Other parts of this toolbox deal with how government works, how non-profit organizations can move their concerns onto the public agenda, and the skills and knowledge necessary to develop and promote good public policy initiatives. It is often the case, however, that organizations have to put energy into building a "head of steam" behind their public policy agenda item. They need a public push to be heard. For the CCRA Information Circular on Political Activity, click here.
In the business sector, many companies use government relations departments and staff to ensure that their issue is heard and business associations regularly marshal their members to encourage the government to act in a certain way. Voluntary organizations also may need to marshal their constituency in order to effectively participate in the public policy development process.
The Voluntary Sector Initiative's Advocacy Working Group uses the definition of advocacy proposed In Working Together: A Government of Canada/Voluntary Sector Joint Initiative – "… the act of speaking or disseminating information intended to influence individual behaviour or opinion, corporate conduct, or public policy and law". The Advocacy Working Group's position paper on advocacy explains why advocacy is so important to the voluntary sector.
"We believe that the history of advocacy parallels the development of democratic societies. In Canada, individuals have always come together through voluntary associations to help each other and to share their ideas, values and beliefs. The natural outcome of this is for people to promote (advocate for) change in many areas of public interest. The result of this is a society that evolves as it responds to the needs of its people, communities and environment. For a copy of Working Together, click here.
This form of advocacy is at the core of the voluntary sector's work. It is the articulation of the vision toward which sector organizations are working, while also providing services and delivering programs. The sector would be negligent if it failed to communicate this vision and recommend the policy changes that are required to achieve it." For a copy of the VSI Advocacy Working Group's position paper, click here.
Charities in Canada can become involved in lobbying, direct and indirect advocacy and other forms of non-partisan political activity. In most cases, a charity can devote up to 10% of cash and human resources to such activity as long as it is ancillary to their charitable objects. For more on the Advocacy Working Group, click here.
Community-based organizations (CBOs) often cite a variety of practical obstacles to doing advocacy. First, a CBO's staff are often strapped for time. Given all that needs to be done to provide direct service and raise money, who has time for advocacy?
There's no easy answer, but there are some practical solutions for organizations committed to doing it. Advocacy ought to be part of what a direct service organization does day to day, not an extra tacked on to an already too long "to-do" list. For more information on how to be heard, click here.
For example, a service provider could automatically have its clients hand write letters to members of federal or provincial governments in support of the program that funds its services.
Lynette Lee, executive director of East Bay Asian Local CDC in Oakland, Calif., said her organization made a commitment to fight proposed federal cuts to anti-poverty programs. She and her staff solved the "too-much-to-do" problem by freeing up the time of one staff person for one day a week to do policy work. It's that person's responsibility to stay on top of legislation and to keep other staff members and tenants informed. Making advocacy part of the job description of a single staff person helps keep an organization accountable to its goals.
A second major obstacle to advocacy is that many foundations are loath (or afraid) to fund it. Many prefer service delivery, and shy away from organizing and advocacy. For a list of Canadian foundations that support policy development, click here.
There's no easy answer to this problem. But it doesn't have to keep you from doing any advocacy. It can be funded by grants for general operating support (usually not from government): it is not illegal to use foundation money for advocacy, as long as they know how it is being used. It can be funded by money from individual donors and special events‚a hot issue can motivate a lot of gifts. You can find other ways to describe this work to funders. Because advocacy can lead to changes that help low-income individuals, in a very real way, advocacy is a service to your community. Organizing itself is a service: it involves bringing people together regularly, giving people a chance to know their neighbors, offering people opportunities to acquire useful skills such as running meetings, thinking strategically and much more. We sometimes forget about these other benefits of our work.
A third obstacle is that many groups believe that the law prohibits or at least severely limits lobbying. There is a maximum limit of 10% of resources devoted to political activity for Canadian charities, but this is more than many organizations will be able to spend given their limited budgets anyway.
Keep in mind that your organization will reap a variety of benefits from advocacy‚it can help build and broaden your constituency; develop new and energize old leaders; build relationships with other organizations; and increase your visibility, which can improve your fund raising.
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There is no formula for successful advocacy. Each organization will have its own mix of strategies, which might include letter writing and phone calls, demonstrations, coalitions, action research or direct lobbying. The tactics you use will depend in large part on your goals and target.
Your success will depend enormously on the depth and breadth of your constituency. Many of the laws that we used to take for granted‚ranging from civil rights to worker and environmental safety‚were not won by a few advocates influencing a few policy makers. Rather they were won by mass movements grounded in disciplined organizations with large numbers of people who had a direct self-interest in the issue.
There is simply no substitute for a constituency, or the hard work of organizing that it takes to build one. Organizing requires building a membership from the ground up, surfacing issues that matter to people, and launching campaigns to address these issues that are directed and controlled by the constituency. The techniques discussed below are ways to move many people in the same direction, but they are no substitute for building a deep and broad, membership-driven organization.
All that said, most community-based organizations have some resources and power they can use to affect policies in their communities, if they understand the process.
There are lots of problems that you may care about, but not all of them are issues that your organization should take on. An issue is a problem that meets most or all of the following criteria:
It affects the organization and its constituency in a tangible way. For example, if your organization develops affordable housing, proposals to cut back on assistance, or to scale back funding for support services, or to increase the role of nonprofits in housing delivery, all affect the organization and the people it serves. It offers the opportunity to build the organization.
An issue should fit into an organization's plans, helping build its power, visibility and capacity. Fighting on a particular issue may help improve your systems for the next battle (such as improved mailing and press lists), or develop useful allies on city council or among other nonprofits, businesses or public agencies. Some issues (such as fighting for a housing trust fund) may even lead to a source of funding for your organization's programs.
The issue should be specific and winnable. An issue may be so vital to your community or your work and image that you must get involved to maintain your credibility, even if you expect to lose. But it's pointless for a small organization to launch a major effort to cut defense in favor of human services, although that may be a worthy goal. There's nothing more disempowering for people than to set them up for failure.
The issue should be a "stretch" for the organization. A good campaign will force an organization to do things it hasn't done before‚get 1000 people to a rally, or deal with the media, or build relationships with new allies, such as unions or other non-profits. It's tempting to stick with the issue that built the organization, such as influencing how the city spends housing funds, or demanding more stop lights in the neighborhood. But taking calculated risks is the only way to build power.
Okay. You've identified a winnable issue that can energize your membership, increase your allies and/or build your organization.
The next step is to identify the target of your advocacy campaign. In some cases, this will be fairly obvious. If you want the city to fund an after-school program for kids, or to put more money in an affordable housing program, your targets will probably be the mayor and the city council. If you're trying to stop health care cuts at the provincial level, you'll have to go after the members of your provincial legislature.
In other cases, you may have many options. Perhaps a provincial policy change could create funding opportunities for after school activities. Or, if you are trying to increase bank lending in your neighborhood, you may target any one of several banks.
Conduct a power analysis.
Once you've identified your target or targets, the obvious next step is to get them to do what you want them to do. This isn't as simple as it may sound‚a little up-front analysis can save a lot of grief later.
Try to answer several questions: How can we really move the targets? What are their political bases? Were their last elections close? Did they win because of poor and minority voters or, conversely, because these voters stayed home? Have they responded to our group in the past? In short: what will it take to get them to champion our cause?
In rare cases, a politician's strings will be pulled so obviously by some third party that there's no need to go any further. Usually, however, it's necessary to at least get a general idea of which institutions and powerful individuals support and/or elect them. You may want to consult: election results broken down by demographics and geography; lists of campaign contributors; and other politicians or allies who know the target.
Power analyses are always preliminary‚you change them based on your experience with the target. For example, if you've jammed the target's office with calls and are having no luck, you may want to ask‚does the target care about this constituency? Are there others to whom he or she is more responsive? Or, are you using arguments that will resonate with that person? Perhaps your focus should be less on how cuts in a housing production program would hurt poor people and more on how it would cripple several businesses.
In thinking through these questions, you'll sometimes want to expand your constituency‚if MPP X is especially responsive to organized labor, it probably makes sense to build some relationships with local unions. Or, if you don't have many members in a key part of his or her riding, you might want to join with groups (or individuals) in that area.
Doing a power analysis of your community is also a self-diagnosis‚does my group have what it takes to move the target? If not, you should find allies, focus on building organization or otherwise adjust your strategy, or call off the effort before it starts.
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An advocacy campaign should use all your resources‚your membership, board and other allies. Get your leaders together and brainstorm. Make a list of organizations that may have a self-interest in your campaign's success. Then list organizations that you have a relationship with that may be willing to help out simply because they know and respect your work. Finally, make a list of important individuals in your community with whom your organization has contact. This last exercise‚known as "power brokering"‚should yield a surprisingly long list‚including funders, local officials, maybe even some bankers or businessmen.
Don't be shy asking others to work on the campaign. The people you ask will be gratified that you think they can make a difference, and will usually do something‚even if only writing a letter or making a phone call.
Keep in mind that, as more organizations become heavily involved, they will expect to have some ownership of the campaign. This may mean giving them some visibility at a press conference, or involving them in strategy and planning meetings.
Building relationships is one of the best by-products of a good campaign. Win, lose or draw, you should come out of it with relationships that can make you even stronger for the next round.
Generating large numbers of phone calls and letters to key decision-makers is often a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for moving a target. How do you generate them? Possibilities include:
Collective letter-writing: at every meeting of your members, board or allies, distribute a sample letter, paper and pens and ask folks to write their members of Congress. Collect them (and money for postage) and you've got a bundle. Door-to-door canvassing: get a group of volunteers together on a Saturday and canvass low-income neighborhood threatened by cuts in, say, Community Development Block Grants. Have them write‚or at least sign‚a letter on the spot. Phone and fax trees: Ask your members to make a commitment to respond to a specific number of calls-to-action in a year. Fax or call them when the need arises, and then ask them to call five friends. Even a relatively small number of people can generate a large number of calls. Setting up tables and distributing flyers: Supermarkets, public housing developments, clinics and other gathering places in low-income neighborhoods are good places to reach the people affected by your campaign.
An effective telephone call MUST include these items where they apply:
"Hello Mr./Ms., I live in your riding, I work in your riding and I vote in your riding. I strongly support the (fill in the blank) in my community."
"I urge you to support (your specific issue), which will (specific benefits). This is important to me and my family and my neighbors." Explain why this issue is important and include a personal example if possible.
"Thank you for your time and consideration. We value your support on this issue."
Please keep in mind there is a difference in being against your issue versus not supporting funding or increased funding for it. Some legislators may value your issue, however they may be against public funding for it or may believe there are higher priorities.
No matter what your concern is, to make your letter have the most impact, you must identify these four items where they apply:
The Internet is fast becoming a primary source of information sharing and organizing. Its cost-effectiveness in distributing large amounts of information to large numbers of people cannot be matched. Nor can it's speed of delivery and response.
Establish authenticity. Bogus action alerts travel just as fast as real ones. Don't give alerts a bad name. Include clear information about the sponsoring organization and provide the reader with several ways of tracing back to you ‚ e-mail address, postal address, URL, phone number, etc. Including this contact information makes sense anyway ‚ you want people to join your movement, and this means establishing contact with you. One way to establish authenticity is by appending a digital signature. Few people will check the signature, though, and many people will remove the signature when they forward your message to others. So there's no substitute for clearly explaining who you are and giving people a way to reach you. Check out the federal government's e-government initiative and e-consultations here.
Put the current date on your alert. Paper mail and faxes get thrown away quickly, but action alerts can travel through the Internet forever.
Even if an alert seems to have faded away, it can sleep in someone's mailbox for months or years and then suddenly get a new life as the mailbox's owner forwards it to a new set of lists. Do not count on the message header to convey the date (or anything else); people who forward Internet messages frequently strip off the header. Even better, give your recommended action a clearly stated time-out date, e.g., "Take this action until February 17, 2003". If you think there will be follow-up actions, or if you want to convey that this is part of an ongoing campaign, say so. That way, people will contact you or look out for your next alert. For the geocities' e-advocacy reading list, click here.
Include clear beginning and ending markers. You can't prevent people from modifying your alert as they pass it along. Fortunately, at least in my experience, this only happens accidentally, as extra commentary accumulates at the top and bottom of the message as it gets forwarded. So put a bold row of dashes or something similar at the top and bottom so extra stuff will look extra. That way it will be very clear what you and your credibility are standing behind. For the Toronto CED Learning Network's resources on electronic advocacy, click here.
Beware of second-hand alerts. Although it is uncommon for someone to modify the text of your alert, sometimes people will foolishly send out their own paraphrase of an alert, perhaps based on something they heard verbally. These second-hand alerts usually contain exaggerations and other factual inaccuracies, and as a result they can easily be used to discredit your alert. If you become aware of inaccurate variants of your alert, you should immediately notify relevant mailing lists of the existence of these second-hand alerts. Explain clearly what the facts are and aren't, implore the community not to propagate the misleading variants, and provide pointers to accurate information including a copy of your own alert. This action has two virtues: first, it may help to suppress the mistaken reports; and second, it positions you (accurately, I hope) as a responsible person who cares about the truth.
Think about whether you want the alert to propagate at all. If your alerts concern highly sensitive matters, for example the status of specifically named political prisoners, then you will probably want to know precisely who is getting your notices, and how, and in what context. If so, include a prominent notice forbidding the alert's recipients from forwarding it.
Make it self-contained. Don't presuppose that your readers will have any context beyond what they'll get on the news. People who have never heard of you or your cause will probably read your alert. So define your terms, avoid references to previous messages on your mailing list, and provide lots of background, or at least some simple instructions for getting useful background materials. In fact, you might consider making the e-mailed alert relatively short and include the URL for a Web page that provides the full details. Your most important audience consists of people who are sympathetic to your cause and want to learn more about it before they can take action. Write your alert with that type of reader in mind, not the complete insider or the apathetic stranger.
Ask your reader to take a simple, clearly defined, rationally chosen action. For example, you might ask people to call their representatives and express a certain view on an issue. In this case, you should provide a way to find that representative's name and number, and explain how to conduct the conversation: what to say, how to answer certain likely questions, and so on. The purpose of such a script is not to impose your thinking but to help people to learn a skill that might otherwise be intimidating. Decide whether to ask for e-mail messages (which can be huge in number but near-zero in effect), written letters (which will be fewer but more effective), or phone calls (which fall in between). Consider other options as well: perhaps the sole purpose of your alert is to solicit contacts from a small number of committed activists, or to gather information, or to start a mailing list to organize further actions.
Make it easy to understand. It is crucial to begin with a good, clear headline that summarizes the issue and the recommended action. Use plain language, not jargon. Check your spelling. Use short sentences and simple grammar. Choose words that will be understood worldwide, not just in your own country or culture. Solicit comments on a draft before sending it out.
Get your facts straight! Your message will circle the earth, so double-check. Errors can be disastrous. Even a small mistake can make it easy for your opponents to dismiss your alerts ‚ and Internet alerts in general ‚ as "rumors". Once you do discover a mistake, it will be impossible to issue a correction ‚ the correction will probably not get forwarded everyplace that the original message did.
Start a movement, not a panic. Do not say "forward this to everyone you know". Do not overstate. Do not plead. Do not say "Please Act NOW!!!" Do not rant about the urgency of telling everyone in the universe about your issue. You're not trying to address "everyone"; you're trying to address a targeted group of people who are inclined to care about the issue. And if the issue really is time-critical then just explain why, in sober language. Do not get obsessed with the immediate situation at hand. Your message may help avoid some short-term calamity, but it should also contribute to a much longer-term process of building a social movement. Maintaining a sense of that larger context will help you and your readers from becoming dispirited in the event that you lose the immediate battle.
Tell the whole story. Most people have never heard of your issue, and they need facts to evaluate it. Facts, facts, facts. For example, if you believe that someone has been unjustly convicted of a crime, don't just give one or two facts to support that view; most people will simply assume they are getting half the truth. If your opponents have circulated their own arguments, you'll need to rebut them, and if they have framed the facts in a misleading way then you'll need to explain what's misleading and why. On the other hand, you need to write concisely. Even if you are focused on the actions, good explanations count more. After all, one of the benefits of your action alert ‚ maybe the principal benefit ‚ is that it informs people about the issue. Even if they don't act today, your readers will be more aware of the issue in the future, provided that you don't insult their intelligence today.
Don't just preach to the converted. When you are very caught up in your cause, it is easy to send out a message in the language you use when discussing the issue with your fellow campaigners. Often this language is shorthand that doesn't really explain anything to an outsider. If you really care about your issue, you'll take the time to find language that is suitable for a much broader audience. This can take practice.
Avoid polemics. Your readers should not have to feel they are being hectored to go along with something from the pure righteousness of it. Some people seem to associate non-polemical language with deference, as if they were being made to bow at the feet of the king. This is not so. You will not succeed unless you assume that your readers are reasonable people who are willing to act if they are provided with good reasons.
Make it easy to read. Use a simple, clear layout with lots of white space. Break up long paragraphs. Use bullets and section headings to avoid visual monotony. If your organization plans to send out action alerts regularly, use a distinctive design so that everyone can recognize your "brand name" instantly.
DO NOT use a chain-letter petition. A chain-letter petition is an action alert that includes a list of names at the end; it invites people to add their own name to the list, send in the petition if their name is the 30th or 60th etc, and in any case forward the resulting alert-plus-signature-list to everyone they know. This idea sounds great in the abstract, but it really doesn't work. The problem is that most of the signatures will never reach their destination, since the chain will fizzle out before reaching the next multiple of 30 in length. What's even worse, a small proportion of the signatures will be received in the legislator's office many times, thus annoying the staff and persuading them that they're dealing with an incompetent movement that can never hold them accountable.
Urge people to inform you of their actions. If you are calling on people to telephone a legislator's office, for example, you should provide an e-mail address and invite them to send you a brief message. Explain that you'll use these messages to count the number of callers your alert has generated, and that this information will be invaluable when you speak with the legislator's staffers later on. Only do this, though, if your mail server is capable of handling 50,000 messages in a short period. You might want to check this out with your service provider beforehand.
Don't overdo it. Action alerts might become as unwelcome as direct-mail advertising. Postpone that day by picking your fights and including some useful, thought-provoking information in your alert message. If you're running a sustained campaign, set up your own list. Then send out a single message that calls for some action and include an advertisement for your new list. If you must send out multiple alerts on the same issue, make sure each one is easily distinguishable from the others and provides fresh, useful information. Above all, don't spam. Post your message only where it belongs. When in doubt, ask the maintainer of a given mailing list whether your alert is appropriate. And include a phrase like "post where appropriate" toward the beginning so that people aren't encouraged to send your alert to mailing lists where it doesn't belong.
Do a post-mortem. When the campaign is over, try to derive some lessons for others to use. Even if you're burned out, take a minute right away while the experience is still fresh in mind. What problems did you have? What mistakes did you make? What unexpected connections did you make? Who did you reach and why? Which mailing lists was your alert forwarded to, and which of these forwardings actually caused people to take action? Good guesses are useful too.
Don't mistake e-mail for organizing. An action alert is not an organization. If you want to build a lasting political movement, at some point you'll have to gather people together. The Internet is a useful tool for organizing, but it's just one tool and one medium among many that you will need, and you should evaluate it largely in terms of its contribution to larger organizing goals. Do the people you reach through Internet alerts move up into more active positions in your movement? Do you draw them into conferences, talk to them by phone, meet them in person, become accountable to them to provide specific information and answer questions? If not, why do you keep reaching out to them?
Encourage good practices. The Internet is a democratic medium that provides us all with the time and space to do the right thing. So let's use the Internet in a positive way and encourage others to do the same. You can help by passing these guidelines along to others who might benefit from them (including people who have sent out badly designed alerts), and refrain from propagating alerts that do not conform to them. Remember, forwarding a badly designed action alert actually harms the cause that it is supposed to support. Modeling thoughtful, constructive action on the Internet, however, provides everyone with a living example of democracy in action.
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The tools of electronic networking‚computers, modems and Internet accounts‚are becoming more and more common in the Northwest conservation community. However, many activists, although they intuitively sense the potential of this technology, are casting about for effective strategies for applying the power of electronic networking to their work. For more information, click here.
Most conservation organizations have attracted large numbers of people who care enough about the work of the organization to become dues-paying members, or pledge their time and energy to actively support their conservation issues. While most organizations regularly communicate with this constituency by mail, phone and fax, few are using email and the Web effectively to communicate with their activist base. The number of people in our region who are "online" continues to grow, and we feel most groups are missing a huge opportunity to reach out electronically to their own online membership and help them become powerful and effective activists.
ONE/Northwest feels that online networking is first and foremost a tool to communicate more efficiently and effectively with your existing audience, i.e., your members, in order to develop them into more informed, active and effective activists. We feel that email and email lists are the best tool for this type of outreach, and that your email organizing efforts should be "backed up" by a Web site that can serve as reference center. We don't feel that electronic networking is (at present) a very effective way to expand your outreach to new constituencies; it's difficult if not impossible to break through the "background noise" online.
With these ideas in mind, we offer you our "modest proposal" for using online networking to further your environmental activism. Our strategy has four key elements:
Recommend a link. Recommend an online report. We'll take the best recommendations and add them to the site every month. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org subject: toolbox recommendations.
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