Advocacy Doesn’t Mean Ankle-Biting

It might not have been ankle-biting but it wasn’t exactly an effective advocacy strategy either.

A number of years ago I was managing the Centre for Community Leadership at Niagara College during a period when the social profit sector was being subjected to a particularly brutal round of funding cuts. With little understanding of what advocacy really is, we took it upon ourselves to challenge regional government as one of the sector’s key funders. We asked for, and were granted, an opportunity to speak to a committee of Council to present our concerns regarding the sector.

We presented a strong case including the results of a regional survey illustrating the impact of funding cuts on non-profit organizations and predictions that many were in a precarious position. As part of our pitch, we asked for funding that would help us to continue our work to strengthen the leadership and capacity within the sector. Our request was denied and sadly much of what we had predicted has since come true. Some organizations have been forced to shut their doors while others continue to juggle the demands of serving the often increased public demands with declining resources.

Today I have a much better understanding of advocacy and the skills and practices needed to push for change. I’m also clearer that advocacy is core to ensuring active and engaged citizens and is in fact often how we learn to participate in decision making at all levels. Advocating for what we believe and making ourselves heard teaches us how to identify priorities, plan a strategy, take action, and achieve results.

Knowing what I know now, I’d like to think I would be more patient and much more strategic in advocating for the social profit sector. After all, if we are to better understand and value the contributions of the sector, it will require a significant movement. And, movements don’t just happen. They require the marshalling of energy through a much larger advocacy effort that includes networks and coalitions that plan and coordinate their strategies, messages, and action plans. They don’t bite at the ankles of their funders to meet their own needs but rather join forces to promote solutions for the greater good.

I’ve also learned that advocacy addressing public policy works best if we take time and careful thought and planning as a team to be clear about what we want, and to figure out who needs to hear it, who they need to hear it from, the best mediums, what we need to put into place to make it happen, and how we will know that our advocacy strategies are working or not working.

Perhaps though, my greatest learning has been about the importance of vision and values.  If we spend time thinking, talking and gaining consensus about what we value and the kind of communities we want, the public policy and decisions about where and how we invest will become clearer and hopefully simpler.

At the time we approached Regional Council, I’m not sure there was a clear vision and values in place addressing the quality of life in our communities.  As a result, the predominant filter for decision making seemed to be economic.  The lack of articulated values, together with a directive to maintain the status quo, meant we shouldn’t have been surprised to have our request turned down. While one elected councilor did admit we had made them feel guilty about the state of the sector, they also felt their hands were tied because in effect we were asking them to change policy direction without clear indication of public support.

If I knew then what I know now, our advocacy would have been more about building a strong coalition and a movement that would have promoted a more balanced approached to decision-making that examined economic as well as quality of life values. After all, if when decisions are made based wholly on money, we are at risk as a society for ending up with oil spills like the recent catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, companies moving jobs out of our communities, a social system that reacts rather than prevents, and an education system that prepares graduates for jobs but not for life. In other words, even if we end up with communities that have jobs, there’s a good chance they won’t have the quality of life that makes people want to live there.

Posted on 05-23-10


Great blog, Brenda.  And perfect for Ian Hill’s webcast tomorrow on how to become a better community building thru the proper advocacy for quality of life issues.  We all need to take a holistic approach to our actions both professionally and personally.

•Posted by Janet Naclia  on  05/27/10  at  10:02 AM

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