocacy priorities? What if we wove advocacy responsibilities into everyone’s job description, along with the time to do it? What if we gave all of our employees time every year to do nonpartisan voter work, for example, or to go to the state capitol? What if everyone–our CEOs and our receptionists and our facilities managers–was evaluated, in part, on the degree to which they effectively engaged in social change activities consistent with the organization’s mission?

What if we were explicit about our ‘we’ including everyone, and intentional about how we communicate that?

Some of the advocacy technical assistance work I’m doing for nonprofit organizations centers around these questions, and here are some of the ways we’re approaching it. I’d love to hear from you, though, about how you bring all of your organizational constituencies into your advocacy, and about how you use advocacy to create and sustain the sense of ‘we’.

  • Integrating advocacy into organizational job descriptions, not to add work to everyone’s plates, but to find ways to transition current activities into those with some advocacy implications
  • Using surveys and focus groups to include the perspectives of staff, clients, and volunteers in the shaping of the organization’s advocacy agenda–because there’s no reason we should craft our priorities behind closed Board room doors
  • Weaving advocacy training into professional development opportunities for staff at all levels of the organization, to ensure that they have what they need to succeed in expanded roles
  • Incorporating ‘case-to-cause’ content in service reviews, to help staff connect clients’ presenting problems to the underlying community conditions that sustain them, so that every client interaction is shaped by an understanding of the systemic issues at work
  • Using root cause analyses, often as staff lunch-and-learns, to facilitate discovery of the the big systems that create and sustain the needs we continue to address through direct services
  • Creating Advocacy Task Forces that bring staff, Board members, and volunteers together–during work time, usually quarterly–to allow those with great passion for advocacy to lead the organization’s efforts

Are you seizing the opportunities to bring your whole organization into your ‘we’? How would your key players–all of them–describe their work and its impact? And how can advocacy make each day about something even larger than ourselves?

Dodging futility: USING Community Needs Assessments

One of my contracts this year has been to conduct a community needs assessment for a consortium of nonprofit social service organizations in a community near where I live. There is a lot about the project that has been rewarding for me; I get a kick out of statistical analysis and probing to see what data can tell us.

But I’m committed to making sure that my consulting practice is way more about meeting the needs of the organizations and communities I serve than it is about satisfying my own intellectual curiosities. So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to make this process really work for the organizations and their constituencies, and I’ve been reflecting over the past few weeks about what I’ve learned, and about what lessons those experiences might hold for others undertaking community needs assessments. Unless your history with needs assessments has been much different than mine, you’ve seen how they can sometimes be exercises in futility–things we have to do because some grant requires them, or things we do because we’re not sure where else to start, but things that end up being a whole lot of input and not much in terms of insight.

And we were intent on avoiding that.

It’s certainly too soon to tell exactly how successful we’ve been, really. The true test of the impact of this or any research endeavor will be in how people change what they do to respond to what they now know, and, while we’re seeing some evidence of that, the real measure will be over the next few years. But I think it has been a better-than-average effort that avoided some of the common mistakes. Here’s my list of what made some difference:

  • Involve participating organizations in crafting the questions. In some cases, this meant taking some of my $100 words out of the instrument (we field-tested all of the items). But, more than wordsmithing, we solicited ideas from organizations about the kinds of questions to include–what do they wish they knew about the people they serve? What information would help them plan services? What do their donors want to know? This not only improved the quality of the information we collected, but it also helped the process, by engaging organizations more in the work.
  • Turn results around quickly. Too often, we ask service providers to participate in research and then deliver them data 18 months later. That’s a timeline that works in academia (where I spend half of my working life), but it doesn’t work in the field. At all. So, we committed to a timeline that delivered analysis quickly. Yes, it meant that I did a lot of data entry on the weekends (A LOT), but I’d rather work really hard to turn around information that people can use than work pretty hard and deliver something that has lost its relevance. We got preliminary results to nonprofit partners within about 4 weeks of the end of the data collection period.
  • Plan for dissemination from the beginning. We scheduled a community meeting to share the results before we even started to collect data. We included, in an online survey instrument that was completed by more than 500 social service staff and community stakeholders, questions about the formats in which they would most like to receive information resulting from this assessment. And we developed personalized materials for each agency that highlighted the data in which they were most interested, in formats that they said would work for them. Honestly, this didn’t take a lot more work than producing one standard report–it just required planning for it from the start.
  • Cast a wide net. One of the points of analysis that most fascinated me was the discrepancy, in many cases, between what service providers and other “experts” viewed as the most pressing needs for the community and what those reportedly experiencing those needs were really living. In order to test this more fully, we asked many of the same measures about trends in need over the past 12 months, and about the single greatest priority in the community, to both the sample of organizational leaders and to clients of the group of nonprofits. At first, some were skeptical about both aspects of the design: we had some of the traditional push back that “clients won’t want to fill out the survey” and raised eyebrows about whether United Way donors, school district personnel, and government employees were really invested enough in their communities to participate meaningfully. We ended up with a sample of more than 1300 respondents, not maybe as large as my research training would hope but large enough to provide some new guidance in these areas, and we were able to pinpoint places of divergence between conventional wisdom and lived reality: in particular, clients saw their situations as far more stable, if still undesirable, than did the larger community sample of respondents, and they were much less likely to focus attention on their own particular need/niche, as a community priority, than were representatives of that particular constituency (so a parent with young children in need of childcare was more aware of how broader job creation strategies were essential than an employee of an early childhood education organization, who tended to focus more narrowly on that service). We couldn’t have learned this without thinking a bit more loosely about who our “community” is, and who should have a voice.
  • Process matters. I already knew, from my participatory research experiences, that how we ask people to participate in research makes a huge difference for the response (and, then, the ultimate product) we get. Because this community needs assessment involved the participation of many different agencies (and we had relatively little control over how they actually administered the survey, despite our instructions) it ended up providing some rich data for a process evaluation. We found, not surprisingly, that organizations that explained to clients what the assessment was, how it would be used, and how they could access the subsequent results, had far greater participation than those that took participation for granted or, even, implied some coercion. People will share information about their lives, even if it’s sensitive, if they think that it will advance efforts to meet their needs and the needs of others. Otherwise, they’d rather not. Respecting those who share themselves with us, as clients and as research participants, is not just ethical practice, it’s good methodology, too.

    I’d love to hear from others who have conducted community needs assessments about what worked for you–how were your data used, and what did you do to increase their relevance? What lessons can you share about what to do (or not)? What should be the goals of community needs assessments, and how can we structure the processes so these goals are met?