Advocacy is a Journey, Not a Destination

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by Jessica Powell, CCVO Policy Analyst

Nonprofits Vote: Albertans go to the Polls in 2019

As noted in a previous post, CCVO is rolling out an election toolkit to provide nonprofits with resources, tools and information to engage in policy advocacy in the upcoming provincial election. The date of the election is not yet released but will need to be called by the end of May 2019. The full toolkit will be published in the new year. Please follow the CCVO blog as we release installments of the toolkit to help you engage in the provincial election.

Consider this: advocacy is a journey, not a destination. An election period may be a great time to reinforce policy advocacy for nonprofits, but advocacy is a long-term commitment that requires persistence and dedication to work towards your desired outcome throughout election cycles. Here are some tips to keep you on track and motivated throughout your advocacy journey. 

Preparing for the Long Game

When a nonprofit organization sets out advocating for policy change, they might believe it is possible to achieve in a short period of time. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case, and it can take years for policy change to be realized. It is important to recognize that advocacy is an ongoing process, marked with both milestones and setbacks on the path to reaching your ultimate goal. However, each step taken, even one that may seem to counter your efforts, is a step towards your nonprofit’s end goal. Given that the rewards of your work are not always immediately realized, it’s important to be committed to your goal and ensure that everyone involved in your advocacy efforts has the same expectations from the outset. This will take planning, organizing, patience and persistence. Remember, change does not happen overnight.

There’s No One Way to Reach the Goal

Policy advocacy, especially reinforced during an election period, is important. The election is a time when real change can occur for nonprofits, and is an opportunity for advancing your nonprofit’s policy agenda through a strategic engagement strategy. Bringing up a completely new issue during an election period may not be the best way to capture the attention of political candidates and parties, but you can seek commitment on issues that you have been consistently advocating for, at a time when candidates are listening to the wants of their constituents. This can be done by demonstrating strength in numbers, influence and impact, or through communicating the risks involved in losing support for the important work nonprofits do.

Policies and regulations can be created and undone during an election cycle – they can be eliminated by a determined opposition party, refocused political attention, or a change of government. The attention of legislators and policymakers can be quite short, often spanning only the time between elections. A change of government may bring to power politicians who know little or nothing about your issue, or do not see its value. Public attention also ebbs and flows – your nonprofit’s issue might be the focal point of public attention today, but tomorrow you may find the public has moved on to other issues, leading to a loss of public support and setting back advocacy efforts. But don’t let this discourage you – these ebbs and flows are a natural part of democracy, and a necessary reality for nonprofits performing advocacy work – reinforcing why nonprofits must continue policy advocacy beyond election periods.  

To reach your nonprofit’s advocacy goals, you should be open and adaptive to trying different approaches. Consider, what you are comfortable compromising, and which issues you will advocate for at all costs. Advocacy is often about dialogue and negotiation, and it can be helpful to identify a “fall back” position that will allow you to still achieve an acceptable outcome, even if it is not perfect.

Tracking Your Success  

Monitoring and evaluation are valuable tools to use throughout your advocacy efforts. During the planning and execution of an advocacy strategy, be sure to track progress towards your desired objectives. By monitoring what is working well and what is not, you’ll better be able to stay on track to achieving your end goal. Be prepared to change your advocacy strategy if your monitoring shows that you are off course.

Evaluation, the measurement of the impacts of an advocacy project, examines the entire advocacy cycle. An effective evaluation focuses on the overall achievements of the project, and also measures the intended or unintended outcomes. Evaluation is all about proving and improving – proving the success of your advocacy efforts, and improving in areas that didn’t yield your desired outcomes.

Questions to ask in evaluating the impact of your advocacy efforts include:

  • Have you achieved your objectives?

  • What worked well and what did not?

  • Who were the decision-makers or influencers consulted? What were the outcomes?

  • Is the situation better or worse than before your advocacy efforts? How?

  • How did the external environment impact the outcomes of your work?

  • If no policy change has occurred, how can you change your advocacy initiatives? (This may be time to revisit your engagement strategy.)

  • Are your stakeholders happy with the results of your advocacy efforts and the way your work was implemented?

Successful advocacy often depends on the current political environment, and the strategy that you are using, neither of which are easily measured. It requires a redefinition of what it means to succeed, and what it means to fail. Advocacy success does not necessarily mean that your ultimate goal is realized - you can also celebrate the small wins on the journey. For example, meeting with a Cabinet Minister to discuss your issue is a measurable objective to be celebrated along the journey towards a goal of changing a policy.

Policy advocacy should not be treated as an end destination. Your efforts should continue beyond election periods, with a continued focus on achieving your goal. And don’t feel the weight of your advocacy strategy is on your shoulders alone – your advocacy work will continue even beyond your own efforts, building on the collective success of sector participants and policymakers.