Nonprofit organizations recognize today that, for better and for worse, it’s not enough to ‘just’ provide quality programs. If they are going to have a lasting and profound impact on the problems they confront, they will also need to advocate for improvements in the social conditions that create and perpetuate the needs to which those services then try to respond.
The good news is that nonprofit organizations absolutely can engage, legally and effectively, in advocacy. Their 501(c)3 status doesn’t prohibit this, nor does receiving some of their funding through government grants, or having corporate donors, nor any other attribute of a particular agency. However, answering the “Can we?” and “Should we?” questions affirmatively does not necessarily help these organizations answer the considerably tougher question of “How?”
Nonprofit organizations often think that having an effective advocacy presence requires hiring “an advocate” and creating a dedicated position for someone with extensive public policy experience. Because that sort of staffing is out of reach for most direct service organizations, executive leaders can often conclude that their organizations just “can’t do advocacy,” then.
That’s a conclusion that the nonprofit sector—in Kansas City or anywhere—just can’t afford. More importantly, it’s one that threatens to forestall progress on the critical social issues that agencies in our community struggle to address, from mental illness to community violence to child obesity to chronic disease.
And it’s completely avoidable, because the truth is that most nonprofits already have considerable human resources that could be directed toward advocacy, if only they were leveraged for maximum impact.
The Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City and the REACH Healthcare Foundation have partnered to provide intensive advocacy technical assistance to 10 area direct service nonprofits over the past three years.
These organizations have increased their advocacy engagement, in quantity and in strategic direction. They have done so without adding staff, without carving out a new ‘advocacy department’, and without hiring a contract lobbyist. Instead, technical assistance has helped these organizations focus their existing efforts, engage more partners, and build the capacity of their existing staff, volunteers, board members and donors to raise their voices in service of the organization’s essential mission. I have been thrilled and honored to be the technical assistance provider for this initiative, putting my 15 years of nonprofit advocacy experience to work in helping organizations figure out what this can look like in their specific contexts.
The foundations recognize that this years-long process can be daunting for an organization, and they seek to extend opportunities for agencies not able to make such a commitment to still benefit from this thinking about how to best leverage organizational resources for social change.
On Thursday, May 15, 2014, from 8:30-11:30, the foundations are offering a workshop, Using Your Whole Team: Integrating Advocacy into your Organization. The event is free to the public, but registration is requested.
It is part of a planned series of conversations about how making small shifts in your operations can amplify your advocacy efforts. I will facilitate the session, alongside nonprofit leaders who will share insights gleaned from their participation in the advocacy technical assistance process. Direct service nonprofits in the Kansas City area are encouraged to come and to think about what this might mean for their own organizations and, most importantly, for their own constituencies.
My work with nonprofit organizations over these past few years has convinced me that there are sustainable ways—customizable to each organization’s particular needs and capacities—for every agency to have a voice in the policy conversations that affect them. If we use everyone on our respective ‘benches,’ we can get off the sidelines and in the middle of the action, where we are so needed. I look forward to helping you imagine this in your own context as we chart a vision together.