Professional Troublemaking

Speaking out about unjust conditions – to friends, family, on social media – is the American way. Pointing to unfair treatment of individuals, groups, communities, or the environment is an important part of being civically engaged.  As a nonprofit leader there is an added obligation to not just speak out, but to advocate and effect change in policy and systems.

From my experience, here’s how to get good results:

Get to know the people inside the system.

I used to have one of those daily calendars hanging in my office when I was the director of a Domestic Violence Program in Massachusetts that read: “You don’t have to show your social conscience by looking like a shlump.” Dressing down was fine if you worked at the shelter.  But my court-based legal advocates dressed in suits to gain credibility with court staff and judges. It also signaled to their clients that they understood and held sway within the court system.  It was much harder to learn the system and know its weaknesses if you looked and acted like an outsider.  

Back then it was a common refrain by advocates and activists for all types of causes, that if people inside the (oppressive) systems you were trying to impact liked you, you must not be doing your job. I disagree.

All systems have advocates working within them. These people went to work for the system to change it.  They understand and sometimes sympathize with what’s wrong. They can help those outside the system understand the intricacies of the system and the leverage points for changing it.  It’s an external advocate’s job to find them.

Know your stuff      

It’s a nonprofit leader’s job to understand the problem and be able to propose feasible, practical solutions.  They should know how much it will cost, what it will save, and how it will improve things. Policy can be complicated, intimidating, and technical. Nonprofit leaders can’t just rail against things like welfare policy, how the courts make decisions about parental rights, or the health care system - they need to understand what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s possible.  

Join Forces

One way to get information about policy and proposed changes, and, to create momentum with other allies, is to join or support some of the public policy organizations that already exist that are doing this work. Fortunately, think tanks, policy wonks, and advocacy organizations provide a way to get up to speed on complex policy. These organizations not only help decipher current policy and proposed changes, but they often convene allies to create momentum for those changes.  Our state is home to many of these high quality organizations. Participating through meetings, online discussions, list serves, media interviews and e-advocacy are great ways to get quickly oriented and add to the momentum for changes that are important to you and your organization.
Working to improve public policies is a part of any nonprofit manager’s work and requires knowing the ins and outs of often complex systems. Getting to know people inside those systems is a good pathway to understand not only the technical aspects of the work, but opportunities for improvements. Aligning with advocacy organizations can help you get on that path.

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