James Schaffer

Co-Founder, The Advocacy Institute

How old is your organization? Eight years since the pilot project that became The Advocacy Institute (and, six years as a legal entity).
What sector do you work in? Intersections of State and Local Politics; Social Justice Organizing & Advocacy; Technical Assistance; and, Movement Building.
How long have you been working in this sector? I first joined social justice movements in a non-professional capacity as a volunteer member going back about 12 years.
How long have you been with your current organization? Since it started!

What has been the most significant development in your sector over the last 40 years?
My firsthand understanding of the sector only goes back about a decade. In that time, and at this moment, there are particularly impactful political developments that have significantly shaped the landscape. I’m thinking about:

  • Occupy Wall Street. Reignited broad, radical imagination about economic justice and changed discourse: the 1% became a household concept. The scope of economic disenfranchisement in this country and its role in both fueling corporate political power and building a base for the right came into greater public view.
  • Black Lives Matter. Increased the scope and national alignment of Black-led movement work more than it had been in decades. The innovation and power of the organizing. A whole generation of new leaders trained on the ground and in the face of an enormous militarized response. BLM has impacted the social justice sector such that it has become essentially unacceptable for organization not to grapple with racism both internally and externally, if they hadn’t been already.
  • 2016 Election. Obviously, a sea change in which the right-most fringe of mainstream politics took power and began dismantling so many institutional norms. Harm being done. Violence. Gutting of regulation. Also, seeming resurrection of “Democratic Socialist” as a viable political identity.
  • 2018 Election. Significant gains for progressive candidates, including the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Justice Democrats. In the New York Senate, the Democrats won a 17-seat advantage after eight years of shared leadership between the Senate Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference — moderate Democrats, who were largely driven from office.

What is the single greatest challenge you face today in your sector?
Coordination and collaboration. There are many diffuse and/or redundant campaigns aimed at winning progressive policy matters with the results that movements’ precious political capital is often diluted. Resources for social justice organizing and advocacy are relatively scarce, making it hard to run the kinds of campaigns we need to win on so many policy issues. And the seeming political non-viability of conversations about raising taxes in order to adequately fund the social safety net, to say nothing of real equity.

What leadership qualities are necessary to succeed as a nonprofit executive today?
An understanding of civic engagement, organizing, and advocacy. The recognition that mission-driven work has much at stake in the process of creating and revising policy and the commitment to taking an active role in advocacy.

How do you see shifting views on race, gender, sexuality, age, immigration status, educational achievement, wealth, poverty, and health affecting your organization in the future?
At the Advocacy Institute (AI), we’ve developed from the belief that people most impacted by inequity ought to be at the center of movements to transform society. We foresee AI’s constituency and leadership continuing to reflect the constituencies of the movements we seek to support and grow with.

What will nonprofits need to do to remain relevant and necessary to their clients over the next 40 years?
Reduce barriers to tech literacy and access. Online tools and data become more and more essential to not only everyday life but organizing and advocacy in general.

What are your sector’s biggest challenges in the future, and what must be done to address them?
The over-reliance on 501c3 structures has stripped our sector of its power to truly serve its constituencies’ interests in the policy fights that impact service funding and delivery. There are many forms of nonprofit organization and the advantages of tax-deductible fundraising can obscure the costs, which include limits on explicit communication about harmful policies and the elected officials responsible for them. We need to normalize a sector that is more strategic in its use of structures and systems.

In what ways would others say you are a trailblazer?
As far as we know, there aren’t other organizations out there focused on legislative advocacy as a strategy for movement building, nor combining our approach of training and tech tools. We’ve highlighted a body of knowledge and a collection of skills that are critical for changemaking and typically remain opaque even to those that are highly engaged. We’ve found a curriculum and approach that builds the confidence and effectiveness of organizers and advocates at the frontlines of social justice struggle, who are choosing to encounter the legislative process as an intentional strategy.

What do you want your work culture to be like?
Mission-driven. Keeping the underlying “why” top of mind. Connected, relationship-driven, kind. Pursuing excellence and having healthy boundaries.

I recently saw a quote by Prentis Hemphill, cited by adrienne maree brown, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” This was in reference to interpersonal relationships. I think it is a beautifully applicable sentiment in relationship to one’s work as well.

Please name three qualities that are inherent in being a strong leader.
Clarity. Knowing what you are building or aiming to complete at any moment is essential; Focus. Staying true to one’s clarity is what makes it useful; and, Flexibility. There’s always new information and unexpected developments. How do you roll with it without throwing your back out.

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