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Global Interdependence Initiative
CONTINUOUS PROGRESS Better Advocacy Through Evaluation
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“Groups are mostly whistling in the dark, when it comes to showing policy change results in one year or short time periods. And if they do, I wouldn't even believe them. You can't change policy in short time frames.”
— Phil Sparks, Communications Consortium Media Center


“We see some interesting opportunities out there, in particular with AIDS work. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently conducted a survey of the American public, asking questions about whether the U.S. should spend more on issues such as global AIDS. People are saying YES, because they see that it can make a difference, and they say the U.S. can do more..." Read more »

Building Momentum: The Tipping Point of Policy Change

Policy change is often incremental and slow. Especially if the target of your advocacy effort is a large bureaucracy or highly political, change can take years to take root. Decision-making processes are complex. They are further complicated by unexpected outside events. Generally speaking, even if members of the public are interested and supportive, their level of action and engagement may remain very low unless they perceive the issue to be immediately relevant to their lives. Moreover, overuse of jargon discourages members of the public from feeling that they can understand or influence events.

What constitutes an advocacy victory?
Sometimes what seems like an advocacy victory is very short-lived, or suddenly becomes a defeat: a Congressperson who promised you support backs down; a promising partnership with a media channel that you've worked on for one year falls through; the event that you expected to rally 100,000 people only attracted 10,000. In these situations, you and your coalition may have to regroup and start again.

In other situations, a small victory is achieved, but by itself is not enough to spur policy change. One example is an increase in funding for the enforcement of environmental standards already in place -- a welcome development but not sufficient to move the needle towards conserving biodiversity. Another might be a funding decision on an education priority which is spread over a five year period, ensuring pitched battles year after year to protect the newly-captured funding. These victories, however, provide the basis for a larger change that could be seen in two, three or even ten years. It is important to keep in mind that every victory counts, however small, and can be a stepping stone for the next success. This is a reality of policy advocacy that you and your donors need to accept.

Building capacity for incremental progress
Advocates are dealing all the time with small victories and defeats. But you need to show results that your donors and other stakeholders will find encouraging and affirming. The best way you can build momentum is by building your capacity to be agile and act when the time is right, and by sharing the results, good and bad, with your staff, your grantmaker, your fellow advocates and your constituents. Defeats, too, can be important learning opportunities. As you monitor the landscape and track the incremental changes that you did and didn't contribute to, you will be better equipped to predict when or how these changes could generate a tipping point.

Take as an example the massive rallies calling for action on American immigration policy in the spring and summer of 2006. Within the inner-most circles of immigration policy debate, organizations were aware that these enormous events all around the country were immensely valuable in the battle for the legislation they were supporting. They also knew that the rallies weren't enough to get the action they were seeking, congressional passage of a law that would deal with many of the undocumented immigrants inside the United States fairly and safely, rather than triggering mass deportations and arrests of charitable organizations offering aid to undocumented immigrants. Although such legislation was supported by the White House and was viewed as a priority by many Americans in poll after poll, no legislation was passed on immigration in 2006. The capacity successes of organizations working on the issue -- mobilizing massive numbers of activists, identifying new advocates, utilizing new information channels, building new organization and coalition alliances -- however, will be absolutely invaluable in future efforts to take action on this issue. 

Be prepared
In legislative advocacy, some advocates are very connected with decision makers—they practically live on Capitol Hill—and they are often “in the know” about what's coming up. Others might be so invested in their own work that they have a hard time monitoring all the political ups and downs and detecting upcoming changes. Which one are you? How can you be best prepared to react to the opportunities and threats that the environment presents? How can you be ready for the tipping point?

Momentum can be felt when a bill is introduced and it secures critical co-sponsors; a coalition with several large organizational memberships joins your advocacy campaign; the frames used by the media to discuss your issue are starting to change. You can celebrate and share these major victories, learn from and share the defeats, keep going and build momentum!