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By: Laurel O’Sullivan, The Advocacy Collaborative, LLC.
Who does it better?
Consider two immigration-focused nonprofit organizations: “Nonprofit A” devotes their programmatic efforts to serving individuals on a case-by-case basis, helping them as they wade through the ocean of paperwork and red tape. The second organization, “Nonprofit B”, provides similar support, but also devotes a significant portion of their energy to advocating for policy changes that lighten the burden for immigrants trying to gain citizenship. Which organization helps more people?
Too often, the nonprofit sector either undervalues – or worse, avoids altogether – the power of advocacy. Time and again, nonprofits expect a CEO or other staff person to “do advocacy” in their spare time, relegating it as separate from the rest of the organization. This separatist approach – defining advocacy as an “add on” that continually falls to the bottom of the list – represents a significant missed opportunity because high-quality advocacy advances an organization’s mission while achieving impact on a scale not possible through direct service or programs alone. (Perhaps you’ve guessed the answer to our question, above — by adopting a systemic approach to changing policy, Nonprofit B can achieve far greater impact and serve far more individuals than Nonprofit A can by only serving individuals on a case by case basis.)
The separatist approach is also evident in most of the trainings for advocacy and policy. These tend to be narrowly focused on individual skills building – learning the legal rules of advocacy or how to talk to policymakers. Yet research suggests that when individuals are trained about policy and advocacy in isolation from their organization and its context, the organization’s overall effectiveness suffers. In turn, advocacy is further marginalized and organizations remain simply reactive to the policy landscape, rather than proactive.
The truth is, advocacy that is connected to the mission is the single most effective strategy a nonprofit can employ to have impact, because it has the potential to enhance all the things an organization does. By taking a public position on an issue, a nonprofit increases its likelihood of attracting funders, volunteers and garnering more public support for its work. It’s also an opportunity to demonstrate leadership to external audiences including policymakers and constituents.
Successful advocacy requires that an organization recognize that there are certain internal conditions that must be in place to support advocacy. And these conditions need to align with the multiple dimensions or facets of advocacy: the external dimension focuses on the broader policy environment; the internal dimension highlights the organizational, programmatic and individual-level components of policy work; and in between, there are linkages and alignments that must be made among the program, stakeholders, and the internal supporting functions of an organization like communications, finance, technology and fundraising.
What does an advocacy-forward organization look like?
Organizations with a strategic focus on advocacy routinely plan for and prioritize advocacy; it is built it into thee character and culture of their organization. How do they accomplish this?
1. A commitment to advocacy is firmly in place at the leadership level. This includes ensuring the board understands the value of advocacy and how it can advance the organization’s mission.
2. The mission, vision and values of the organization include advocacy as an intrinsic component. Research has shown that the most successful advocacy organizations are ones that have integrated it by sharing leadership, recruiting board members with advocacy knowledge, building a culture of support for advocacy
3. A plan and mechanisms for engaging stakeholders exists including communications devices such as newsletters and social media outlets, technology and databases for tracking and managing relationships with constituents, as well as resources and ready made materials for constituents to take action on specific bills.
In short, similar to any other strategy for achieving effectiveness, advocacy must be planned for in advance to ensure the organizational dots are connected and aligned to achieve maximum impact and the internal conditions for advocacy to take root, grow and be nurtured are in place. Only in this way will advocacy begin to be seen as part of the nonprofit business model.
For more on Laurel’s work, or to contact her directly, check out her website and her ACN profile!
Principal and Founder, The Advocacy Collaborative, LLC.
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