Evaluating the Effectiveness of Advocacy

As a professional advocate, working in a variety of settings for a wide range of causes for nearly 28 years, I have only occasionally observed advocacy organizations engage in honest self reflection after an advocacy effort has concluded in order to determine how effective the effort was and make any necessary changes for future efforts.  Sadly, what often occurs instead when advocacy efforts fail is a haphazard casting of blame on external factors (e.g., insufficient funding or lack of support from a decision making body).

Previously, my blog has covered the issues of How System Change Happens and Strong Governing Boards: Critical to Long Term Organizational Success.  While the concepts contained in those posts certainly will enhance the probability of effective advocacy, after-the-fact evaluation of advocacy efforts is a third critical step to enhance the probability of long-term advocacy success.

Keys to effective advocacy evaluation include:

  • Define the anticipated result of the advocacy effort at the outset.  Failure to do so makes effective evaluation impossible.  Is the goal to pass a law or simply to raise awareness?  It is critical that advocates establish a reasonable anticipated result or they will be doomed to failure and likely resort to outward casting of blame, when the fault lies with the initial failure of the advocates to be realistic.
  • Break down the advocacy process and analyze each step for effectiveness. Did each step have sufficient resources?  Were unanticipated surprises dealt with effectively?  Were all available tools utilized effectively (e.g., print media, social media, strategic meetings with decision makers)?
  • Was the timeline reasonable? Sometimes the short term effort failed, not because the advocacy effort is doomed to long-term failure, but because short-term success was simply not a realistic goal due to insufficient resources, lack of political support, and/or media attention drawn elsewhere. This realization becomes an opportunity to regroup for the next advocacy effort on the issue at hand.
  • If successful, analyze the follow up steps needed to ensure ongoing success.  All too often, when advocates achieve their immediate goal, they forget that success may be transitory if effective follow up with those who must implement the achieved goal does not happen.
  • If unsuccessful, determine whether the goal is simply unrealistic to achieve, the available tools and resources are insufficient to achieve the goal, and/or the effort simply needs more time.  If the goal was unrealistic, advocates must decide whether to shift goals or simply learn to make their goals more realistic in the future.  If the tools and resources were insufficient, advocates need to assess whether additional resources and tools can be brought to bear for the next effort. If the effort simply needs more time, then advocates should set clear timelines for the next stage of their effort.

A good example of how a long term advocacy effort added tools to achieve success was the 12 year effort I led to pass Wisconsin’s law prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint of school children.

After 8 years of legislative failure, it became clear that broadening the coalition supporting this bill, and publishing the horrific stories of children who suffered from these practices, would be critical next steps.  So, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Wisconsin FACETS, and Wisconsin Family Ties, produced Out of Darkness…Into the Light: New Approaches to Reducing the Use of Seclusion and Restraint with Wisconsin Children.  This publication, released through a Capitol press conference, led to a highly charged Senate Education committee hearing.  Though it did not result in the bill’s passage, it set the bill up for passage in the next session.

However, rather than rely on later passage, which was by no means guaranteed, we determined that additional tools were necessary, including better grassroots organizing, so we created a successful Facebook page: Wisconsinites Concerned About Seclusion and Restraint which helped further the campaign.

After 12 years of advocacy, Act 125 was passed unanimously during the most contentious of Wisconsin legislatures and signed into law by Gov. Walker with victims, advocates and Democratic legislators present.


Advocates looking for additional resources to evaluate the effectiveness of their advocacy can check these web sites:  Bolder Advocacy from the Alliance for Justice and the Advocacy Planning and Evaluation Program from the Aspen Institute.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.


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