October 1, 2009

Get on your Soapbox: Invite an Advocacy and Policy Lens to your Organization

Upon returning from the Tides Foundation Momentum Conference in San Francisco, I have been reflecting on how advocacy and policy work is intimately linked to building relationships and evaluating organization structure – both important functions for any nonprofit.

In this article we take a look at some ways advocacy and policy work can advance your organization and consider what makes an effective advocacy organization. You may be surprised at how this framework can enhance organizational structures and leverage power. Additionally, many foundations – especially larger national funders – prefer funding policy work as it has the potential to effect system level change for a relatively modest investment. In an advocacy and policy realm, leadership is more externally focused. It requires a visible presence through coalition building, mobilizing allies, strategizing with partners, and shaping public opinion – all capabilities that funders will expect you to demonstrate, as well.

Embarking into advocacy and policy work may seem overwhelming to consider if your focus is on direct services. However, more and more nonprofits are discovering that advocacy work is an effective strategy for nonprofits to accomplish their mission and assists in building organizational capacity. For instance, advocacy work brings awareness of the changing social and political landscape, a landscape that affects direct service delivery.

By integrating an advocacy and policy lens into your organizational structure, you will gain the ability to analyze the broader structures necessary to support the everyday operations of your organizational work. It also provides a peek into your internal organizational capacities and how to foster leadership within your organization.

A significant portion of advocacy and policy work is developing relationships and relationships with elected officials are critical. These ties can help you accomplish policy change, bring visibility to your organization, providing opportunities for collaborative work, and your organization ahead of peers in the eyes of funders. Here are some tips for developing these links to elected officials:

  1. Introduce your organization: Send a letter to help officials learn about your work and how you are ready to assist them with their duties.
  2. Schedule a meeting: Share the work you do in their communities to create a better understanding of the organization’s priorities.
  3. Involve officials: Invite office-holders to participate in your programs by meeting the staff or attending events (for events send an invitation as soon as possible and follow up with a call to their office).
  4. Tell a positive story: Tell and show how your organization improves lives within the community and how you solve problems.  Let them know how your organization fills a gap, promotes civic awareness, and how donated funds assist people in need.
  5. Be a resource: Share your knowledge with the elected officials and they’ll be looking to you for information about innovative ways to improve their community.

Advocacy and policy provides a tremendous amount of visibility to your nonprofit organization. It also exposes the organization and board members to potential risks, such as harm to your reputation within the community. However, it can strengthen your organization through constant evaluation of your work. To maximize benefit, look to incorporate a solid “policy framework” including the following four components:[1]

  1. Leadership: The ability of organizational leaders to create a sustainable vision, to inspire, prioritize, make decisions, and innovate in order to achieve an organizations mission.
  2. Adaptation: The ability of an organization to monitor, evaluate, and respond to changes happening in broader cultural surroundings.
  3. Management: The ability of an organization to ensure effective and efficient use of organizational resources.
  4. Technical: The ability of an organization to implement key programmatic and operational functions.

Policy work often requires your organization to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. This framework creates a vision then the capacity that enables staff to plan and revise how it is pursued through programming.

The management and technical components of this framework assist with mobilizing all necessary resources to move rapidly when an opportunity is presented. These qualities are especially critical now, when economic conditions and new national leadership are spurring rapid change in policies, priorities, and funding streams.

Currently, there are a wealth of opportunities with advocacy and policy work. Many funders have shifted focus towards supporting advocacy work. This work draws attention to the issues your organization works on, expands your resources, provides opportunities for partnerships, and builds your membership. Finally the regular evaluation of organizational work in relation to current community conditions serves to keep your work relevant and your methods robust. After all, policies and funding appropriations changing that impact your organization are likely happening already and it is better to be at the table when decisions are made.

[1] The California Endowment. January 2009. “What Makes an Effective Advocacy Organization? A Framework for Determining Advocacy Capacity.” Retrieved from, http://www.calendow.org/Collection_Publications.aspx?coll_id=62&ItemID=432#

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