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.