Bridge the gap between your service and advocacy

This post is the third in a series on advocacy and offers relevant Page to Practice™ book summaries and articles at the end of the first article and second article.

In our monthly virtual book club last week, we had coauthor of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, Heather Grant, participate. One of our attendees said, “Nothing beats actually hearing the author explain his/her insights on a subject.” I agree.

Start at the beginning. One of the six best practices we spent some time discussing with Grant was first on the list of high-impact nonprofits: bridging the gap between service and advocacy. Several EDs in the group commiserated with one another about how this was a neglected area which needed improvement.

Systemic change requires more. In Forces for Good, Crutchfield and Grant explain that great nonprofits realize that, in order to achieve higher levels of impact, they need to bridge the gap between advocacy and service. They may start out providing great programs, but eventually realize that they cannot make systemic change without also engaging in advocacy. Others start out doing advocacy and then add programs to catalyze their strategy.

Bridge the divide. Providing services helps meet immediate needs, such as feeding the hungry or housing the poor; advocacy helps reform larger systems by changing public behavior or creating governmental solutions. High-impact nonprofits bridge the divide between advocacy and service. Although policy advocacy can be an incredibly powerful tool for creating large-scale social change, many nonprofits shy away from it.

Create a virtuous cycle. Some of the reasons for their hesitation include the fact that advocacy is difficult to manage and requires different organizational skills than those needed to provide direct services. In addition, it is challenging to measure results of advocacy efforts. However, the authors discovered that simultaneously doing both creates a virtuous cycle. Instead of causing the organization to lose focus or lessening its impact, engaging in both service and advocacy can create an impact that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is no surprise, then, that all the organizations in the book have engaged in both.

Here are three ways to bridge the divide:

1. Start with service, add advocacy. The majority of organizations in the book began with direct service, or programs, and adopted policy advocacy well after they were founded. The underlying reason why they decided to engage in advocacy was the same: They wanted to have more impact on the problems they were trying to solve.

2. Start with advocacy, add service or programs. Starting out with policy advocacy is especially effective when an organization is relatively small in relation to the level of impact it seeks to achieve.

3. Combine service and advocacy from the outset. The authors observed two main patterns among the organizations that combined both from the beginning: a) Leaders knew that replicating programs site by site, with private funding, would never take them to the level of change they were seeking; and b) Leaders also shared a common philosophical belief that government should be a part of the solution. Policy reform sends a signal to the rest of the nation that the changes these organizations propose are important enough for society as a whole to adopt.

Watch for part four of our advocacy series when we highlight how high impact nonprofits are successfully combining approaches of service and advocacy.

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