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This Isn't Your Grandpa's Advocacy

Advocacy Isn't Just About Government Relations

I met with a corporate Vice President a few weeks ago to discuss his business and how a product produced by another company could potentially be beneficial to his company’s future success.  My role was to broker a business relationship between the two companies, which were trying to sell non-competing products within the same marketplace.  Our discussion started off very cautiously.  I was feeling a bit like a snake oil sales representative trying to get this VP to accept what I was saying as factual.  He seemed to be treating much of my commentary as conjecture or assumptions on my part.  Since I had a short term but positive relationship with this individual in another context, I decided to segue our discussion to more personal topics in an attempt to warm up the meeting a bit.  After catching up on family and sports and having a few laughs about some current events, I brought the discussion back to the potential business dealings between his corporation and my client.  In the end, this tactic was effective.  The VP agreed to consider my proposal outlining the terms and conditions of a business-to-business relationship between my client and his company.  The terms of that relationship would need to be negotiated but essentially his company would be acting as a distributor of my client’s product.  The VP had an established sales force and distribution network whereas my client had a new product that needed market exposure.  There were benefits to both parties to entering into this relationship.  In the end, the decision was made to conduct a six-month pilot and then, based on the results, to either expand the pilot across the country or abandon the relationship with no hard feelings.    In addition, the VP also asked for a proposal from another client of mine to supply a number of products that his company purchases annually.

Would the above scenario be considered an advocacy process?  It had all of the component parts including extensive research, a rationale, coherent position on my part, an effective presentation of that position to the target audience, a negotiation that involved both parties getting benefits from the outcome and it all happened over an extended time frame that culminated in the meeting described above.  Most people would not think of this as advocacy but to me this is definitely an advocacy scenario, although not in the traditional sense.  Traditional advocacy is almost always about some form of societal change that relates to policy, laws, attitudes or programs that are the purview of some level of government.  It almost always involves government both at the political and bureaucratic levels.  In my scenario, although it has nothing to do with any government entity it does utilize many, if not all, of the classic tools that need to be employed to be successful at your advocacy efforts.  Let’s look at some of those tools and techniques.

The starting point for any advocacy process is to identify, in very specific terms, your issue or “ask”.  This is what you expect to achieve at the end of this process.  Spend time and get input from the key stakeholders to ensure that your “ask” is precisely what you want and if you are successful that the change will result in significant benefits for your client, organization or group.  Be very clear in defining the “ask” and why it is reasonable, logical, a best practice and good for all individuals with a stake in the project. 

This clearly defined request needs to be effectively communicated to the party or parties that can make the change you are looking to achieve.  This stage has two components – effective communication and determining the appropriate parties.  Effective communication may only be possible once you know the appropriate parties.  It also involves having a succinct message and knowing how to deliver that message in a number of situations.  It is critical that the message be communicated consistently and that it be repeated as often as possible.

With respect to the appropriate parties, sometimes this is very easy to determine and other times the desired outcome may require actions by several parties.  The necessary participants may not be readily apparent.  They may only be identified once you start down the path of delivering your message. Although critical to achieving the end result, there may not be any current connection between the parties or between you and the parties.  This is another time consuming aspect of the process.  It is also the most important component of the process next to the development of your message.  The better your relationship the more the receiving party will trust that you are being honest, that you are working to implement positive change and that they can depend on you to deliver on your part of the agreement.  All of these are sidebars to having a positive relationship and they are all extremely important to your advocacy efforts.

Another interesting component of advocacy involves the interests of the party or parties that are receiving your message.  If one or more of these parties has an end that it is trying to achieve, that provides an opportunity for the advocacy effort.  If you, as advocate, can align your request in such a way that it provides an opportunity for those you are advocating with to achieve something that they have been trying to achieve, the chance of your request being met with a favourable response increases significantly.  As such, it is important to know the goals of those to whom you are advocating.  Once you know their goals and objectives, you have the opportunity to explain to them how your request will enhance their chances of being successful in their own efforts.  If you can do that, your efforts have a much greater chance of success.  If you do not take the other parties objectives into account, you do so at the peril of not being able to achieve your objectives.

The final component that you need to keep in mind when advocating is time.  Advocacy takes time.  It just doesn’t happen because you have covered off all of the component parts that have been discussed above.  The time element will vary depending on the parties involved but as the advocate, you may not be in a position to reduce the time line to any significant extent.

So, if you take the component parts – define the “ask”, enhance your message, identify your targets, cultivate your relationships, spend the time to communicate, repeat – and apply them to the situation outlined in the first paragraph, does it fit?  It definitely fits and it applies to advocacy between NFPs and governments (traditional) but it also applies to advocacy between two or more NFPs and between one or more NFP’s and one or more private sector companies.  With respect to the initial situation, the advocacy efforts have led to a pilot project for one client, with the opportunity to expand the project across Canada later this year, and, the opportunity for a second client to submit a proposal to the company to supply it with a disposable product on an annual basis.  Both are significant positive outcomes for the parties involved that resulted from having an effective approach to advocacy.


Board Dynamics – Does It Matter

When Cleveland beat the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA championship last spring there were many people who felt that Golden State had more talent than the Cavaliers.  When the Cleveland baseball team recently beat the Toronto Blue Jays in five games in a best of seven series were they that much better than the Jays?  Often when these kinds of events happen in the world of sports, the news media and pundits claim that the winning team had better chemistry or the losing team didn’t have very good chemistry.  Simply put, in the examples above, both the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Blue Jays may arguably have had more talented players but the way in which the individuals on the Cavaliers and the Cleveland baseball team worked together, supported one another and gave one another the encouragement to perform at the highest level possible allowed them to succeed despite the opposing teams having superior talent.  This chemistry that the winning teams felt or manufactured encouraged each individual to use his talents to support the team and to do whatever was necessary to achieve success.

That is often the case with association Boards of Directors.  Your Board of Directors may be packed full of successful, talented individuals that have been assembled to provide your association with the benefit of their collective intelligence. Despite this abundance of talent, your Board of Directors may struggle to achieve the results that you or they felt could be achieved.  Your efforts to provide the best governance model possible and to introduce your Board leaders to the best structure, communication tools and professional support so as to allow it to work together to achieve great results may all fall short and leave you wondering why!

So, you have the talent, and the policy support, the tools and the belief in what you need to do as an organization but you just aren’t getting it done.  Why?  Could it be Board dynamics or Board chemistry, – the individual forces (members) that make up your Board of Directors and their individual relationships, with what you are trying to achieve and one another, and the impact of those relationships on what you are able to achieve.  If your Board doesn’t seem to be able to move past its personalities, egos and private agendas, what can you do to get things back on track.  There may be very little that you can do to make them change but there are actions you can take to give your Board a comfortable opportunity to move forward and implement some positive accomplishments.

To start with it is important to make sure everyone begins from the same level of knowledge and understanding with respect to the mandate and direction of the association.  That may seem self-evident and relatively easy to achieve.  You simply provide the members of the Board of Directors with copies of the relevant documents and conduct a kick butt orientation session and you end that session with everyone on board and rowing in the same direction. Supplement that awesome start each year with a robust and state of the art communication program and a culture that welcomes and encourages new ideas, innovation and the asking of the tough questions.  Viola!  Great Board of Directors chemistry will be the end result.

Well, yes those things are important and they certainly help to build good chemistry.  Despite that, those elements won’t necessarily result in good chemistry or, to continue the sports analogy, a team.  The results that come from the activities engaged in by this group are more than the sum of the parts that you, as CEO, have assembled.  It’s about the chemistry that has developed amongst the members of the group.  To establish good chemistry there are no specific best practices but there are a number of things that you can organize or encourage or shoe horn into the Board’s schedule that may help establish good chemistry:

·        Make sure there are opportunities early on in the mandate of each new Board of Directors to have your Board members together in social situations – dinner, informal hospitality, non-competitive games (golf, bowling, cards, etc.) and “organize” these events to ensure that the individual Board members mix with all other members of the Board;

·        Make it a key component of all Board of Directors meetings and discussions that all Board members are involved in the discussion and that new ideas are not just part of an acknowledge and move on scenario but they are discussed as possible solutions or new approaches to doing things, they are made part of the agenda of the Board for that year;

·        Have board members introduce themselves as part of your orientation session.  Each Board member at the first meeting each year will take five minutes to address their past, present and one thing they appreciate and one thing that needs to change about the association.  This gives all Board members a sense that they know their colleagues and lets everyone know a positive and a negative aspect of the organization, both of which probably need to have some focus over the coming year.  Determine how the organization priorities and mandate fit these highlights and spend some time as a Board discussing whether these are specific and not strategic or directly related to achieving the Board’s objectives.

·        Have Board members, who are experienced, mentor new Board members or Board members who are having difficulty engaging or understanding the need to discuss issues at the Board and then act collectively;

·        Do team building exercises that are not related to the duties / objectives of the Board and the association;

·        Implement a “no bad question” approach for all Board members.

Board dynamics are critical to success for any organization.  Good board dynamics can be assisted by having good governance, clear operating policies, good support mechanisms and constant communication but chemistry, assisted by regular, informal team building activities and effective mentoring will help ensure positive results.

What happens when the Board dynamic goes south, when a single Board member decides that they have an agenda or an idea that will save the organization and guarantee their place in the history of the association and they are not going to let the Board or you prevent them from achieving their “goal”.  Well, like the sports team where a single player decides to play it their way rather than being focused on the team outcome, the outlier needs the team or a mentor to convince the individual of the need for them to use their talents to achieve Board priorities. If that isn’t possible it becomes disruptive.