How do we know our advocacy efforts are working?
Evaluating advocacy efforts is no easy feat, but doing so can yield better results as well as lessons learned that can be shared with other organizations and/or used the next time you need to advocate for change.
Does your organization participate in advocacy efforts? It can be difficult to measure success in the short and long term when advocacy and/or policy change are your goals because as we all know, things don’t change overnight. In order to meaningfully evaluate advocacy efforts, it’s important to be systematic and think in the long term so we can:
Document what works and what doesn’t work – this allows us to build an evidence base and course correct; and
Measure progress in the short and long term.
Process Evaluation: How are things going? What should we be doing differently?
Documenting what works and doesn’t work is also known as a process evaluation. This type of evaluation is usually qualitative in nature (meaning we are primarily capturing words, images, stories – not numbers) which can inform us about how the work is getting done, if things are happening efficiently, and if things aren’t working so we can brainstorm how to course correct or troubleshoot the problem. Process evaluation can also incorporate quantitative information, but the goal with this type of evaluation is really to build up a story about what works and what doesn’t work.
Maybe nobody is reacting to the messaging you’re using. We can then conduct a survey or a set of interviews to understand why the messaging isn’t resonating with people. Perhaps it’s as simple as a design change, or perhaps the language you’re using isn’t approachable to the average reader. These are things that can be changed to make sure the time and money you’re committing to advocacy efforts are optimized.
Or maybe you have amazing messaging but your voice isn’t loud enough on its own to get through to decision makers. In this case, evaluation can help you identify what else you need to do to increase the volume of your voice (usually this means bringing more people into your advocacy efforts). It’s possible that your messaging isn’t getting to the right people and there are ways to fix that.
It’s also possible that what you’re advocating for isn’t SMART, which means it will be hard to garner the support you need and impossible to actually implement the change. Forget what SMART stands for?
Specific (simple, sensible, significant)
Measurable (meaningful, motivating)
Achievable (agreed, attainable)
Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based)
Time-bound (time-based, time-limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive)
That doesn’t mean the messaging in your advocacy efforts always needs to be SMART – it really depends on your ultimate goal. Here’s an example: you think your state should implement healthcare reform and move from the current system to a single payer system. We aren’t going to get to that overnight, or even in a single legislative session! But maybe your campaign has “Single Payer Now!” messaging because your short-term goal is to raise awareness about the issue. Getting into a wonky policy discussion is definitely not going to help you increase awareness and support in the general public! But if this is your approach, your SMART goal would be: in year one, increase awareness and support for single payer healthcare system by X people.
Outcome Evaluation: Progress takes time, but let’s count all our small wins too!
It’s also important to remember that when evaluating advocacy efforts, you need to be flexible in your thinking about how to measure success. If you’re advocating for more funding for childcare services in the city budget, for example, you might consider measuring any one of the following:
Increased awareness in the general public about the lack of childcare funding
Increased awareness about the value added by properly funding childcare
Better relationships across stakeholder groups (i.e. parents and elected officials)
Strengthened social network (bringing more voices into the campaign)
Attitude changes about how to fund childcare
Policy change / increased funding allocations for childcare in the city budget
Before you even get started on an advocacy effort, you might want to ask yourself: what strengths and resources do we have to implement successful advocacy work? Maybe you are part of a coalition or a nonprofit that exclusively focuses on advocacy efforts. In this case, you most likely have a high capacity for advocacy but it never hurts to assess that capacity to really make sure you’re leveraging resources. Maybe you aren’t part of a coalition or an advocacy organization – you provide direct services and you’ve realized that you need to advocate for some sort of change to see long term success in the services you provide. Don’t fret because you too can assess your capacity, identify strengths and resources, and create an action plan for advocacy work!