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Sam Davidson's blog

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I Wish I'd Majored in Advocacy

Okay, I don't really. Mainly because whatever I learned might now be obsolete or I might have been taught incorrectly to the point that whatever I learned might be irrelevant or downright incorrect. All that to say, advocacy seems to be a discipline that can't be taught institutionally and must instead be learned practically - much like an apprenticeship.

My sister's boyfriend is thinking of being an underwater welder, working to fuse metals on bridges, oil rigs and pipelines. If he pursues this option, not only could he potentially have a lucrative (yet dangerous) job, but I also assume he won't read a book, take a test and be handed his SCUBA gear and welder's tools. He'll have some classroom time, I'm sure. But the only way to become good – effective, rather – at welding (or plumbing or painting) is to grab the tools and get to work.

I think that advocacy must be learned in much the same way. Sadly, nonprofits (and their individual supporters) are sitting on the sidelines while the very problems they're trying to address with their work are worsened at the hands of poor legislation and an uneducated public.

If a nonprofit wants to position itself for a better tomorrow and a more effective mission, then it needs to get advocating.

However, one reason many organizations don't is because of fear or ignorance. Robert Egger points this out in his latest blog post after he spoke with accountants and attorneys, many of whom incorrectly understand a nonprofit's ability to advocate (or not). He cites his own experience in starting the DC Central Kitchen, an agency that began by distributing unused food from hotels and restaurants to hungry individuals. The prevailing opinion at the time was that establishments weren't allowed to do such things, when in fact, laws were (and are) in place that easily facilitate such an exchange.

Thus, the first step in advocacy is to get rid of the misconceptions. Bust the myths. Shatter the rumors. Throw away the excuses.

Another misconception? Elected officials don't read their mail. Brian Steidle, an advocate for Darfur, shared at an event I attended that hand written letters often end up on Senate and House desks. Email campaigns, while great for establishing numbers and momentum, may not be paid attention to as much. But everything is noted.

So, if your voice is heard and if we educated ourselves about what's allowable (that nonprofits can, in fact, advocate), what's next?

Our only hope is to get out and actually do the hard work of advocacy, especially once we've trimmed the fat that is our own misunderstandings of what's possible.

All in all, I may not have actually majored in advocacy, but I do believe it's a key skill for anyone who wants to change the world. Whether the current election inspires or depresses you, there's no denying that you've got to play politics to get some stuff done. After all, if you're volunteering at the soup kitchen but are silent about laws that prevent access to the very resource you're providing, you're chasing your own tell at best and chopping off your own hand at worst.

Tail chasing and hand chopping – I don't think I would have wanted to major in those, either. Funny how much we invariably do them by not doing something else. Get out from your study guide and get to learning the skills of advocacy, my friends.