THE BLOG
12/28/2016 03:50 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2017

Nonprofits In A Trump Era: Focus On Advocacy

This is the third post in a four-part series on how liberal and progressive non-profits can overcome the challenges of the Trump era.

What does the Trump era mean for U.S.-based progressive and liberal non-profits? How do we devise strategies that will enable the non-profit sector to play a powerful leadership role in a deeply divided world?

One crucial strategy will be to focus on advocacy with the intent of changing social, policy and political outcomes. Non-profits should advocate for the issues that affect their constituencies because such actions will enable them to shape public discourse in a manner that can result in significant advancements for the communities they serve.

Indeed, profound social and political change rarely occurs without some form of advocacy. Consider the success of three well-known worldwide movements: the anti-apartheid movement that resulted in historic political change in South Africa; the international women's movement that culminated in the recognition of women's rights as human rights, and in legal and policy changes worldwide; and the global movement to address HIV/AIDS that led to the enactment of international and national policies to combat this pandemic. In the U.S., we have countless examples of successful advocacy efforts, including the movements for civil rights, women, choice, the environment, and LGBTQI and immigrants' rights. More recently, we have also witnessed digital advocacy campaigns take off, starting with MoveOn.org and Avaaz.org.

Advocacy is thus necessary when seeking to transform deeply embedded social and cultural norms, and it takes time to achieve its goals. A prime example is the pro-choice/reproductive rights movement in the U.S. The advocacy for such rights began decades before the right to an abortion was established by the Supreme Court in 1973 in one of its most far-reaching and progressive decisions--Roe v. Wade. Ever since Roe, advocates have worked furiously for four decades to implement and expand it whilst also valiantly defending assaults. Of course, more powerful attempts to undermine Roe will occur in the next four years. Advocacy made Roe possible, and it is advocacy that will keep its flame burning bright.

Advocacy enables much-needed systems-level change while maintaining tremendous flexibility. It can be mobilized for both defensive purposes (such as fighting against legal and policy assaults) as well as for affirmative objectives (such as introducing new legal and policy options that are progressive).

But advocacy is complex and can be messy, particularly if its goals include legal and large-scale policy change. In addition, its success is often difficult to measure and very rarely guaranteed. In fact, when we examine advocacy related to profound social transformation, it is evident that there is no perfectly straight, linear approach to achieving its ultimate outcome. As indicated by events as recent as the 2016 U.S. presidential election, we can even face political losses in the short-term as we continue to strive to advocate for a longer-term vision.

Despite its complexity and apparent messiness, advocacy is a necessity. And, as a life-long advocate for progressive causes, I have come to recognize...

FOUR KEY PRINCIPLES FOR SUCCESSFUL ADVOCACY

Principle #1: Set Clear Goals and Outcomes

Advocacy efforts need to have clearly defined objectives and outcomes. What systems-level law, policy, or social change do you seek? How broad is this objective and can some outcomes be narrowly defined? What does success look like in the long term as well as at intermediate stages? The broader the transformation you seek, the more resources you are likely to need, and you'll need to keep in mind that the timeframe for success may need to be expanded. In terms of outcomes, measure success and impact at several points during the course of the activity or campaign.

Principle #2: Get Support from Grassroots and Grasstops Coalitions

Successful advocacy is associated with powerful cross-cutting coalitions that involve many players. A single non-profit, no matter how influential, is unlikely to achieve systems-level change by itself. It is crucial, then, to ensure the support of key coalitions and that these alliances comprise both grassroots and grasstops organizations.

Principle #3: Develop a Multipronged Approach with a Defined Audience

A winning advocacy campaign that seeks large-scale change should encompass a variety of strategies that run the gamut from online engagement, litigation, and lobbying to media outreach and arts engagement. Such a multipronged strategy should have a clearly defined overall target audience as well as a defined target audience for each constituent part.

Principle #4: Innovate and Adapt

Because the systems that advocates are trying to change are complicated and unpredictable, effective advocacy needs to be highly adaptable and open to innovation. Advocates need to modify their strategies in the face of unexpected political change (such as the election of new political leaders) or new events (such as breaking news of how a corporation has poisoned a river with its chemicals). In addition, there remains tremendous potential to create more innovative and cutting-edge advocacy campaigns through the disruptive forces of technology.

As suggested in my two previous posts, progressive and liberal non-profits are poised to scale up, be visionary leaders, and engage in effective broad-based coalitions. When such non-profits additionally become powerful advocates for their causes, they will be a stronger force for a just society.