Tag Archives: consulting

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

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.