Understanding Advocacy

(This article appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of SSA Magazine.)

When social workers speak up about what they see in the field, such as the struggles people have in qualifying for public housing, bureaucracy can be moved. The voices of social workers are particularly important now as nonprofit organizations rely on government funding today more than ever, and are assuming a more active role in the public-private collaborations they find themselves in as a result. That closeness creates opportunities for advocacy, but it presents challenges, too, says Jennifer Mosley, SSA associate professor and an expert on nonprofit advocacy.

In “Friends in High Places: Advocacy in the Era of Nonprofit-Government Partnerships,” which she presented last fall as an Impact Talk at the SSA Reunion Weekend, Mosley said that the ubiquity of government funding is changing the nature of policy advocacy, which she notes has been a part of social work’s DNA since its beginning.

Today, “advocacy is primarily an insider, incrementalist activity” directed at maintaining the organization’s influence and funding, Mosley said in a recent interview.

That might not seem very ambitious, but “I understand why it’s happening, and I don’t think organizations are wrong for doing it. Managers of human-service organizations only have so much time to be involved in advocacy,” which is not their primary mission anyway. “That mission is to provide services. They are doing the best they can.” she says.

The question often comes up whether nonprofits can adequately represent the people and communities they serve in the public sphere, Mosley noted in “Recognizing New Opportunities: Reconceptualizing Policy Advocacy in Everyday Organizational Practice” published in Social Work in 2013. However, nonprofit managers often have easier access to decision makers, and understand how to navigate the system better than many in the target communities.

Advocacy “is an easy word to toss around: ‘We should do more advocacy around x, y, or z,’” Mosley says. “I see part of my mission as ‘unpacking’ [the concept], saying who is ‘we?’ How does that happen? What are the opportunities and the constraints? How do we think through that process, rather than [assuming] this is something someone else is doing.”

Homeless services, which have been a major focus of Mosley’s research, offer an illuminating example of how the public-private nexus works these days.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is “the primary funder of homeless services,” she says. Nonprofit managers she has spoken with invest a great deal of time and energy in HUD’s Continuums of Care, which serve as regional umbrellas for homeless services, and conduits for funding. HUD-funded groups believe they must participate intensely in these continuums of care, she says, but “feel limited in their ability to challenge the system.”

However, Mosley notes, innovations often don’t come from the federal government but from “the ground,” from social workers in the field who see how programs function in real life. Sooner or later, opportunities for policy advocacy do appear.

For example, the idea that homeless people need to be clean and sober before they get access to permanent housing “doesn’t really work very well for a lot of people,” Mosley says. In the past, that has been a requirement.

“As long as you are still on the streets, it’s really challenging to deal with your addiction issues.”

The field has been moving toward a “‘housing-first’ model, which is seen as more respectful and effective in the long run”—–but also partly because “service providers were saying, ‘This is important, we should be funding this,’” Mosley says. That is an example of the benefits of “nonprofit stakeholders being brought into policy-making through these different kinds of collaborative networks.”

Advocates for homeless services also often compete for dollars with their counterparts in the mental-health and substance-abuse areas, notably at the state level, Mosley says. “All those organizations are often serving an overlapping group of people.” Collaboration would make sense, but what often happens is that each area advocates for funding only in its own area.

“It’s difficult, because everyone feels at risk. Nonprofits are so underfunded. They are constantly being told to do more with less,” she says.

Mosley recommends practitioners discover and include clients’ point of view in their advocacy efforts.

The key to success in policy advocacy is to use, to the fullest extent possible, the opportunities those relationships present, even if they do come with challenges.

Delia O’Hara