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?