Why is internal advocacy within our own organizations so hard?

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.

That’s one theory of change, certainly

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’.

Gates Foundation. ‘OUR GOAL: To accelerate progress toward a more gender-equal world by addressing the barriers that keep women and girls from being fully active in their homes, economies, and societies.’

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.

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12 Responses to “Why is internal advocacy within our own organizations so hard?”
  1. Cathy

    Thanks Duncan, this is timely and will save me some effort. I have been mulling over an approach to influencing work that touches on these issues. You and Laura highlight really important points re the benefits of instrumental framings to gain traction that can be both misread and undervalued.
    Of course, I am also very curious to know what prompted you to write this now. What are you up to!?

  2. Gareth Price-Jones

    This is spot on. Interestingly, in our sector (and despite regular accusations that we’re all in it for the money) I’ve personally found that money, while important, doesn’t talk quite as much as you’d think. Just last week I tweeted an example (https://twitter.com/GPJGeneva/status/1385494514815709188) where a major INGO HQ was happy to reject literally millions of dollars because they felt the activities concerned ‘wasn’t what they did’, and its not the only example I’m aware of. Aligning your ideas with the way an organisation (or perhaps its leaders) sees itself is important.

    Much more critical is ensuring dignified escape routes for bad decisions or strategies. If you can allow, and even support, bigwigs to frame something as a ‘revision based on learning’ rather than as a U-turn or defeat, you’re far more likely to get the change you want.

    Finally, we need a bit of bravery. Even willing leadership can’t change when everyone is too scared (or cynical) to suggest out loud that perhaps there might be a better way, and I know that all of us in positions of influence can look super intimidating even when we might think we’re approachable. It’s on leaders to be clear that they are open to hearing dissenting views, but also on followers to offer them.

  3. JL

    Really enjoyed this blog post, Duncan. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while as a sort-of-new person to the sector and as someone learning more about activism and advocacy for the first time. I’m reflecting on my partner who volunteers in the US lobbying for climate legislation and other civics associations. I wonder what sort of association among those working in the development sector might look like specifically to “lobby” decision-makers in influential INGOS or even USAID and the like.

  4. As a former CEO of a small campaigning organisation (some years ago), and a long-standing campaigner, this issue is something I think a lot about — but less about the internal, and more about what it means for the external world of influencing change. Managing campaigners means they use their external tactics on the inside…mobilising, attacking, etc. Yet as a leader and in that setting, meant I, and my management team, felt rather in the defence at times, and less likely to be open to change. It made me think about our external campaigning tactics and that we needed a different set of tools. If I wasn’t to be influenced by being told “I’m evil” by angry mobsters (this is an exaggeration of the situation of course), then why would that work on people in the outside world? Better persuasion and influencing tactics are needed both externally and internally.

    • Duncan Green

      Interesting twist Deborah – accusation tends not to work well in any setting, if the goal is persuading people to change course (but unfortunately, often works to whip up a mob)

  5. Susana Klien

    Thanks Duncan. Very interesting. Your post raises some questions/reflections (sorry, this may be long!):
    1) Yes, some of us may have felt at some points that we needed to instrumentalise the “asks” in order to get the organisational change we needed, particularly in order to convince leadership, boards and supporters. I do wonder though if in the end, while this approach may have achieved some changes (through ‘toning down’ narratives and/or making the “asks” more palatable), it also ended up de-politicising the issues internally –particularly when issues are actually political like power, rights, justice. Has this been effective?
    2) Aren’t we in danger of taking a short term/simplistic view of internal advocacy? Progress in terms of gender equality, gender sensitivity, women’s rights programmes and so on, for instance, would not have been possible without more than 30 years of advocacy –internal and external– and if it wasn’t for the activists, those confrontational and outspoken, those “angry feminists”, we wouldn’t have achieved those changes and women in leadership, gender sensitivity, maternity rights at work would still be hard (or even harder) discussions in our organisations. It may be important to acknowledge that these are long internal struggles with many stages.
    3) I am not sure if in a topic that seems currently difficult to acknowledge by the sector, very personal for people of colour, and very uncomfortable for many –particularly white colleagues-, such as racism and colonialism in the aid industry and our organisations (and our own roles in supporting this by action or inaction), the type of internal advocacy highlighted would be the most effective. In these particular topics we probably are where we were in terms of gender 30 years or so ago (and it feels even more entrenched and hard sometimes). Despite these issue being raised by people in our organisations, particularly in country offices, and also by partners, It feels that it has been due to particular events like BLM; Covid-19; cases of bullying and racism exposed publicly; and strong vocal, frustrated, outspoken people of colour -and feminist of colour particularly, that the issues are gaining traction inside organisations to create spaces/discussions and actions. It feels difficult to think that the tactics/messages have to be sweetened and softened in something so deeply rooted. Maybe we need to take a longer view of internal campaigns/change and the contexts to assess what pushes changes in the organisations in hard and difficult issues, as well as acknowledging the importance of confrontation and calling-out behaviours and issues to achieve organisational change. We all need to remember that the content of the message is more important than the way in which is delivered, and usually “the way in which is delivered” is what people whose powers are challenged tend to focus on. I know we won’t achieve much when people become defensive, but maybe there is a problem in how we are shaping organisational cultures that are not open to have challenging and difficult discussions?
    4) Many issues are pushing many of us to re-think how we work, how change happens, our assumptions, and reflect on how far removed we may have become from social and racial justice agendas, working in solidarity and collective struggles that were the basis for the creation of our organisations. I want to believe that there is place for anger and rage, and that that is welcomed as a tactic for internal organisational change (Soraya Chemaly explains powerfully how can anger can become a source of liberation).

    • Duncan Green

      Gonna have to think about that one Susana. I instinctively feel that anger and rage are very rarely effective in bringing about change on their own – the question is what you do with them, who you direct them at, and what else you do. But maybe that’s just me being a conflict-avoider/someone in a position of relative inluence – let me reflect a bit.

    • Tina Mason

      Very interesting subject! Insightful suggestions. I have really resonated with your reply here Susana. I realise that defensiveness can get in the way of the change that is being pursued, but I also believe that making the message more palatable, or interest driven, can start to erode the message. So whilst I don’t think attacking is helpful, at the same time I wouldn’t fully trust someone delivering a message without any flicker of emotion over the presumable injustice they wish to change. And not calling things out directly would perhaps have the effect of making it too easy to depersonalise the responsibility for change. I would instead be inclined to think of the very measured individual as lacking genuineness or virtue signalling or not being prepared to really put them self on the line for it (this is from the perspective of a peer who might be influenced / mobilised by the cause, and not admittedly as the leader or management being called out). Maybe this is unfair if the person is really being very strategic in their approach, but I don’t know – I vote for a healthy dose of rage, which can also be leveraged from the external. And I agree that there should be spaces to have difficult conversations, within which ‘uncomfortable’ emotions can be present. I also think that framing the cause to fit the lens of leadership interest might contradict the full realisation of that cause – and you end up down the line with half wins because you sold out on the other part. Maybe I’m just too impatient.

  6. Thanks for sharing this Duncan. This is precisely what we’ve been doing for years on disability inclusion – where until recently we had very few organizational policies or commitments to back us up, so it was our charisma and connectivity that made it happen.
    I did an interview with one of the experts to document how we do it:
    See from “we are not the disability police” where Stefan talks about his strategy for infiltration. (And actually the first part of the interview is about how we operate now we have a UN strategy on disability inclusion)