What Are You Advocating For? Questions to Ponder When Embarking on the Advocacy Journey

Hey, Advocacy! It’s the start of a new decade, an opportune moment to re-energize our collective conversation around the topic of advocacy, whether it be advocating for oneself, one’s team, one’s organization and its mission, or for Apra as a member-driven association of proud, united prospect development professionals.

This topic has been on my mind since joining the Advocacy Committee last summer. It leads me to wonder: What does advocacy truly mean? As I begin to journey far down this philosophical road through conversations with fellow Apra members, it’s becoming clear that one singular definition of advocacy doesn’t work for all. It’s not a uniform concept that evenly applies to each prospect development professional, like “one size fits all” rain ponchos or trouser socks.

The researcher in me felt compelled to consult with a couple of dictionaries to look up the term in its literal form. One defined advocacy as “verbal support or argument for a cause, policy, etc.” Another trusted source offered a slightly broader definition: “the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal.”

So, in the context of prospect development, what cause are you supporting? Collectively, what cause are we supporting? Or what is it about our cause that requires support?

It makes sense to figure out what you’re fighting for first, right? I think it’s crucial to determine the cause — or end goal — of an advocacy effort before you start, no matter the scale. Without thinking it through, your advocacy effort risks being haphazard, misaligned and ultimately unsuccessful.

What follows are some guiding questions I recently came across in a Forbes article written by Leeno Karumanchery, a diversity and inclusion expert. Dr. Karumanchery offers a framework for strengthening diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that he argues rely too heavily on passion, storytelling and conversation as pillars of strategy. The questions he asks could apply to aspiring advocates who seek to create positive change, regardless of context, and are worth posing here:

What kind of organization are you — really? Where is your starting point?

Perhaps begin by assessing the status of your relationship with your current manager (i.e. who you report to). How much do they know about where you come from, what you do and how you add value to the team and your organization? Be prepared to clearly and succinctly describe what you’re working on and how it helps your team and your mission.

Are you an established solo researcher on a small development team at a local non-profit? Do you feel compelled to educate the rest of the team on how best to employ your expertise and guidance?

Or, are you leading a large team of analysts and relationship managers with a need to increase your visibility across a diverse, complex organizational structure?

Advocacy that works for a large team of research analysts at an education institution could look distinctly different from that of a solo research manager at a social services agency.

Imagine how different and unique the culture of each could affect the purpose and impact of advocating for prospect development where you are.

Looking back, I used to think that advocating was about representing externally only; it’s something you do to others, like offer an elevator speech, not something to think about and work on within yourself.

Now I think that external representation is somewhat basic.

Self-discovery or self-examination — looking inward — will help you be realistic about what you’re trying to ultimately achieve and how to go about doing so.

I was recently reminded of the fact that because my role exists at all, it means that someone successfully advocated for its formation and purpose at my organization to help meet our mission. So, I’m advocating starting from a good place already and I believe you are too.

What do you really want to accomplish? Where do you want to end up? What is your vision?

When you know where you want to be, your advocacy effort will remain focused and less reactive or situational. It may also be more personally fulfilling.

Educating? Promoting? Fighting to stay relevant? Embarking on system change? Advocating for a specific donor or donor segment? Process efficiency? What will make you feel supported, valued and basically feel good about the job you’re doing depends on your end goal.

Also, consider the stage of your career. Now that I’m in my mid-career phase, having worked in a few different types of organizations in the advancement and non-profit sectors, I’m now less motivated by public acknowledgement — honours, accolades and gratitude from peers and senior leaders. Rather, I’m trying to find the true meaning of the work I’m doing each day, channeling my inner advocate.

A tremendous amount of personal and professional satisfaction comes from offering strategic support about a specific donor or community of supporters. I still love uncovering nuggets of information that will help us better understand our donor base of support. This form of accomplishment keeps me fulfilled and motivated to keep doing this work.

How do you plan to get there? What are your steps? Why have you chosen these steps? What reason do you have to believe they will work?

These questions force the real work of advocacy to happen! If they seem daunting, consult with peers at your organization and in the larger Apra community for advice. There’s a good chance someone else has already been there.

Breaking down your advocacy effort into smaller steps will make your effort easier to accomplish.

Perhaps drawing up a year-long plan of fostering and promoting prospect development at your organization requires conversations with peers and leaders; a formal presentation to the larger team; informal, opt-in trainings on how to identify high potential among lapsing donors in your database. Perhaps it could mean hosting an Apra webinar for donor-facing peers. Try out a few different ways to educate, inform and promote your skills and expertise as well as our collective work.

Generally, successfully advocating for the prospect development cause looks different for everyone, at each organization, but collectively, we could accomplish a great deal of big-picture change.

For help imagining some possibilities, I found inspiration in The Alliance to End Hunger’s comprehensive advocacy playbook, created for its members and supporters (similar to Apra’s Advocacy Toolkit).

According to The Alliance, successful advocacy can accomplish the following:

  • Address long-term needs
  • Empower people
  • Get at the true root of the problem
  • Promote social and political change

Advocating successfully is a daily exercise in helping others, solving problems, and planning and affecting change. I believe it begins with you.

In the words of the late, venerable poet Maya Angelou, “Develop enough courage so that you can stand up for yourself and then stand up for somebody else.”  

What do you think? Please offer a comment for my and the Advocacy Committee’s careful consideration in 2020.

Preeti Gill is a professional researcher of philanthropic people and trends, with a focus on elevating female donors in major gift fundraising. Currently, she leads the prospect development team at Covenant House Vancouver (CHV). She is the inaugural recipient of CHV’s Diversity in Action award, which recognizes staff achievement in helping create an inclusive workplace.

Preeti has worked in a wide range of non-profit environments including education, the community foundation movement, health care and social services.

At DiversityDrivenData.Blog, she offers resources and stories to highlight the rich diversity in modern philanthropy.

Her past volunteer efforts for Apra include serving on the editorial advisory committee which publishes Connections, the curriculum planning committee for a PD conference, and the Body of Knowledge committee. She is chairing Apra’s Advocacy Committee in 2020.

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