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Developing an advocacy strategy

Not-for-profits working with their members can find it hard to achieve clarity in advocacy. Developing an advocacy strategy requires:

  • clarity about priorities
  • clarity of Board commitment
  • clarity about criteria for success
  • clarity of knowledge about the issue
  • clarity around roles

Clarity around priorities

Every organisation has a range of member types and sometimes factions. Members may have divergent self-interest. They won’t agree on everything; sometimes they won’t agree on anything! An advocacy strategy has to prioritise things that are important, and that motivate them.

How do you work that out? There is a range of strategies depending on the size, structure and position of the organisation. You might best use advisory groups, member forums, or social media platforms to allow priorities to emerge and differences to be aired. Where strategic leadership has identified an objective, sophisticated communications will be vital to persuade members to back a defined direction. Well-designed surveys can assist members to rank potential priorities, giving a clear picture of thinking across your organisation.

Clarity of Board commitment

Your Board must be on board. The strategic capacity of NFP boards is variable, and CEOs sometimes prefer to run the board rather than let the board guide them. Good advocacy has the backing of an attentive board. As the Hay Group’s 2011 study showed, the best boards are guiding strategic direction, and are also ambassadors for their organisation.

Clarity about criteria for success

What is the change that you want and how will you know if you have achieved it? Agreement on what’s important isn’t the same as agreement on what success looks like. This has been an issue in early childhood policy. Stakeholders agree they wanted greater access to care for all children under six. For some, success looked like greater government subsidies for all families; others wanted existing subsidies more tightly targeted.

Tensions can arise over what the ‘ask’ will be in a campaign. So spend time listening to individual members. Your organisation needs a deep understanding of what success looks like to them. What are they flexible around, and on what will they not budge? Bring together the influential players who differ, and work through the issues, perhaps with an external facilitator who can guide discussion and inject new ideas or different perspectives. Find outcomes everyone can commit to.

Clarity of knowledge

Before you brief politicians, bureaucrats or media, you need to prepare a more important brief: the one for your own members. This will achieve two key things. It will test whether you have understood the detail of your subject. And it will explain to members the political and administrative realities of the issue. This is vital, if you don’t want your campaign to disintegrate from within.

Test your members’ knowledge of the issue, then improve it. In aged care reform, lobby groups were effective because they interrogated their business information systems and developed data to underpin compelling policy arguments. This only happened because they grasped that, without good evidence, their case would be weakened.

Clarity around roles

An advocacy strategy has to be clear about tactics, including roles for members that use their skills and harness their buy-in. Your plan must explain how to achieve the outcome. This will be influenced by how involved members want to be, as well as other considerations. Will it work off insider relationships, or outsider clout? Will you target political players, or try to persuade public servants? Do you need to change the government’s budget, or do your objectives lie elsewhere? These choices affect who you will try to talk to, when you will try to do it, and what you will say.

Clear for launch

Yes, good advocacy requires more than strategy and member buy-in. But it is impossible to achieve without those things. Each of the steps above can be complex, and needs to be matched with appropriate resources and time. Then, if your organisation has a board mandate, if you have clarified strategy and tactics, the facts and arguments are understood, and members are both committed to the goal and to their roles in achieving it, you are clear for launch.

Ian Holland, Director, Hamilton Stone, and Lisa Fenn.

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