We search for reminders that will keep pushing us to do important behaviors. From an endless list: Smokers are told to look at their stained teeth each time they wash up. Executives are advised to keep in their offices a family-style photo of the people they directly supervise, in order to keep asking themselves when they last spoke to each person. And charity leaders need a simple, always-present reminder to do public advocacy for social change.
Advocacy means charities at times going beyond their busy, daily helping schedules, and going out to form coalitions among other nonprofits and the public in order to press for changes that will produce breakthroughs in their helping fields, significantly increasing the number of people served or the quality of help offered.
Ninety percent of charities say they should be doing more advocacy, but blame their failure on a lack of time. But if a charity’s board of trustees and executive director believe an advocacy issue is important, the nonprofit will do it, research and experience show. That means time for larger social change efforts can be found, but most charities now lack a reminder in the midst of their daily work to review participating in such efforts.
(This assumes that when charities say they want to do public advocacy, they mean it and are not just repeating the desired answer, like the smoker who promises he will stop tomorrow and the executive who says of course he wants to be a more caring leader.)
Reminders to succeed have to be simple and constantly present. What if nonprofits simply included in their typically multi-year strategic plan projections not only the amount of people the organization expects to teach, counsel, distribute aid to or expose to culture, but also added the specific goal of, say, taking on two large public advocacy changes during this time period?
Strategic plans are adopted through a process, involving staff and trustees, and donors often review them when deciding on grants. So the strategic plan, that basic management tool, can serve as charities’ constantly present reminder to take on larger social change efforts.
The following is a composite story, from the nonprofit leaders training program that I direct, of the kinds of small advocacy breakthroughs that are identified continually by charities, and the importance of their having a built-in reminder to pursue these challenges:
A nonprofit, offering job counseling, recognizes that peeling lead paint is a housing repair needed by many of the people the agency helps. Since children can eat the paint and suffer serious problems, some of the charity staff discuss that lead paint should become an expedited repair for the public housing department.
But the city housing agency resists, defending that many other repairs are also important; the department would have to hire more workers if they began giving time priority for many repairs.
Should this busy job counseling charity challenge government to expedite the lead paint repairs? It knows that public advocacy is a long, frustrating task that may not succeed, and this charity has so much to do in its daily counseling work. Why shouldn’t a nonprofit concerned with health take on this lead paint challenge? It is easy for the executive director to rationalize forgetting about this potential breakthrough challenge and just deal daily with jobs.
But if this nonprofit had a strategic plan calling for pushing forward on a number of social advocacy efforts, the executive director would have a built-in reminder that would at least push him into discussions with the agency’s board of trustees and senior staff to consider this lead paint issue as one of its two public change efforts.
Another example, this one from my executive director work: Established organizations that mentor young children recognized that some mentoring agencies didn’t do background checks, increasing the risk of child abuse. State government refused to require background checks because it was afraid that small mentoring institutions would ask government to pay for these investigations (about $75 each).
Why should larger agencies that do background checks get involved in an advocacy effort to require checks by all mentoring groups? It was easy to forget this advocacy challenge.
Finally, one large mentoring agency became involved because of senior staff interest. But trying to form a coalition was difficult. Other mentoring groups said they were too busy.
It would have been much faster and more productive if the area’s mentoring charities had built-in reminders for advocacy, forcing them to decide whether or not to join this new coalition. With a small coalition, eventually a law was passed, just requiring mentoring charities to tell parents whether or not they do checks. It was a weak law.
Social justice--equal opportunity for people to succeed--means everyone can compete equally. Some, by aptitude, hard work and luck and connections, will do better, even a lot better. But that outcome, inequity, is accepted, as long as the public believes society will keep identifying and removing impediments to competing.
A child with lead poisoning is considered an abused youth. If their ability to compete can be improved, if tens of thousands more advocacy issues like theirs can be successfully addressed each year by charity organizations, then the strength of our society, its level of social justice, grows.
A basic business tool we use to manage work efficiency--the strategic plan--can play a role in achieving this major societal objective.
Allan Luks is Director of the Fordham Center for Nonprofit Leaders and Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Social Service. This article is part of a Reader being prepared by the Center. Contributions on how management areas--e.g. staff management, budgeting, fundraising, media, etc.--can be used by a charity to motivate its own trustees, staff and supporters to do more in the area of social justice are welcome Email firstname.lastname@example.org.