What is advocacy? According to Merriam-Webster, the term can be defined as “the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal.”
One of my favorite scenes from the movie “The Big Chill” takes place in the kitchen while the group of characters cook spaghetti. One member of the group takes a few cooked spaghetti noodles and throws them at the wall. His friends laugh and say, “You still cook it like that?” He explains to them that’s how you know it’s done, when the spaghetti sticks to the wall. Do you approach advocacy for your organization the same way — throwing ideas at the wall and keeping your fingers crossed that something will stick? It’s a fun process when cooking spaghetti, but putting together an active group of advocates and a successful advocacy campaign requires a much more intentional and direct approach.
As a former director of a nonprofit organization, I knew advocates were sometimes the only support mechanism available to help move our mission forward and ultimately secure funding for our work. As a member of a board of directors for multiple nonprofits, I understood the expectations of my role as an advocate and took the power, responsibility and requirements of that task very seriously. Finally, when I served on a local park and recreation district board of directors, being an advocate for both the community that elected me and the overall mission of the organization proved that embracing the double responsibility was crucial to the success of mill levy and bond issue votes, program and facility sustainability, and overall support of the district. Regardless of my role, I know the power of individuals and that being intentional about building a strong core of advocates should rely on a very specific recipe for success. That recipe included simple and applicable criteria for the individuals who would serve as advocates: passion, objectivity, perseverance, modesty and attention to detail. Additionally, there are particular responsibilities that an organization must accept to ensure successful and positive advocacy campaigns — steps that will help move the mission of your organization forward.
Advocacy is all about relationships. It’s a joint venture between your organization and the community you serve. Nurturing those relationships and displaying a willingness to work collaboratively supports the final outcome. The beginning of this joint venture is an understanding of the first criterion for advocates: passion. Encourage individuals who have a passion for the topic, issue or concern at hand — that passion that creates action. People typically vote out of passion — they attend meetings and speak up because they are passionate about an issue or concern, and they get others involved who share the same passion. The key is to harness that passion in a positive and productive way, and that can only happen when we agree to work collaboratively. It requires intentional conversations, a give and take of ideas ,and an understanding of differing points of view. The passionate voice can often be an opinionated voice, but when people feel heard and their ideas validated in some way, that passion can be used for the overall betterment of the community. If we choose to not engage in a relationship with potential advocates, to not listen to that passionate and possibly opinionated voice, and instead hope they will just stop showing up or speaking out, it’s spaghetti cooking. Intentionally seek out passionate individuals. Be willing to listen and engage with them, and you will start to establish a successful group of advocates.
As stated by Henry David Thoreau more than a century ago, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; there is where they should be. Now, put foundations under them.” Broad goals or big-picture ideas come from a variety of methods, including surveys, community meetings or focus groups. However, it is up to the organization to take broad goals and form them into a very solid objective. A clearly defined objective derived through the above endeavors must be guided by the organization. Advocates must clearly understand the purpose of their work, which comes from the objective and outlines the process and the intent. The objective provides direction by serving as a roadmap for your advocates to follow for success. Without it, the overall message and work of your advocates can get lost in the “what-ifs” of the passion for the issue.
Once the objective is clearly defined and the advocates can see where they are going, it’s much easier for them to participate and understand the rules of engagement. This part of the advocacy puzzle is all about perseverance. We need advocates to stick with the issue. That is much more likely if advocates know how long they will be working with the organization, which advocate(s) will be taking a leadership role and how to engage with one another. Establishing these important pieces helps to ensure longevity and accountability. You and your staff can outline the length of time that an advocacy campaign will last; however, empowering the advocates to take on the work of determining leadership, engagement and accountability does more to secure perseverance and a willingness to stick with the work. It is possible to have advocates or community stakeholders that work with you for a much longer period of time that just an advocacy campaign. In fact, I would encourage you to have a strong, consistent group of individuals that can serve in that role. Advocacy campaigns are most successful when a specific group of individuals see both the beginning and the end of the process and how they will provide the support for the organization and the issue.
Providing support for the issue is the key tenant of advocacy. That is why modesty is a critical piece for all advocates to think about. Simply put, it’s about the issue, the organization and the community, not the advocate. Advocacy is not about an individual using their role as a platform for themselves or a particular agenda, and it is up to the collective group of advocates to hold each other accountable to this end.
Use the facts. Any position that an advocate takes should be grounded in the facts, which is why the final criterion is details. No one has the time to put out fires created by misinformation. Although it often comes from good intentions, advocates can create those fires if they are not using the facts. This is why it is critical for organizations to keep advocates in the loop. Constantly provide them with updated information and let them know what the opposition view might be. Give them the necessary talking points to garner support in the community. Create an internal communication process that advocates can be a part of so they can receive and share accurate information, ask questions and let you know what they might be hearing in the community. It is very helpful to create fact sheets that can be distributed by your advocates and staff at every possible opportunity. Those fact sheets should always be available, not just during an advocacy campaign. They can be distributed by staff as well as your community stakeholders.
Everyone is busy and their time is valuable, so remember to say thank you. Recognition for your advocates’ work can come in the form of introductions at an event or meeting, possibly on your social media site or newsletters. Maybe it’s with a pass to their favorite activity or facility. No matter what form the thank-you takes, this responsibility of the organization creates a reliable, successful and positive group of advocates.
Lori A. Hoffner is the Owner of Supporting CommUnity Inc. and works as a professional speaker, trainer and consultant.