Change Takes A Healthy Dose of Advocacy

According to Mr. Twain, “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d druther not.” For me, health often is doing what I’d rather not and I don’t think I’m alone.

For many of us, health is a dreaded word synonymous with “another thing I’m not getting done.” When talking health, whether personal or organizational, there always is a laundry list of “to-do” items that seem impossible to complete. Then, there’s always that one task that repeatedly falls to the bottom of the list and most days it just doesn’t get done. For me personally, the task at the bottom of the list is daily exercise. Organizationally, it often is advocacy.

You may ask, “What does advocacy have to do with nonprofit health?” Great question. Research demonstrates that one commonality among high-impact, “healthy” organizations is that they all engage in public policy and advocacy. At the sector-level, as for-profit social enterprise and giving directly to people in need grows, advocacy and systems change is one of the unique ways in which nonprofits contribute to the social good. Advocacy is one of the reasons why the world still needs nonprofits.

If advocacy is central to individual nonprofit and sector-wide health, they should be core skills practiced by nonprofit leaders and taught in professional development programs, right? Think again. Just like Americans who struggle to fit exercise into our daily health routines, nonprofit training programs and leaders struggle to make advocacy a priority.

The good news is that the same tactics that help individuals like me prioritize my health and exercise in my own life can help nonprofits prioritize organizational health through advocacy. Included below are a few of the hurdles shared by individuals (i.e. me) and nonprofits and tricks we can use to leap over (or gingerly walk around) them.

“I Don’t Have Time”

A quick review of nonprofit management programs indicates core skills necessary to manage a nonprofit include financial management, governance, marketing, and fundraising. In recent years, some professional development institutions are adding to the list topics like equity. As the list for skills to lead a healthy nonprofit grows, advocacy remains an activity that many see as something that is “nice to do when you have the time and resources.” Managing daily concerns — from keeping the lights on to meeting needs of stakeholders (constituents, staff, volunteers, and donors) — means there is little time or resources left to devote to the large-scale systems change work of advocacy.

Unfortunately, prioritizing tasks according to the immediate demands of others leads us to miss critical tasks that hurt us in the long-run. In one study, a nonprofit homelessness provider said, “everything [policymakers] do, every decision that they make, is going to make your job easier or harder.” Political forces constantly shape the environment in which nonprofits work. Opting out of the policy process forces nonprofit leaders to passively adapt to changing circumstances, possibly to the detriment of missions and the communities we serve.

With so much at stake, we have to find ways to creatively integrate advocacy into our day. Integration into one’s daily tasks is a tried and true recommendation for exercise that works well for advocacy, too. Sometimes we don’t even realize it’s already there.

Nonprofits already conduct research, educate the public on issues, and work collaboratively with mayors, school board members, and other elected officials to solve problems in their communities. They often just don’t recognize that work as advocacy.

The goal is to make these tasks more intentional. For me, I can further integrate my exercise goals into my day by investing in a standing desk. For nonprofit advocates, it means signing up for advocacy alerts about topics that impact your work. For example, if you’re a fundraiser, sign up for policy updates from the Association for Fundraising Professionals or your local planned giving chapter. Every job function in a nonprofit has a coalition or association that monitors policy on your behalf. Sign-up to get information from them and take five minutes to write an email or send a tweet when they send you an alert. Done!

“I’m No Good at It”

A lack of advocacy skills ranks as the second most common reason nonprofit staff do not increase their participation in the policy process. Like my lack of athletic skills, there’s a need to help nonprofit staff overcome the belief that they aren’t equipped to advocate in order to get more of them to try. Thankfully, a few visionary academic instructors are heeding this call.

A small, but growing number of academic programs are beginning to offer this training as a required part of their curricula. Earlier this year, students from the State University of New York at Buffalo’s arts management program honed their basic advocacy skills at the American Alliance for Museum’s annual advocacy day. Their instructor, Andy Finch, said “a slight change in policy could turn a curator’s job upside-down for at least five years.”

Finch explained that nonprofits need a baseline understanding of policy and advocacy to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of by policymakers. For example, an art administrator struggled to answer politically charged questions when he was called to testify before policymakers about a recent exhibit. The same dynamic was at play during the 2016 debate on overtime regulations, in which nonprofits were promoted by special interests and elected officials as the face of both sides of the issue, primarily due to their sympathetic public images.

At University of Oregon’s School of Planning, Public Policy, and Management, assistant professor Dyana Mason also is ensuring policy savvy and advocacy skills are built into the foundation of her nonprofit management courses. “Ultimately, advocacy coursework ensures that these future nonprofit professionals have the tools they need in their toolbox to participate in different stages of the policy process,” she said.

Whether nonprofits like it or not, they’re a part of public policy, so nonprofit staff can leverage courses to give them basic skills that enable them to swim with political sharks, but not get eaten. The good news is that learning basic policy and advocacy skills is as easy and varied as finding exercise instruction. There are podcasts, YouTube videos, online streaming content, formal courses, and social networking events. Thanks to these forums that teach basic policy skills, advocacy newbies can learn the basics and send out calls to action faster than I can strike a hummingbird yoga pose.

“I Don’t Enjoy It”

Even if nonprofits know policy and advocacy is something they should do and they’re equipped with the basic skills to do it, many staff dread it. Some staff view advocacy exclusively as lobbying, requiring them to wade into the muck of partisan politics. Growing up in the South, I can relate. The only thing more uncouth to discuss than politics was religion.

“Nonprofit professionals need new ways of thinking about advocacy,” Mason said. “It is not just going to lobby Congress, but also research, public education, talking with a city council member about a program expansion, or working with policymakers to improve a public-private initiative.“ In other words, Mason believes nonprofit professionals need to change how they view policy and advocacy.

What if nonprofit staff shifted their view of policy and advocacy to be a means to pursue their passion? Suddenly, sharing unique knowledge about your work with others and enlisting their help advances your mission. Instead of seeing yourself as wading into dirty politics, you are educating and empowering people (like marginalized groups, voters, and policymakers) to make informed decisions that improve entire communities. Reframing nonprofit policy work as a unique opportunity to change the world may be a reliable way to incentivize this healthy organizational behavior.

In sum, we know vaulting over (or crawling under) hurdles to healthy behavior isn’t easy for individuals or nonprofits. However, we can take best practices from the individual health field and apply it to our work to advance social good. With limited time and resources, healthy behavior is possible if we 1) intentionally integrate it into our daily work; 2) acquire the basic skills to do it; and 3) shift our point of view to overcome mental barriers to make it more rewarding.

Let’s use these steps to prove Mr. Twain wrong when he relegated healthy behavior to something you’d rather not do. Whether physical exercise or advocacy, health not only can be relatively painless, it can even be enjoyable with a little planning and a new outlook. It’s time we put our personal and organizational health first, because it will change lives for the better.

Additional Advocacy Resources:

Types: Blog, Policy Update
Global Topics: Public Policy, Voices for Good
Policy Issues: Lobbying & Political Activity, Nonprofit Operations