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This Is What Democracy Looks Like: Five Lessons for Nonprofit Advocacy

This Is What Democracy Looks Like: Five Lessons for Nonprofit Advocacy

In recent years, philanthropists and community-based organizations alike have increasingly explored policy advocacy as a way to protect and promote the well-being of the individuals they serve. In today's contentious political environment, mission-oriented organizations have realized that their work can be viewed as political because of its very nature. In my work leading a new grassroots advocacy program at Ventures, a Seattle-based microenterprise nonprofit, we have to navigate this new reality.

Our journey into the world of policy advocacy began as an inkling in 2016 and came to fruition with the creation of my position the following year. Since then, we have released our organization's first-ever policy agenda and designed a grassroots advocacy program to build power in our community of low-income entrepreneurs. Our model includes a Raise Your Voice leadership and advocacy workshop for our clients and one-on-one coaching to help business owners navigate the maze of government regulations and public policy advocacy on issues that affect our entrepreneurs.

In the process, we have learned five lessons that can help other nonprofits design sustainable, effective advocacy programs and achieve positive outcomes for their clients.

1. Be Strategic. Although — like many nonprofits serving vulnerable populations — we wanted to dive headfirst into advocacy following the election of Donald Trump in 2016, we moved gradually instead. We knew that our team of fifteen employees was already at capacity, so we integrated advocacy into our 2017-18 strategic plan and raised funds to create a director-level position for our new program.

Integrating advocacy into the core functions of our leadership team by hiring a director of advocacy and communications helped establish the new program as an organizational priority. The split responsibilities of the position also meant that we did not have to dedicate an entire full-time staff member to managing a pilot program. In this role, I had the flexibility to experiment and to lay a solid foundation for long-term success.

Another aspect of our strategic plan was building a consensus-based advocacy agenda through a comprehensive stakeholder engagement process. We recruited twelve staff, board members, and close partners with experience in nonprofit advocacy and policy making to develop an ambitious but achievable policy agenda through an internal Policy and Advocacy Task Force. This group provided essential input on local, state, and federal budget priorities and other policy opportunities that would help our clients. It also helped lay the groundwork for sustained coalition building and advocacy partnerships upon publication of our agenda.

Effective advocacy requires the use of the head and the heart. Although advocates may be motivated by a visceral reaction to a policy issue or an impending crisis, we cannot let this dictate our approach. Use the same ideas and principles that have led you to success in other areas of your work, and you will be better equipped to answer fundamental questions about how advocacy can work for your organization beyond the short term.

2. Leverage Existing Assets. Creating an effective advocacy program from scratch is a daunting task. With limited funding and staff capacity, we have had to leverage the knowledge, capacity, and relationships we already had to implement a lean but effective program.

Ventures has more than twenty years of institutional memory, and our team has deep expertise in training and coaching our entrepreneurs. We worked with several experienced members of our team to develop new curriculum for a "Raise Your Voice" leadership and advocacy workshop for our clients. We also relied on our communications team to design new materials — rather than outsourcing or working with consultants — which helped us ensure strong brand consistency.

Any established nonprofit has valuable existing assets. Planning for advocacy work should include an inventory of the pre-existing knowledge, capacity, and relationships that you can leverage to achieve your goals. Whether you are hoping to protect critical funding from budget cuts or embark on a visionary policy campaign, this planning will allow you to create advocacy goals that are feasible.

3. Be Deliberate, But Not Slow. Ventures spent a full year developing a sustainable program structure, including our Raise Your Voice program for clients and a policy agenda outlining our advocacy priorities. A year may seem like a long time to spend on program development, but it was necessary for us to complete a thoughtful, comprehensive stakeholder engagement process. This included six meetings of the internal task force, several open community meetings, surveys in both English and Spanish, and coalition meetings with external partners. This process yielded critical insights about how to organize our work moving forward; our Raise Your Voice program, for example, was not originally a part of our program model but was recommended by clients at a community meeting.

Despite our commitment to this comprehensive process, however, we have remained mindful of getting bogged down in details or overwhelmed with the possibilities. Like all our other programs, we maintained a lean approach focused on piloting new ideas and quickly pivoting away or doubling down based on their effectiveness.

Building an advocacy agenda can and should include a democratic process, but this process should not be so deliberative that it undermines the program’s purpose. You should create multiple opportunities for each stakeholder group to provide their perspective on advocacy goals, but do not be afraid to experiment. Your closest supporters will understand that your program is a pilot, and you may be able to attract new supporters and partners by advocating for your mission and values.

4. Don't Reinvent the Wheel. Are nonprofits allowed to lobby? If so, how often? What metrics can we use to measure our impact? These big questions often slow the discussion down, but they don't have to.

In our first year, Ventures has had to answer questions about nonprofit lobbying, program measurement and evaluation, technology and tools, and other advocacy best practices. We have managed to do so without spending more than a few hundred dollars on digital and in-person trainings — and you can, too.

Remember, policy advocacy is a well-trodden path in the nonprofit world. Using low- or no-cost tools from organizations like Bolder Advocacy and the Aspen Institute, we learned that nonprofits can spend up to 20 percent of their budget on lobbying by filing a single form with the IRS. We also identified free tools, such as Action Network, that helped us organize our first-ever Advocacy Day at the state capitol and home in on the many different metrics that can be used to measure nonprofit advocacy.

We also learned from local partners that had embarked on this path before us. We met with leading advocacy organizations in Seattle — including OneAmericaEl Centro De La Raza, and the Greater Seattle Business Association — to identify partnership opportunities and learn about how to approach policy makers, organize clients in support of policy priorities, and more. Whenever possible, leverage your networks to find the information that you need.

5. Practice Intellectual Humility. Regardless of whether you are familiar with the term, this is one you've heard before: Success requires asking tough questions of ourselves and letting the best ideas rise to the top, regardless of whose ideas they are. Ventures has been able to achieve consensus on our advocacy program and policy priorities because we listened carefully to our community's needs and incorporated great ideas irrespective of their origin.

Creating our Raise Your Voice workshop, for example, was not originally in my job description or included in our organizational goals for 2018. It was an idea recommended by several business owners at an open community meeting that we hosted. When we asked entrepreneurs for their ideas, there was a clear interest in learning more about what advocacy was, how our program worked, and how advocacy could help business owners grow as leaders in their enterprises and communities.

This may seem simple and straightforward, yet this is where many organizations go wrong. Intellectual humility can save you from implementing bad ideas and enable your organization to identify and pilot the most promising programs or campaigns.

Our path has not been free of missteps, but we have focused on learning from our mistakes as well as our victories. After our first Raise Your Voice workshop, for example, we listened to feedback from our entrepreneurs that they had particularly enjoyed the lessons focused on leadership development. We are adapting future courses to meet that preference.

We also learned from our first significant victory. Rather than immediately creating a policy agenda that addresses every single challenge facing our entrepreneurs, we achieved success in our state capital by starting with a single priority. In 2018, just months after creating my position, we worked with a group of other microenterprise nonprofits to restore state funding for microenterprise development for the first time in nearly ten years. This victory showed us the importance of highly-focused policy advocacy. Our 2019 legislative agenda has just four targeted priorities.

Whether you are doing advocacy for the first time or revamping an existing program, remember that many other organizations have embarked on this journey before yours. The recipe for success should be familiar: like other nonprofit programs, achieving ambitious goals requires a careful balance between analytical thinking and action. Striking this balance can create the conditions for innovative, effective advocacy that aligns with your mission and values.

Will von Geldern (@wvongeldern) is director of advocacy and communications at Venturesin Seattle.