Tag Archives: social services

Little Shifts, Big Change

I tweeted this last week, but it is exciting and awesome enough that I wanted to make sure that everyone in my world who cares about nonprofit advocacy sees it.

Building Movement Project has a new series on 5% shifts–the really tremendous and completely accurate insight that, in moving direct service organizations to social change agents, radical changes are not necessarily required (which is good, because they may not be possible), but, instead, smaller adjustments that reimagine how we engage our clients, organize our work, talk about our cause.

I have been honored and thrilled to have the opportunity to play a small role in this series, weighing in on initial versions and talking through the theory and practice of orienting nonprofits towards significant social changes.

And I’m beyond delighted that the first one is out:

Building Community from the Inside Out

There will be more–the next is on developing client leadership, and I am super jazzed (and running out of happy adjectives) that some of the organizations I’m working with locally on advocacy TA may be featured in some of the coming installments.

As I’ve said many times, I feel such a kinship to the folks at BMP, and such a fondness for their approach and their contributions. I am impressed but not surprised that they took a look at who’s engaging with their content, and how, and decided that they needed ways to help organizations ‘ease’ into advocacy and social change, in the context (always) of constrained resources and political uncertainty.

I would love to hear what you think about this idea of small shifts for big impact, and, specifically, how you respond to this particular profile. I know BMP would love the feedback, too.

Happy shifting!

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Mapping your service network

Every good direct-service social worker has go-to people for resources for clients. They used to be in Rolodexes. Now we have contacts in our phones and (if you’re like me) lists up on the walls around my desk, too.

These connections are essential, many times, for getting what our clients need, and they personify the truth that–in social work, as in advocacy and in life in general–relationships matter. A lot.

I have often thought that there should be a better way to share these resources. I mean, I know that some of the appeal is the whole ‘inside hook up’ angle, but that’s really not a very efficient or effective way to run a service delivery system.

And, oftentimes, there’s nothing intentionally opaque about these connections in the first place; we just don’t have a very good mechanism for communicating things like, “So-and-so in billing is really great about connecting clients to payment plans” or “XYZ agency has bus passes”.

In our community and in others around the country, nonprofit social service agencies have instituted computerized databases to coordinate information among organizations, but, in my experience, these are more commonly used to make sure that clients aren’t receiving duplicate services in multiple agencies, rather than to increase the number of linkages among the various hubs in a social service network.

And that’s what we need, stronger connections to bridge the gaps in a fragmented system–linkages strong enough to be bridges for the clients trying to navigate resources.

I think that network mapping holds a lot of promise for this challenge. Our ability to analyze and visualize how different ‘nodes’ are connected, how strongly they are linked, and where organizations are isolated within the network has improved dramatically in recent years, with both technological advances (there are free network mapping software add-ins that are really easy to use) and with evolving theoretical understanding of network function.

What if case managers and therapists and all who have responsibilities for navigating the service delivery system came together, not just to give program announcements, like at many coalition meetings, but to really map to whom they are connected, and how, and on whom they most commonly rely for help?

What if we pulled those go-to people out of our contact lists and mental Rolodexes and put them up on the wall, with sticky notes that show who’s central to the network, who’s on the periphery, and who connects us best?

What if we used that information not just to improve our referrals, highlight those individuals doing the best work to facilitate access to the system, and figure out ways to work around gaps and inadequacies in the network, but also to get a better sense of how these coalitions and loose affiliations could be leveraged for advocacy?

What if we could solve some of the problems–the gaps and the apparent duplication and the communication breakdowns–in our social service delivery system, without building new organizations or adding services, just by weaving a network that covers the chasms?

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?

Lessons from the field: integrating advocacy into service organizations

One of the most rewarding parts of my work life over the past year has been the opportunity to provide technical assistance to four social service organizations in the region, around the question of how to integrate advocacy into their organizations.

For me, this has been a chance to put into practice some of the concepts I have spent much of the past few years thinking about:

And it has also been a tremendous gift to be able to spend quite a bit of time with direct service providers and with service participants, since I can begin to feel isolated in an academic/theoretical/political vacuum, sometimes.

The hands-on technical assistance period has almost concluded now, and I am beginning to prepare the case studies requested by the foundation that provided the assistance to the organizations. This part of the process has me reflecting on what I have learned from these organizations, and what I believe we are learning and accomplishing together. This week, I have three posts related to some of these ideas, and I’d certainly welcome comments, from any of my colleagues in these organizations, from others engaged in similar work around the country, and from any of you.

And to the really inspiring, committed, creative, courageous, and fun people with whom I’ve spent so much time, especially these past 9 months, please don’t be strangers. I don’t need to be paid for every minute of my time. If there’s something you think I can help you with, or something you want to talk through, I am your traveling companion on this journey. Thank you for sharing with me.

Some of my initial thoughts on lessons from practice:

  • Organizational culture matters, a lot, especially a culture of innovation (where new things aren’t scary, just new), of cross-departmental collaboration (because the only way to make advocacy sustainable is to weave it into everyone’s jobs, a little), and of client empowerment (so that ‘turning over’ advocacy to those we serve doesn’t seem foreign or awkward).
  • Organizational capacity absolutely makes a difference, even though I still don’t believe that advocacy capacity can be conflated with overall capacity. I saw that organizations with the greatest overall capacity–staffing levels commensurate with need, adequate backroom support, good information technology, workable physical space–were able, really, to place the greatest demands on me. They could use more of what I could offer, because they weren’t always in catchup mode. This, of course, feeds their capacity further, making capacity investments (or the lack thereof) a reinforcing cycle.
  • There are staff within every organization who want to do more, and do differently, and do better, despite the really incredible demands on their time and energy. Without fail (and even when administrators were pretty skeptical), I had direct staff members come up with amazing insights on advocacy agendas, terrific ideas for how to engage clients, exciting avenues for advocacy allies, and, more than anything, a real openness to the possibilities of making advocacy part of their work. And, at the same time, I helped organizational leaders see that this commitment doesn’t need to be universal for it to be transformational.
  • Boards make a difference. I have been a nonprofit Board member for years, sometimes a really great one, sometimes mediocre, and, sometimes (ahem, when the twins were newborn) totally derelict. So I get it, and this isn’t a ‘bash on Boards’ post. But, truly, many of our organizations would be well-served by better Boards. I was struck by how many times not only staff but even other volunteers within an organization spoke of the need to make information short for Board members, to limit demands on their time, to downplay the significance of their roles. This is especially noteworthy given the impact that Board members could have on the organization’s advocacy, positioned as they are to be ambassadors for the organization in influential circles.
  • Defining advocacy more broadly than legislative change is essential, both to gaining additional buy-in from organizational actors (who want to change the world, but maybe not lobby Congress), and to charting avenues of social change where they are positioned to be successful (which, for some, may not be in the state legislature). Among these organizations, some are planning to play very active roles in state legislatures, but others are tackling media coverage of mental health, local government funding for public transportation, local school district policies affecting homeless youth, and state agency regulations around access to public benefits.

It sounds tired, but this journey, to orient social service organizations to a social change mission, is a process. My intense work with these four agencies is ending only because the grant that makes it possible is, not because the work has reached a definitive conclusion. Still, though, as I do this reflection, I can point to some changes–some tangible, some much less so–in how these organizations approach advocacy as part of their mission, a complement to their services, and a philosophical orientation that, in turn, shapes how they serve.

On the ground, not just in theory.

Why do big tents so often fall down?

Over the past several months, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really committed advocates–super smart and dedicated people who are working extremely hard to protect their clients and the programs that serve them, in a climate of drastic budget cuts and an eroding social contract.

It’s soul-sucking work, and we’re losing many, many more battles than we win.

Lately, though, some of us have felt like we’re really fighting the wrong battle. Or, more accurately, battles.

It’s not just the old “divide and conquer” problem–the fact that social service advocates are vulnerable to intra-skirmishes that distract us from the real enemies and make it easier for those same opponents to play us against each other.

It’s also that we deliberately avoid taking on the real struggles, and even sometimes miss noticing them altogether, because we’re trying to contain debates that we can really only hope to dominate if we act collectively.

Here’s how it looks in real life:

In Kansas, advocates spent all last year fighting against budget cuts in different program areas–mental health, public education, child welfare, senior services. And all year, the Governor and some legislative leaders hinted that their sights were really set on a policy battle far larger and more fundamental to our state’s well-being: the revenue foundation that shores up (or doesn’t) all of those programs and far more. For the most part, they have not encountered much effectively organized opposition. From my conversations with at least some advocates, it seems that many hoped that not antagonizing the Administration on that issue would, somehow, preserve some access and influence that they could use to defend their work and serve their clients.

So, in essence, we’re sitting on the sidelines while our fates–for the next several years–are decided.

Because, of course, if the Governor and his allies are successful in eliminating the state income tax, they won’t need to legitimate their budget-slashing goals at all: there quite literally won’t be enough money to fund any of these programs, and so advocates will be fighting over crumbs.

If the failure to build a sustained, strategic, progressive coalition to take on these more global, structural issues was just a logistical one (getting people together across distance), or just jurisdictional (getting people to set aside their competition with each other), or even just a problem of capacity (people not having enough resources to take on a fight this big), then I feel like we’d know better how to start addressing it.

After all, those are the kinds of challenges that we overcome in our organizing every day.

But the real reason that building this kind of “big tent” is so hard, I think, is that too many awesome advocates think it’s a bad idea–that taking on these common concerns dilutes their influence and compromises their positions. And so we have to overcome not just inertia but entrenched resistance, and we’ve got to do it without being able to offer any guarantees that their concerns aren’t, in fact, totally well-founded: this Administration absolutely does box out those who oppose them.

But advocacy isn’t about tallying the numbers of wins v. losses.

It’s about how we can build movements that shape how people see themselves, and their worlds, and about how we can change even the debates about the policy challenges we confront. It’s about being in the arena, even if we emerge somewhat bloodied.

And so we can’t afford to sit out the really, really big fights, and we can’t presume that going it alone is ever safer.

There are some battlefields on which we just have to be willing to make a stand.

And there is solace in solidarity.

A whole new world? Organizing for the 21st Century

I’m hopeful that the folks at the Building Movement Project aren’t freaked out by my rather obvious obsession with their work.

I’m friendly, I promise.

I just really appreciate how they are trying to stimulate thinking, among social service practitioners as well as those more naturally oriented to organizing and social change work, about such questions as: how is community organizing changing in the 21st century, and how should it?

I wrote about their Alliance for Change report before, so I’m not going to restate any of it here, but I’ve been doing more thinking, and reading more examples, of efforts to combine organizing/social change and direct services, and that has led to some questions in my mind, that I hope might spark some discussion in this venue about how organizing and service work might look later in this century.

Let me say again, lest there be any doubt, that I think that models along the lines of what these organizations are building are absolutely integral to the success of both “traditional” service providers (because who can stand, for long, to solve the same problems over and over?) as well as community organizers (who find fundraising and membership-recruitment increasingly difficult in today’s climate).

My questions, then, are about how we make this work, not whether it’s worth it.

First, what do social work ethics say about the practice, among some of these entities, to require membership in order to receive services? I’m not automatically opposed to it, but I do think we must confront the specter of coercion, especially as we hope to challenge it elsewhere.

Second, how do we create programs to address real needs in our members’ lives (and, thus, demonstrate relevancy and build legitimacy with them) without taking necessary pressure off public entities, reinforcing, in a sense, the moves towards retrenchment and privatization?

Third, how do we promote ownership and indigenous development of programs and services without sacrificing quality? This, certainly, isn’t a dilemma unique to this blended organizing/services model, but it’s still a real one. While non-professionals can provide professional-quality services (and professionals do not always!), assuming that those who can organize can also design and administer services is a potentially dangerous leap.

Fourth, while the organizations profiled cite the use of multiple strategies as part of what sustains their members, by offering interim victories (like electoral turnout, or program development), how do we fend off potential distraction, especially away from the longer-term goals of societal transformation? Many things that nonprofit organizations can do are “shinier” than slowly changing the world.

And, finally, how do organizations become sophisticated enough to be seen as legitimate players, yet remain transparent and accountable and accessible to members? Typically, strong grassroots organizations have relied on the size of their memberships for their power, but these new hybrids have other routes to that elusive ‘seat at the table’. Can they be both things?

The questions above are in addition to those identified by the Building Movement Project and its partner organizations, around the challenges of accepting public money, avoiding turning members into clients, and building deep membership while also building alliances across divides.

Towards these ends, they’re conducting additional survey work, connecting organizations in site visits and coalitions, and seeking to advance data about this nascent field.

But I want to hear from those of you seeking to bridge the false and counterproductive divide between organizing and social services: how have you tackled any of these challenges, and which ones have you experienced that I have not even foreseen? Where do you see organizing headed in this century, and what excites and worries you about those directions? What tactics hold the most promise in this climate of new political opportunities and unheard of threats? And where are the greatest risks of failure?

Calculated Epiphanies and Justice in Funding

I saved my favorite of the Begging for Change posts for last; Robert Egger is one of the few nonprofit leaders I’ve ever heard be willing to speak truth to the Rockefellers of the world AND give social service organizations such a clear way to make the connection between their work and advocacy. Since justice not charity and the link between social work and social change are two of my very favorite topics, I was literally flagging almost every other page towards the end of the book.

But this will be a short post, because it’s been a long week of challenging everything we think we know about nonprofits, and it’s Friday, and, you know, there are limits. Two main takeaways:

1. Nonprofit organizations need to be consistent agitators for justice, which means not accepting funding from corporations and others who are creating a lot of the problems that these same organizations are then expected to address. Egger tells a sobering story of a graduate of the DC Central Kitchen program who gets a job in the AOL cafeteria. As the Kitchen’s Executive Director, Egger has these visions of partnerships between AOL and the Kitchen and all of the great work they can do together, until he finds out that the job only pays $8/hour despite requiring a long commute for the newly-minted graduate. It’s like Rockefeller, right? How would our society look different today if, instead of making a ton of money by exploiting natural and human resources and rewriting economic rules to enrich himself, and then donating some of the proceeds, Rockefeller had instead shaped an economy built on justice and prevention of suffering?

So here’s what I’d like to see: the next time that a social worker in a nonprofit organization is offered a grant from a corporation with a poor record of labor or human rights, instead of taking the check and serving as cover for the company’s larger misdeeds, what if the corporation was urged to set its own house in order first, as in the examples Egger provides?

2. Services aren’t enough. We need social change. Egger uses the example of Habitat for Humanity and how much more capacity the federal government, and corporate America, collectively, have to address affordable housing than the efforts of this one (even very large) nonprofit organization. He obviously gets it, that we need to cultivate our political strength and then wield it to bring about policy change. So you know I’m nodding along. And then he goes further, giving nonprofits a visual that I love–the idea of reaching decision makers’ hearts through your service work, like a Trojan Horse, and then helping them to reach the realization of their own powers to work alongside you towards a common goal. He calls this ‘calculated epiphany’, the idea of slipping into someone’s conscience to bring them along on your cause, and I think there’s a ton of truth to it.

In my own advocacy, I know that we won the most when we could first connect to lawmakers’ values around family, the story of a welcoming America, the promise of youth…and then they, often reluctantly, were forced to admit that making those values reality required policy change.

So what can be your Trojan Horses? How can you leverage your direct service work to build relationships with influential people in your community who are in a position to effect significant change? How can your organization become a place, as Egger says, where “people see the impossible made plausible”? What will you do to make lightbulbs go on…and stay on?