Lessons from the field: integrating advocacy into service organizations

One of the most rewarding parts of my work life over the past year has been the opportunity to provide technical assistance to four social service organizations in the region, around the question of how to integrate advocacy into their organizations.

For me, this has been a chance to put into practice some of the concepts I have spent much of the past few years thinking about:

And it has also been a tremendous gift to be able to spend quite a bit of time with direct service providers and with service participants, since I can begin to feel isolated in an academic/theoretical/political vacuum, sometimes.

The hands-on technical assistance period has almost concluded now, and I am beginning to prepare the case studies requested by the foundation that provided the assistance to the organizations. This part of the process has me reflecting on what I have learned from these organizations, and what I believe we are learning and accomplishing together. This week, I have three posts related to some of these ideas, and I’d certainly welcome comments, from any of my colleagues in these organizations, from others engaged in similar work around the country, and from any of you.

And to the really inspiring, committed, creative, courageous, and fun people with whom I’ve spent so much time, especially these past 9 months, please don’t be strangers. I don’t need to be paid for every minute of my time. If there’s something you think I can help you with, or something you want to talk through, I am your traveling companion on this journey. Thank you for sharing with me.

Some of my initial thoughts on lessons from practice:

  • Organizational culture matters, a lot, especially a culture of innovation (where new things aren’t scary, just new), of cross-departmental collaboration (because the only way to make advocacy sustainable is to weave it into everyone’s jobs, a little), and of client empowerment (so that ‘turning over’ advocacy to those we serve doesn’t seem foreign or awkward).
  • Organizational capacity absolutely makes a difference, even though I still don’t believe that advocacy capacity can be conflated with overall capacity. I saw that organizations with the greatest overall capacity–staffing levels commensurate with need, adequate backroom support, good information technology, workable physical space–were able, really, to place the greatest demands on me. They could use more of what I could offer, because they weren’t always in catchup mode. This, of course, feeds their capacity further, making capacity investments (or the lack thereof) a reinforcing cycle.
  • There are staff within every organization who want to do more, and do differently, and do better, despite the really incredible demands on their time and energy. Without fail (and even when administrators were pretty skeptical), I had direct staff members come up with amazing insights on advocacy agendas, terrific ideas for how to engage clients, exciting avenues for advocacy allies, and, more than anything, a real openness to the possibilities of making advocacy part of their work. And, at the same time, I helped organizational leaders see that this commitment doesn’t need to be universal for it to be transformational.
  • Boards make a difference. I have been a nonprofit Board member for years, sometimes a really great one, sometimes mediocre, and, sometimes (ahem, when the twins were newborn) totally derelict. So I get it, and this isn’t a ‘bash on Boards’ post. But, truly, many of our organizations would be well-served by better Boards. I was struck by how many times not only staff but even other volunteers within an organization spoke of the need to make information short for Board members, to limit demands on their time, to downplay the significance of their roles. This is especially noteworthy given the impact that Board members could have on the organization’s advocacy, positioned as they are to be ambassadors for the organization in influential circles.
  • Defining advocacy more broadly than legislative change is essential, both to gaining additional buy-in from organizational actors (who want to change the world, but maybe not lobby Congress), and to charting avenues of social change where they are positioned to be successful (which, for some, may not be in the state legislature). Among these organizations, some are planning to play very active roles in state legislatures, but others are tackling media coverage of mental health, local government funding for public transportation, local school district policies affecting homeless youth, and state agency regulations around access to public benefits.

It sounds tired, but this journey, to orient social service organizations to a social change mission, is a process. My intense work with these four agencies is ending only because the grant that makes it possible is, not because the work has reached a definitive conclusion. Still, though, as I do this reflection, I can point to some changes–some tangible, some much less so–in how these organizations approach advocacy as part of their mission, a complement to their services, and a philosophical orientation that, in turn, shapes how they serve.

On the ground, not just in theory.


28 responses to “Lessons from the field: integrating advocacy into service organizations

  1. Great insights, Melinda. In my opinion, more organizations will be forced to recognize the need for advocacy as government funding becomes increasingly more competitive or even stripped away completely. Organizations that rely heavily on these grants, will need to be proactive if they want to remain afloat. I am hopeful that this will create positive changes, but certainly not without some pain. What I really really hope is for greater funding that allows non-profits to employ greater advocacy efforts.

    • Certainly innovation can come from crisis! I agree with your prognosis but hope that the push for impact is a bigger driver, since that would lead to more fundamental social change, in addition to advocacy for government funding. We cannot get to impact without addressing root causes, and advocacy will have to figure in somewhere. Thank you for your comments!

  2. I think that the agency I was with had a great potential for organizational advocacy efforts but fell short for a few challenging, but addressable, reasons (like so many others). For an agency to be successful in any way really, but in advocacy especially, it has to be a top-down effort. While there were some emails floating around, focus is generally given to productivity only. I feel it to be somewhat short-sighted.

    To expand on Brown’s comment to this particular agency, having little focus on reaching others with their message means that there isn’t much being done to prevent further cuts to things like Medicaid reimbursement levels. Not talking about how that ultimately affects an agencies capacity for handling clients overall will only result in decreased level of care for everyone involved.

    Case Workers, Therapists, Peer Support and medical staff are all natural advocates. They advocate for clients to other agencies, professionals, insurance groups, and any other conceivable entity every day. By fostering a culture of advocacy through simple steps such as increased training on how to advocate during orientation and allowing for somewhere around 30 minutes a month, for individuals who want to participate, a chance to write a letter or get informed about certain subjects could go a long way.

    • Do you think that organizational change always has to come from the top down, Kevin, or was that the pattern that you observed in that particular organizational culture? I completely agree about the importance of building spaces within organizational structures–not just cultures–for advocacy, in order to make sure that people authentically get the message that their advocacy work is valued. What is holding your former organization back in that regard, do you think? How do those barriers parallel what you see in other contexts?

  3. I could see the potential for a “ground-up” sort of re-culturing of an agency. I think that, however, it would take a person or some people with some significant pull within the agency though. Without having a lot of insight into the behind-the-scenes at that agency, it’s hard to say just what specifically is holding it back. I can say at least, that I don’t believe it’s from a lack of desire to do so. Knowing the people, there is a genuine care for the community in which they work.

  4. I really like the idea of empowering social service agencies themselves. I think organization’s often get so caught up in maintaining the routine that they forget one of their major responsibilities is advocating for and empowering clients to work towards social changes. I believe advocacy to be the underlying goal of every social service agency, although some may not be fully aware of that or how to do it. Therefore, it is critical to expand those agencies perceptions and educate them about the importance of developing their advocacy roles. I also appreciate that you point out that not everyone will be advocacy superstars in an organization and that it doesn’t need to be universal to be transformational.

  5. I really like this blog. One of the things that spoke to me was your last point that we should define advocacy as more than legislative advocacy. If done right media has the ability to not only affect the legislature, but also change public perceptions of a topic. It is important in looking social change to look at all of the different angles. I know Valeo BHC in Topeka has done some t.v. commercials with clients discussing their journey, and they have been really effective.

  6. This blog gave me better insight on what advocacy in an agency should look like. As an intern, I am not too aware of what kind of advocacy goes on on a legislative level in the agency I am currently interning with. I see the daily advocacy that the agency does for their clients. It would be great if every agency could get someone to help organize them for greater advocacy capacity. As someone mentioned earlier, legislative advocacy is becoming increasingly important due to all the funding that is being cut. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly important for agencies to start advocating more on a legislative level.

    • Of course I agree, Kelsea! I wish I could work with every organization out there! I think most organizations don’t realize how well-positioned they are for advocacy impact, really, if they could leverage those assets in advocacy arenas. I try to practice strengths-based consulting!

  7. I love your point about agency culture. My agency has a great culture, but only in some ways. The agency has three departments, and I have noticed that each department has its own unique culture. The head of the agency allows the three department heads a great deal of autonomy, and therefore, each department is different. On the one hand this is good, but on the other hand it leaves certain things unchecked. So, some department’s cultures lend to this idea and some do not. I see your point about how advocacy is every person’s job and I do think my agency should grow in this way. Working together across departments would benefit the agency and the clients in the long run.

    • broadkawvalley

      Such an important point, Charity, about organizational ‘subcultures’ and how much they can vary. This can be really tricky, as you point out–it’s absolutely true that an organization’s value on responsiveness and empowerment can be a real strength–and a real benefit for workers seeking a place to fit within a given organization, particularly given mergers in nonprofit organizations that have created some really large organizations with very broad missions, where they may need different approaches in order to take on very different problems. But, as you also point out, this differentiation can inhibit cohesion. How could you, as an administrator, promote a sense of shared identity, even with these different departments taking on different roles? What might foster that? I have worked with organizations on cross-agency teams, strategic planning, and advocacy/communications efforts that brought people together from different parts of the organization, so I know that it’s possible, but also that there’s no ‘magic bullet’…in your particular case, what do you think might move in that direction?

  8. Meghan Iacuzzi

    Your ideas have me thinking which I’m certain is your intention. I work in a state public agency. Generally I think this is severely limiting and not an appropriate setting for much of the community advocacy supported by private non-profits. Much of our client population is in need of a wide range of services that the local community cannot support. Currently there are no advocacy efforts that attempt to organize clients to achieve goals on their own behalf. But why not? Maybe this setting does not actually preclude this type of social work practice. I’ll have to think creatively about how I can incorporate that into my direct practice.

    • Meghan, one of the reasons that I think it’s so important for organizations to actively engage their clients in advocacy on their own behalf is precisely this–that that sort of empowerment practice is something that all organizations can legally do, as an advocacy practice, while direct lobbying or even grassroots lobbying by the organization may not be. I would be happy to talk more with you about what this could look like in your organization, and to help you think through how your direct practice could be integrated with an advocacy approach, along these lines!

      On Sun, Mar 23, 2014 at 8:35 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  9. I really see the value in making sure that all agency departments are involved in advocacy in some capacity. In the agency I have had experience in, they have a great organizational culture in that they are very open to innovative change, yet departments are very divided in their responsibilities. That being said, the education and prevention department has been very creative in their use of advocacy, including creating the high school theater group to put on performances to raise awareness and begin constructive conversation. This ties into your lesson that advocacy does not always need to be legislative advocacy. However, I would love to see more advocacy throughout departments, even if it is just on a small scale. For example departments that provide client services could start a group for clients who are interested in advocacy and give them the tools to empower them to participate. I believe that advocacy which is coming from those whose lives have been affected by the problem can be the most powerful advocacy and can also be a very empowering process.

    • How could you plant some seeds, so to speak, for advocacy within other parts of the organization, Alysa? How could the activities of the education and prevention department be catalysts for those in other areas? How could you translate some of what you have learned in this class to your organizational context?

  10. I have seen within my agency that the advocacy capacity as gone from a rich area where we had a staff devoted to advocacy and engaging with staff around advocacy issues to non existent. With the lose of the contract I feel like as an agency we have lost our focus, as we are now focused on getting though a day, a month, this fiscal year. I would like to engage with administrator, the board, and other staff to refocus our agency on what matter; the clients we serve and the every day struggles we can ease for them. Where to start is the questions? I have approached a few small areas where I think we can be influence change for children and foster family, without any progress I feel my efforts are not appreciated or looked at as in only a monetary light. Time to refocus.

    • What are the policy changes, Emily, that would have the most dramatic effects on the challenges you face, with your clients? In other words, if you face a steep uphill climb, to get your agency to prioritize advocacy, maybe it makes sense to start with the most important issues…even though it might seem hard to get their buy-in on those bigger policy pushes, the potential rewards are greater, too. What’s your answer to the ‘miracle question’: if you woke up tomorrow and one thing had made your job easier, what would that one thing be? And how would you know it was different?

  11. In my agency, I have found that there is a recognition of the importance of advocacy, but no real push for it. We do trainings, we talk about what needs to change, but there is truly only one or two people dedicated to pushing for change in the state capitol. Or agency, and child welfare more broadly, has a focus on timeliness. The amount of time a child’s life, or “case”, can be dragged out is extremely sad.
    The culture seems to be there, as we talk about it regularly. We talk about policy, and what the judges are doing to help facilitate change, but the real root of social workers standing up for what is “right”, or in this case “better”, isn’t really present.
    As you stated, the way to make advocacy sustainable is to weave it into the jobs of all workers. Our agency certainly has the workforce to make meaningful change a reality, and instead they’re so bogged down in their respective roles, that we never get a chance. Advocacy on that level, even the social worker to judge level, could be a revelation in child welfare. It’s extremely intimidating to speak up for something other than your own work in that court room because you’re on the defensive, often times, as soon as you walk in. If there was a way to put the powers that be on the defensive, it might act as a catalyst to improving service outcomes.

    • Michael, I absolutely love the statement you made, “Our agency certainly has the workforce to make meaningful change a reality…” So often, we get trapped in scarcity thinking in our nonprofit agencies, denying or ignoring or devaluing the tremendous resource that is our own staff. Yes, our roles limit us, yes, there’s so much to be done, but, yes, we have a lot of the tools with which to confront these same challenges. Thank you!

  12. The point you brought up about boards making a difference is something that completely makes sense but I have never given too much thought until now. In fact, for the majority of my experiences working in the non-profit sector I have been aware that a board existed but had never met them in person nor did I consider their influence. I am now seeing how these individuals could potentially have a huge impact on the advocacy efforts of an organization and therefor it is necessary to have dedicated members who can give the time and thought into all aspects of the organization including advocacy. I think it would also be necessary and helpful for board members to be a part of the conversations with direct service providers in how their advocacy efforts could be strengthened. In the future I plan to create relationships with the members on the board so that an open dialogue about the issues the organization is facing and the potential areas that advocacy could occur.

    • Every Board of Directors has different potential to be advocacy forces, Darcy, depending on their composition and the role carved out within the organization’s structure, as well as the executive leadership’s direction. But I do think that Boards are underutilized resources that organizations need to seriously consider how to activate, particularly as staff resources are stretched and the threats multiply. We’ll talk about this more toward the end of the class, but I am also doing some workshops that organizations can apply to participate in for free this spring and fall. The resources for those are at Support KC, with instructions on how to apply. I’m happy to answer questions if you want to talk particulars in your context, too.

  13. I agree with your point about organizational capacity and how it can play a role in an agency’s ability to incorporate effective advocacy in to everyday practices. I know that at my non-profit, it seems like we are becoming more of a catchup environment, with less time available to take on new ideas and directions. I think it would be interesting to see what kind of results non-profits could produce with greater organizational capacity. I also agree with your thoughts of organizational culture and how that culture can set the stage for advocacy success. I had never thought a lot about how an agency’s culture of innovation and inter-agency collaboration contribute to advocacy success, but it makes perfect sense.

  14. Organizational culture, Chris, is one of those things that we know when we feel but struggle to define. Being in an organization that embraces innovation and creates a context where change is encouraged feels profoundly different than one that does not…even if we sometimes can’t recognize it except by its absence. And, yes, organizations that always feel ‘behind the 8-ball’ often struggle to move boldly in even the directions of their best ideas or grandest visions…which is why we need macro change to create the contexts where organizations can, then, pursue macro change!

  15. Very informative post Melinda, excellent thoughts. To add to the capacity conversation, I’d say in my (limited) agency experience a certain amount of co-mingling is necessary. You say there are always people willing to do more and do differently. I think this is both true and important. To often I see agencies that do advocacy as a totally separate entity from direct service. Often one arm doesn’t even know what the other arm is doing, is struggling with, or its values. I’ve also seen agencies work well when each area of practice (macro and micro) work together and share common goals and values. Beyond just the advocacy group sharing information, there is a way to build a culture where each practitioner feels valued and equal within the agency. So I think agency cohesiveness would be another important factor in effectiveness.

    • Great point, Sarah–building organizations for advocacy means not just culture but also climate–how people feel about working there, how well they work together–and that’s an often-overlooked dimension. Excellent point. I also think there is momentum that can be built, here, as people experience the power that can come from finding ways to live their advocacy within their practice…that can make the ‘next time’ an easier lift. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  16. I think this post captures not only some of the barriers to introducing advocacy into organization, but also how to overcome them. I feel as if the title itself encompasses the tone of advocacy and how it should be “integrated” into the organization and it’s culture. Advocacy isn’t something you do once, it isn’t one day at Congress or one phone call to rally support for a movement. It’s a mindset and duty that should, in fact, be integrated and intertwined within positions of the agency. I could not agree more with your suggestion of defining advocacy more broadly for change agents within the organization. Unfortunately, many within the field hear the term “advocacy” and become immediately overwhelmed with assumptions and misconceptions that this only takes place at the legislative tier. Clarifying what advocacy can mean and what steps can be taken to actually solicit widespread change, I feel, can make this shift towards macro practice more comfortable and desirable for many service agencies.

    • I really like that statement, Cali–that advocacy is a mindset. I think about it more in terms of actions, usually, because that’s a way to operationalize it, but we do know from research that organizations that succeed most in advocacy are those that have demonstrated leadership commitment to live it, every day, just as you describe. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Cali, I often find myself in the same boat when it comes to the dirty word that is “advocacy.” When I look at it, though, it is kind of how I feel when someone mentions “clinical social work.” I get a little nervous at the thought of even doing clinical social work. However, I know that I am likely imposing the same limitations on clinical that are imposed on advocacy. I think that it is important for us all to stop separating the two and striving for more cohesive advocacy. We can help our clinical counterparts see how valuable their advocacy efforts are/can be. For instance, they may have more first-hand insight into the problems plaguing consumers than those of us in administration.

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