the important and the not-so-important, horribly conflated.

Rant: Advocacy

In RANT on October 18, 2010 at 9:06 pm


The methods and objectives of Advocacy groups mirror, in many ways, what we think of as ideal governance—forming coalitions, using constituent voices, overcoming an unsustainable status quo. Something predictable, then, happens when these morally upright means run into the illogical, self-protecting, ends-centered reality inhabited by politicians: advocacy groups fail.

They fail not because of the goodness or fairness of their message, but because they are not disruptive enough. Confronted with the perennial tangle of lobbyist influence, political seniority, unchallengeable party memos, advocacy efforts do little to make these relationships problematic for senators or representatives.

What is needed—advocates running for office on a one-issue platform, boycotts of the businesses that provide specific politicians with their campaign funding, outbidding corporations for their lobbyists—can seem unrealistic and unpalatable for groups that have relied on grassroots campaigns in the past. But advocating for change while failing to adapt your methods to a new political reality is simply foolhardy.

501c3 status currently prohibits advocacy groups from directly supporting political campaigns (they may allot 50% of their cashflows to “issue-based” advertising). But if the Citizens United case can give corporations free reign with respect to their contributions to politicians, advocacy groups should fight for their own monetized “free speech.” For those arguing that the politicization of not-for-profits somehow cheapens or degrades the purity of advocacy efforts, the health reform debate offers an uncomfortable truth about the scale of equivocation and petty bartering already existing within the advocacy ranks—the public option, by many accounts, was a victim of competing demands of politicians who had the unquestioning support of special interest advocacy groups. (click below to read on)

Advocacy groups must realize that they are competing for the same limited resources: public attention, grants, and the ears of politicians. This scarcity demands innovation—the movement of not-for-profits into previously unoccupied niches.

Public attention is controlled by a media unconcerned with or deaf to the subtlety and complexity of many issues (health care, immigration, poverty) championed by advocacy groups. Unfortunately, the human interest stories that not-for-profits are so good at collecting and presenting cannot, paradoxically (these are individuals’ lives—just put a camera on them), fill a 24 hour news cycle. When their issue does become front page news, instead of placing their founder or a board member (who is really just as disengaged from the issues as a CEO is separated from the factory floor) on a cable news talk show, advocacy groups should subvert the norm and find a community partner to be a human voice in the political discourse.

In tough economic times, grants are increasingly bankrolled by corporations. Advocacy groups should skip the middleman and form direct partnerships with for-profit companies. Not-for-profits then need to be innovative in the development of projects that create long-lasting incentives (good public relations, increased government subsidies) for the corporation that make severing the partnership untenable. The reality is that advocacy groups, not corporations, are responsible for—and can succeed in—making private industry accountable to those outside of its shareholder circle. This would be the greatest coup in the history of advocacy.

Finally, advocacy groups must translate a fact they understand and are sustained by—that politicians, as a (majority white male) whole, are not representative of the diverse society we have in this country—into the catalyst for a different kind of political action. Not-for-profits should have political training programs for their employees, hold issue-specific town hall meetings in the run up to an election, and work to place allies on the staffs of local representatives. It is a matter of seizing agency in a political game that, for all its triteness and incoherence, can be redemptive on those rare occasions when the right voices are in the right room. Isn’t that what advocacy has always been about?



  1. Love this. With a little editing, I could easily see this as a NYT op-ed or a NYer piece. Or another like-minded publication without “New York” in the title. Again: brilliant.

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