Model for organizational advocacy

June 29, 2017

Since the November election, CRE has worked with dozens of nonprofits to help them plan for potential — and possibly unexpected until now — changes. One of the questions that we have received numerous times is how to promote civic engagement and advocacy within a nonprofit so that its staff can better support the communities it serves. Among other important advocacy-related questions, groups want to know how to change their culture to better integrate advocacy as an everyday practice. In this post, CRE guest blogger, Michael Zisser, retired CEO of University Settlement and The Door, breaks down four principles that help nonprofits define a model for organizational advocacy and thus become part of something larger.

On more than one occasion during my tenure as CEO, the Board of University Settlement conveyed a clear message: it is not sufficient for a settlement house to just operate quality programs; it must take risks, be inventive, help to change the world, and advocate for and with its community. A surprising message to say the least, and perhaps just a moment in time, but one which guided my actions — and the organization’s — as it should guide other human service organizations. But what does it mean to advocate in an effective and realistic manner when in fact the organization is neither funded nor staffed for this type of work?

I believe there are (at least) four interrelated principles which could help define a model for organizational advocacy for groups that are not explicitly designed for this purpose. Below is a short description of each of the principles.

Principle One: create an implicit and explicit advocacy culture
An organization should have an implicit and explicit cultural orientation as a force for advocacy in the communities it serves (physical or otherwise). This advocacy culture is built upon traditions, values, top down and bottom up operational communications, embedded in the mission and evident in the beliefs of the staff and Board. Since many of us drifted away from an advocacy culture over the years, probably due to our heavy reliance on categorically driven program funds from the public (government) sector, shifting back to even a modest advocacy agenda or culture could represent a challenging paradigm change, to a great extent re-creating our roots. Any cultural change, or reinforcement, implies intentionality and leadership direction in order for an organization to be effective, and adopting an advocacy culture is no different.

Principle Two: everyone needs to play a role
Every program and every person within the organization must figure out an advocacy role in addition to the important work required of programs and the organization as a whole. Advocacy can have many definitions and paths. Advocacy may address a multitude of issues. Advocacy can take many forms in terms of strategy, method, level, intent, audience or scope. It can be as simple as sending letters to legislators, learning how to testify in public forums, participating in rallies, joining with other organizations to fight for a particular issue or cause, or being at the table during key budget or policy discussions. Even if definition consensus is difficult to formulate, advocacy is based on holding beliefs and a willingness to participate in supporting those beliefs. It is deliberate and intentional. Much of this work will probably require specialized training for staff or program participants, encouragement, resources and dedicated time. Finding the time is in most cases the most difficult issue since, as noted, advocacy work must frequently come in addition to all other paid work obligations. All organizations apply triaging in deciding the most effective use of staff time, so there may well be an organizational cost to having an advocacy agenda. It should also be noted that advocacy is related to but not the same as lobbying from a legal perspective, though registering to lobby is one possible strategy.

Principle Three: narrow the advocacy focus
An organization should choose one or more areas in which it wants to be seen as a leading advocacy player while also deciding when to play the role of collaborator or partner or co-sponsor. No organization with programmatic priorities can do or be everything in the advocacy arena. The advocacy focus area(s) could relate directly to programs conducted by the organization, or issues which affect the local community or larger political environments, or policies which have more broad impact and significance. These organizational choices may vary over time, and intensity levels certainly are dynamic given multiple priorities and obligations, but the organization’s identity and influence in the larger world are in part dependent on these choices.

Principle Four: leaders need to be “known” for these efforts
The head of the organization, and its top leaders, in addition to supporting the principles listed above, should also choose one or a few substantive areas in which to be known as a leading advocate within the larger community. While it is important for an organization to have a culture of advocacy, it is equally important for its leadership to be publically recognized and identified for her/his advocacy investment and expertise. As with organizational choices, leadership can’t be or do everything of importance. Sometimes the decision to lead may be made for you, or be serendipitous, or driven by necessity, but focus is essential.

I’ve said nothing about the targets for advocacy, the actual subjects or issues which call for our advocacy, primarily because the list is potentially so vast….and personal. My central message is that advocacy should not be limited to those organizations and people whose primary purposes or job descriptions are to advocate. In the human services sector, especially at this moment in history when so many factors affecting the people and communities we serve seem to be threatened, advocacy has become a professional and moral obligation. Advocacy makes each of us and our organizations part of something larger. We may have widely divergent, even oppositional advocacy positions, which is the price we must pay for encouraging engagement with issues and causes. Running quality programs is never easy (and will most likely always be the primary purpose of a social services organization), but that doesn’t take away from the importance of advocacy. Limiting purpose or mission in this way may be necessary for organizational survival, but it is not sufficient to justify historical organizational relevance.

Michael Zisser, Retired CEO of University Settlement and The Door

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