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Advocacy for Organizations - Choosing Your Issue(s)

Without a clear process for choosing your organization's positions on important issues, misunderstandings, confusion and outright manipulation can threaten to nullify all your advocacy efforts, or worse undermine the credibility and integrity of the reputation you work so hard to build. It is best to have a written set of parameters and a defined process to decide which issues you will pursue and what your position will be before it becomes a problem.

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

- Theodore Roosevelt

Create a process. It is best to get buy-in from a larger group for the initial decision, but have a smaller group develop strategy. Be sure everyone is clear on the issue, position and general strategy from the beginning. Not only does this avoid misunderstandings, but also you will need their help to get it done.

Issues to consider when choosing an issue and a position:

  • Does the issue/position fit with the mission of your organization? You'd be surprised how often this is overlooked. Just because it is a good cause doesn't mean it has anything to do with your mission. Beware of losing focus and neglecting the reason your organization exists. 
  • Is there a unique role for your organization on the issue? For example, a business group arguing for expanding safety net services. 
  • Can you offer a solution? Especially one with a proven track record. 
  • Avoid only working on self-serving issues. Too many groups only come to the Capitol when their own funds are being cut. If a cut affects your clients, you should be just as engaged in making that right. 
  • Timing. Is this a long-term or quick issue? Do you have the stamina to stick it out? Is this the right time for your issue? The worst budget deficit in decades is probably not the right time to propose a huge spending program. 
  • Controversy. When considering controversial issues, is it worth the flak? Is there a less controversial position that will still make a difference? You may decide to go ahead anyway, but at least you are ready for it. 
  • Don't join forces with others just for company. If you are the only one on your issue, so be it. 
  • Allies/opponents analysis. Make two columns - who might help on this and who will likely oppose you. Be realistic. This may take some research or some calls to figure out. In making your decision, do not only consider the numbers in each column, but also the strength of their support/opposition and their relative power within the system. 
  • Relationship with the target. If you have a great relationship with the chair of the committee that will hear your proposal, you have a clear advantage. And vice versa. 
  • National vs. state vs. local issues. Where can you have the most impact on real people in your constituency? Often the question comes down to where are the money decisions made for your issue. 
  • Avoid controversy that splits the group. Even a minority that disagrees strongly on an issue weakens your organization. Unless it is the core of your mission, try to accommodate the minority and choose another issue. 
  • Who else is working on the issue? Are you really needed? Are you competing with others for the lead on an issue? Will you ruffle feathers, bruise egos, or provoke a turf battle? 
  • Politics and other baggage. How will the politics of the issue bear on your organization, your staff, your Board, your funders, your other issues, etc. This isn't only a negative - sometimes it is wise to choose at least one issue with supporters from the other side of the aisle from your usual champions. 
  • "Under the radar" test. Is this an issue that will be considered technical or a no-brainer? Sometimes an important issue is easy. Honest, it happens. You can sound out the likely advocacy targets and measure the resistance. 
  • Review your issues and positions regularly. Are they still relevant? Have you won? Is it time to retreat into victory (= give up gracefully)? Are more important issues pressing for your attention? Has there been a change in resources or people?


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