Purpose: Human service nonprofits are thought to be critical players in advocating on behalf of marginalized communities and improved service delivery mechanisms. However, as human service nonprofits are organized primarily to provide services, not to conduct advocacy, their managers face substantial barriers to advocacy participation. These barriers include severe resource constraints, a lack of experience and knowledge about policy advocacy, and confusion about what they are legally able to do. Unfortunately, how these barriers interact, or why some organizations are able to overcome them and others are not is still unknown. This knowledge gap must be addressed if we are to grow advocacy participation in the field and make sure social work voices are being heard. The specific research question is: What organizational features best assist human service nonprofits in overcoming barriers to advocacy participation?
Methods: Qualitative research methods were used to maximize understanding of how managers interpret potential barriers and incentives, as well as the context in which they act on their beliefs. One regional policy fieldhomeless serviceswas selected for in-depth study. A stratified random sample was chosen from a regional population of 84 homeless service nonprofits. In-depth interviews were conducted with the leaders of 42 organizations. The response rate was 81%; data was collected from exactly half the population. Each transcribed interview was independently coded by two researchers. The coding scheme followed both inductive and deductive techniques, using pre-determined codes, reflecting prior topics of interest, and emergent codes that reflected new insights.
Results: Three organizational features were found to help organizations become more deeply involved in advocacy: participation in collaborative networks, government funding, and professional leadership. First, collaboration greatly increased capacity for advocacy involvement by providing structure, information about current policy debates, and help in getting involved. Second, managers of government funded agencies saw advocacy as likely to have a direct payoff in terms of increased resources for their agency, which motivated them to participate. Third, managers with advanced administrative training saw advocacy differently than managers who came up through the ranks. Professional managers saw advocacy as a key management strategy and essential part of their job, whereas others often saw it as competing with service delivery tasks and to be undertaken only when time and resources allow.
Implications: Overall, this research demonstrates that advocacy is often integrated into organizations more deeply when its professional utility is emphasized through professional norms, government funding, and strong ties to existing networks. This should help dispel fears that growing professionalization and dependence on government funding in the human services is compromising advocacy involvement. Interestingly, even in the field of homeless services, where beliefs about the need for social justice and wealth redistribution are common, advocacy engagement seems to stem more from professional and managerial self-interest, not from feelings of altruism. One conclusion is that strengthening advocacy in the human services may be better accomplished by encouraging organizations and their leaders to see advocacy as a way to balance mission and resource demands, not as a purely mission driven activity.