Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why Nonprofit advocacy needs an R & D Approach

Building effective advocacy techniques in the nonprofit sector is an important undertaking. Much of what we think we know is based on practice wisdom. Practice wisdom, like most forms of experience, has limitations and can have a very short shelf life. That certainly doesn't mean it isn't valuable--it means that it isn't enough. We need some generalizable strategies that can meet the needs of the sector in the immediate future. This means the following:

1) Techniques and strategies that build on existing knowledge that has been validated and tested;

2) Techniques and strategies that have been rigorously examined using solid research approaches;

3) Techniques and strategies that can be easily implemented in many settings.

Doing any one of these important tasks is a challenge. Taken together, they form a major investment. Fortunately, the technology and management options developed for industrial research and development provides a way to meet these major tasks.

A properly conducted project would develop a prototype, based on a careful consideration of the existing research. This prototype would then be field tested and evaluated. Changes to the basic design would be made and an additional field trial would be conducted. This process will continue until a satisfactory system is created. It would them be carefully packaged and marketed. A nice overview of this process is presented in an older book by Rothman (1980) that could easily be applied today.

This would require a commitment of time, money and political will. It could yield world changing results. We are already spending a significant sum of money on nonprofit advocacy. Wouldn't it be great if we could make it more effective?


Rothman, J. (1980). Social R & D: Research and development in the human services. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Does Real Change Only Happen Off Line?

I chaired a session on this at the 2009 ARNOVA Conference in Cleveland. There was a lot of excellent discussion and spirited debate.

During the 2008 Presidential Election, much was made of the community organization experience of then candidate Barack Obama. This combined with interest about the Obama Campaign's use of on-line organizing and interest by younger voters in working for causes. The reaction of the traditional community organization sector wasn't completely positive however. For example (far from the only one), Sally Cohen of the Center for Community Change wrote an opinion article in the Christian Science Monitor arguing that if young people want to make real change they will have to do it in face to face communities. She provide a set of examples from US History and concludes that on-line efforts are individualistic efforts. Her concerns have been echoed by others in the traditional social change community.

In the first place I think this is an unfair characterization of how on-line techniques work. There is definitely a social dimension to current network technologies--people work together using technology to solve problems. That is certainly different from the activism of earlier days but it doesn't mean that it is less effective.

If everything we did in the 1960s and 1970s had work, wouldn't we be living in a very different society? I do not mean to disparage the efforts of those who use traditional social change techniques (and I'm often one of them) nor to suggest that these methods are ineffective. In point of fact, however, there really isn't a boatload of credible scientific evidence that supports much of what traditional social change practitioners do. That doesn't mean that it doesn't work--only that we don't know. At the same time, there is a beginning body of evidence that on-line techniques can be effective.

To be honest, I wonder how many traditional techniques have survived beyond the point where their underlying assumptions about society are valid. Some of the ideas that might have been relevant in the 20's and 30's or even the 60's and 70's are now facing a society and an economy that is almost completely different. Even in the 35 years I've been in the field things have changed radically.

At the end of the day, I suspect that we might need a mix for many situations, on-line efforts for others and face to face for still others. We need better knowledge about which things work and where. This is too important to rely only on assumptions.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Does Nonprofit Advocacy Work? Part II

In my last post, I suggested that we needed to move forward the research agenda on the effectiveness of nonprofit advocacy. We need to generate objective evidence that the techniques work (or they don't) and information on how they work and whether the connection between technique and outcome is situation dependent (eg: It only works here).

What we're talking about is causality--the connection between potential causes and effects. In general, causality depends on three things. First that the cause comes before the effect. Second, that they [the cause and effect] are somehow related. Third, that other, alternative factors are not available to explain the causal relationship.

The methodologies that are generally considered the strongest at establishing causal relationships are experiments. They are often very difficult to do in advocacy situations. They also have some other limitations. This means that other types of methodology will continue to be needed, especially to help us understand context and how the causal process works.

Until recently, very few experiments were conducted on political issues, but that is clearly changing. I really like what Alan Gerber and Donald Green at Yale have done in their work (along with many colleagues)on GOTV methods. This an important harbinger of where we need to go in terms of methodology.

In addition to methodology, there needs to be a partnership between the research community and the practice community. Having been on both sides, I can say that each group brings something of potential importance. Practitioners bring an intimate understanding of the context, the tools and the situation. It is difficult for researchers, particularly academic researchers, to match that understanding. That understanding is critical if research is going to be useful.

Researchers (academic and otherwise) have a different skill set and a different worldview. The understand their research tools and are acutely aware of their strengths and limitations. They have (hopefully) better research skills. They also have something else that is important--detachment. One thing that I have learned from both my own practice experience and reading the research literature--If you don't believe in what you are doing you are not going to do it well. This makes you an effective practitioner but it also means that you tend to be less than objective.

I am not arguing that practitioners can't do excellent research or that all researchers don't understand practice. I am saying that there is a reason for collaboration and that better work can result. Some of the work that Deborah Elizabeth Finn has been doing with her resource matching group is very valuable in making this type of collaboration work.

A better knowledge base will benefit everybody. It will make both research and practice better and more effective. It may make it more likely that advocacy will be funded. It's worth the effort and thought involved.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Does Nonprofit Advocacy Work?

Reading about Citizen's United v. FEC and the possible implications for nonprofit advocacy, it occurred to me that not all the right questions are being asked by researchers when it comes to nonprofit advocacy. We are faced with an excellent opportunity to move the field forward.

We spend a lot of time figuring out if tax laws, organizational cultures, governmental contracting and other factors suppress nonprofit advocacy. We also look at the techniques they use, how much time is spent on doing advocacy and whether advocates think their work is useful. The field of nonprofit studies has developed a reasonable research base on many of those questions.

All of that research appears to presuppose that we have evidence that advocacy is effective. If advocacy doesn't work then it doesn't matter if anyone does it. I am not arguing that nonprofit advocacy is ineffective. My point is that the evidence attesting to it's effectiveness is pretty light. This is more a comment about the state of the research rather than the state of the field.

There is no shortage of opinions on whether advocacy works and what varieties of advocacy techniques are effective. Some of these arguments are backed by experience and some are not. Experience has limitations when discussing practice. Quite a bit appears to be based on self interest. Few are based on research.

To be sure, there is some research on nonprofit advocacy effectiveness. A good deal of it is survey based and lacks the ability to make firm causal statements. Don't get me wrong, this is useful research and can help us answer the needed questions. The problem is that it doesn't go far enough--the field needs to take the next step toward different types of methodology.

I suspect that at least some advocacy efforts are very effective and some are far less effective. Others might be counterproductive. Better information will let us improve this critical area of nonprofit practice.