Why is internal advocacy within our own organizations so hard?

April 27, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been chatting to a few people about their efforts to change how their organizations think, work and behave. By ‘people’ I mean the foot soldiers, not the bosses – there’s a huge amount written for managers about how to change their organizations, but what if you’re not a boss?

For a subject that is so important to a lot of people in the aid sector (we all want our organizations to do better), it is strikingly under-scrutinized. Huge amounts of advice, case studies and toolkits galore about campaigns and advocacy to change what others (governments, corporates, the public) do on X. But when I tweeted a request for examples of doing the same in our own organizations, I got lots of knowing ‘I could tell you, but never write it down’ replies but precious few links. Some thoughts.

People seem to get angrier in internal advocacy. Advocates seem to find it easier to be cold blooded and analytical when influencing others. But when it comes to their own institutions, they often leave all their toolkits at the door and shout/cry/rage against their machine. Sometimes the conversation resembles a particularly dysfunctional family Christmas. Maybe we’re just too identified with our organizations to be dispassionate – why don’t they listen to (our) reason? Bringing about change by taking into account incentives, coalitions, narratives, critical junctures etc etc should somehow not be necessary.

The case studies I received via twitter were mainly on gender equity/mainstreaming, with papers on Care International in Ethiopia (ht Jay Goulden), the Gates Foundation (gated paper ht Adam Fejerskov), and a great book on feminist advocacy within the aid sector, edited by Ros Eyben and Laura Turquet, which I reviewed back in 2014. Some of the top tips/points to note:

The importance of building and maintaining internal change coalitions, with both senior management and people on the lower rungs – an internal form of combined insider/outsider tactics.

Investing in building ‘power with’, for example of more junior women in the organizations to form a long term constituency for change. Similarly, creating jobs around the particular change goal helps institutionalise the pressures for reform.

Reformers face (mostly) passive resistance from opponents, whether that meant ignoring documents and initiatives or trying to derail them with deluges of comments and requests for more information.

One of the most discussed issues is the importance of framing, which raised some difficult questions for activists. It’s often more effective to ‘sell’ gender equity on instrumental grounds (eg it’s better for the economy), but shouldn’t you be able to present it as simply the right thing to do?

As Laura Turquet, one of the editors of the book on feminists in aid regretfully reflected in her comment on the blog: ‘If you are very vociferous and activist in these organizations, you quickly become very marginalized and unable to affect any change at all, which is why we tend to use more subtle approaches and tactics, often against our instincts.’

Similarly, the breakthrough at Gates started when an expert (Catherine Bertini) told an incoming boss (Rajiv Shah, then in charge of agriculture) that failure to ‘remember the ladies’ (a quote from Abigail Adams) would mean they would ‘waste a lot of money, quickly’. The Gates insurgents succeeded by ‘framing gender equality and women’s empowerment within the dominant logics of the foundation pertaining to results, measurement and effectiveness’.

Other successful tactics include under-the-radar mobilization of outside networks (rather than denouncing your organization to the world at large, however cathartic that might be), and seizing the windows of opportunity offered by new leaders in search of an agenda/open to ideas.

Two other points emerged for me:

Firstly, beware of telling the story in terms of one or two heroic leaders. At Gates ‘The emergence of gender equality should be attributed to different individuals who simultaneously planted small seeds of the idea of gender equality, which at a certain point accumulated sufficient intellectual attention, resulting in the emergence of this new normative framework.’

Second: strategy documents matter. This goes against my biases, which is to largely ignore them. They act as terrains of struggle – the Gates Foundation gender strategy went through 50 drafts. Sigh, does that mean I have to read them all in future? ☹

A couple of smart suggestions from Remi Kaupp at WaterAid:

  • Organise lunchtime talks and webinars: even with little attendance, they give your topic visibility, and allow engaging with those asking questions.
  • Create curiosity: “People don’t like to be told”. Curiosity is highest for something we don’t already know (too obvious), but that is linked to something you already know (you feel that you ought to know about it) – find some gaps in knowledge.
  • With people in more senior positions: they have to feel like “it was their idea all along” (true that, I once got Save the Kids to fund me to write a book on Latin America by convincing the relevant budget holder it was their idea – it was surprisingly easy!)
  • Don’t copy bosses in emails: building trust is more important than exerting pressure.

Other thoughts from watching efforts at Oxfam and elsewhere:

  • Money talks: if what you are proposing is likely to get funding, or raise the organization’s profile positively, it is far easier to get senior management interested. And if your organization is in the middle of a financial crisis, don’t advocate something that will cost millions – see if you can identify some changes that cost nothing or save money.
  • The messenger not the message: If the bosses hear your idea from someone they fear/respect outside the organization, they may well give it more attention than if it only comes from within.
  • Stubbornness and persistence are essential, but you may not have many friends left by the end of it, so creating a band of like-minded sisters/brothers is a lot better than going it alone.

And finally of course, always remember that they say no, until they say yes.

April 27, 2021
Duncan Green