Tag Archives: social services

Integrating Services and Organizing: A Roadmap

I just finished reading this process guide for nonprofit social service organizations interested in integrating advocacy and community organizing for social change into their work. There are some weaknesses to the report that disappointed me (more to come on that), but, overall, I think it’s a helpful way of framing the idea of this transformation so as to be very accessible even to agencies that have not really begun this journey.

It starts with their assertion, which I find very compelling, that nonprofit social service organizations are uniquely situated to promote social change: they are organized around a change mission (albeit normally on an individual, family, or group level); they have daily contact with their constituents (although usually framed as ‘clients’); and they are part of a vast social service infrastructure that, if properly mobilized, could be a major force for social change. Social workers, we need to claim those advantages and use them for justice!

The authors lay out a six-step process–this is where I take some issue with their framework, because it lays this out fairly linearly, when I just don’t think it really happens that way, but I think that they do have, at least, the most significant phases represented (the stuff in parentheses is my interpretation): learning (issue analysis); awareness (power analysis); vision (articulating your ‘the world as it could be’ statement); strategy (building power and influence of your constituents); action (building capacity and increasing your social change work while maintaining quality service); and reflection (evaluation–I think they’re a little weak here, too, because it seems to mostly include service evaluation, instead of a radical analysis of the social change process).

They never use the word ‘radical’ in the entire guide, but I see a lot of connection to radical social work practice: time and space to reflect on the root causes of social problems, challenging staff’s own world view; using transformative direct practice to give constituents a ‘laboratory’ for learning advocacy and organizing. The authors are explicit that the transformation from exclusively providing social services to being a force for progressive social change can be challenging, even threatening, to professional staff. They suggest that organizations analyze how staff have power over clients, a topic that I know from teaching social workers (and students) are pretty uncomfortable with, but it’s very real.

A couple of the nuggets that I found particularly insightful were really questions the authors outlined, rather than steps in the process or advice they were giving. For example, how can organizational leaders stress root causes, and the need to work on them, without making staff feel that their work, which often revolves around the consequences of problems, is unimportant? I struggle with that some as an instructor; I never want to seem to be trivializing or dismissing micro practice, even that which lacks a radical power analysis, but I have to challenge students to think beyond that work. A piece of their discussion of evaluation was great too–we are used to asking about client satisfaction, but how often do we ask clients how important the services are to them and/or attempt to gauge their worldviews and the extent to which our analysis of the root causes of the problems they face aligns with theirs? I wonder what we’d do with that information if we collected it. There is also (in Appendix C) an assessment for organizations about where they are in this process. I’d love to hear back from some of you about where your organization falls on that continuum.

I’ve contacted the authors because their (very) brief discussion of legislative advocacy is extremely weak. They suggest state and local colleges and OMB (Office of Management and Budget) Watch as the resources for organizations beginning to get involved in this work, and I hate to think what most nonprofit leaders, and their grassroots constituencies, would find if they really turned to those sources for this help. I’m hoping that they’ll signifcantly enhance that section of their discussion.

I have attached the document below, and I’d love to hear from anyone who works their way through it. What would you include in a ‘how-to’ guide for organizations working their way from 100% social services to an integration of service and social change work? Where are you in this process, and what help do you need to navigate it?

Materials:Integrating Advocacy and Social Services: A Process Guide

I’ve found my people–Building Movement

All last week, I spent most of my children’s sleeping moments devouring these case studies of social service organizations’ efforts to integrate direct practice and community-building/advocacy/organizing/civic engagement, in pursuit of a seamless, dynamic, progressive organization that both attends to people’s concrete and immediate needs and engages them as actors in pursuit of greater community power. The report is very clear that the organizations selected are not ‘done’ in terms of resolving the myriad issues that arise in this transformation process, nor are they ‘perfect’ examples of how to negotiate these questions. They are, however, really honest and tremendously inspiring glimpses of how weaving advocacy and organizing into social service work can result in a hybrid that is a much stronger force for community/systems change and individual liberation than either a “purely” macro-level approach or an exclusively clinical/individual methodology. Building Movement, and several of the profiled organizations, see advocacy and client involvement as a continuum for organizations, with each social service agency striking its own best balance of these not-so-disparate elements.

I want to go to work for all of them (of course!) and for the Building Movement project that profiled them, but, considering that I don’t think we’re relocating the kids anytime soon, I’ll content myself for now with delighting in this new resource (check out the materials you can download, directly from the organizations–and I’ll be uploading some more of Building Movement’s materials in the weeks to come) and communicating back and forth with these folks as I continue to explore how I can help nonprofit organizations in this area navigate these journeys.

Here are some of my reflections on these five organizations’ stories, some of which represent some new thinking on my part and some of which reinforce my convictions, forged in several years of trying to fit advocacy and organizing into a primarily direct service organization myself.

  • Social workers and other professionals have to confront, and resolve, our discomfort with lay personnel and professional turf, given that authentic constituent engagement is an essential element in initial organizing.
  • Organizations are most successful when they can move beyond only talking about systemic issues within the context of specific action projects; service and justice work should be mutually-reinforcing, and this kind of radical micro practice connects best with where clients’ realities are.
  • Related to this, we can’t wait until people are “better” to organize. The most vibrant constituent organizing efforts alternate between direct service and grassroots leadership development, incorporating support into the work of the core organizing team, and recognizing people’s complexities and layers of strength and need. Minnesota Family and Children Services frames it this way–helping people solve their problems, helping people prevent problems (for themselves and others), and helping people change community conditions. This work happens fluidly.
  • One of the most thought-provoking quotes in the document, for me, came from a neighborhood organization in Queens whose mission statement is to “cultivate the dreams and power of the people.” Staff from that organization articulated a core challenge in this work: how can we be sure that our work does both–helps people to meet their dreams through processes that place the power firmly within their grasp? In our eagerness to help, how often do we sacrifice progress for ownership, and what are the long-term costs in how people see themselves in their communities? How do we increase our comfort with ambiguity and develop structures that not only solicit leadership but institutionalize our willingness to be driven by it?
  • On a less profound but perhaps more urgent matter, many of the organizations reflected some angst around the question, “to what extent should advocacy focus on policies that impact the agency’s bottom line, rather than those more broadly related to the social justice goals of clients?” This is something that I struggled with somewhat at El Centro, Inc., where most of my work did not impact our financial status at all (except negatively, when donors were angered by our controversial stance), but where, with our growing success and reputation, some stakeholders wanted us to leverage those relationships with power players for more help to the agency’s bottom line. What does this do your credibility with allies and targets? If your organization does, in fact, serve justice, is the community not better served as you thrive?
  • Perhaps seen as opposite to this, the Minnesota Children and Families organization profiled stated that they specifically fundraise based on the community’s priorities–basically, they let the organizing work drive the programming work and, therefore, the fundraising for that programming work. Seemingly a dramatic departure, I guess, but wouldn’t it be exciting to a donor to know that an agency was so in touch with its constituents that they were originating all of its substantive work?
  • One of the themes that I have often raised with organizations I have helped to think through an advocacy and organizing practice relates to the structures needed to channel direct staff’s roles in this macro work–advisory committees with real authority, job descriptions and evaluations that include justice goals, a case-to-cause process that funnels client concerns into organizing work, and cross-program organizing that links issues from different areas. Basically, if you only do lip service to direct service staff’s involvement in advocacy, don’t be surprised if they only give you superficial commitment back.
  • The need to root organizing and advocacy efforts in core values was reiterated in several ways, although the organizations certainly do not share a common definition of the value of ‘justice’. But, as some of the executives pointed out, if organizing, advocacy, and community-building are not rooted in this core understanding, they are really just additional programs or methodologies of ‘service’, rather than tools that have the power to fundamentally restructure our society. We need a policy agenda and a new way of thinking about our clients, not just improvement projects that give clients work to do.

    I would encourage you to read the case studies, or at least a couple of them. Building Movement has also created a discussion guide at the end that asks critical questions: what do social service organizations stand to gain from really engaging their constituents? What skills do staff need to acquire to succeed in this work, and this new way of framing their work? What do organizations need in terms of funding to support the integration of services and organizing? Around what values will you shape your advocacy?

    All of these profiled organizations indicated a willingness to help other agencies in their walk towards a fuller engagement of their constituents, and most are actively sharing their progress with their coalitions and other allies–again, not as a model, but as hope and inspiration and a call to action. We can’t look at these examples as “how nice that they’re doing that;” we have to immediately ask what it means for us and for our work and for how we are called to engage the people with whom we have the honor to work.