10 Ways to Grow Your Team’s Advocacy Skills (Part 1 of 2)

Note: This is the first part in a two-part series cataloguing professional development ideas for advocacy professionals. Part 1 will focus on external opportunities, while Part 2 (forthcoming) will focus on the even more important task of growing advocacy skills through everyday work. It’s written with managers in mind, but should be useful to everyone in an advocacy organization. 

Expanding your team’s skills is critical for retaining staff and ultimately pursuing your mission. The next two pieces will offer some ideas for busy advocacy managers. In the hustle and bustle of everyday work it can be difficult to identify strong development opportunities and my hope is that readers find something useful that saves time. In my own experience, conversations around professional development disproportionately focus on external options, such as attending offsite trainings. By contrast, management gurus focus on less glamorous day-to-day tools like providing feedback, initiating challenging projects designed to grow skills, and developing a career plan. Mentorship also matters a lot. 

Despite the primacy of routine tools, I’m going to focus on external professional development ideas first. For several reasons, outside opportunities are still worthwhile to pursue. First, sometimes you’ll need external expertise to help you staff develop specific skills. External providers can be especially effective when accompanied by a plan to implement lessons learned. Second, outsourcing training for an entire function can save you time and resources. For example, sending all of your campaign staff to a particular organizing training or managers to a management training allows you to import a ready-made framework instead of reinventing the wheel. Finally, regardless of whether the research suggests external opportunities matter much, staff tend to like the perk. It can boost morale and help people feel valued. If you have the resources for it, it’s often worth some investment.

Here are ten types of external training opportunities useful to advocacy staff. I’ll share some ideas for which roles may benefit most and how you might make sure your team can apply their newfound skills on the job. Well-resourced organizations may have flexibility to send individuals to providers without a strong link to organization strategy, but smaller advocacy organizations will want to make sure those resources are at least partially spent advancing the mission.

  1. Conferences

Conferences can be a great place to both expand a professional network and learn new skills.  Prices vary, but some can be fairly affordable, especially if they’re in your organization’s hometown. A good way to make conferences worthwhile is for a manager and attendee to set a goal at the outset, such as making an itinerary of sessions to attend or connecting with three new people who are potential future partners or even mentors. You can consider large, well-known conferences like Netroots Nation, though you also probably know great gatherings in your area that may be of interest. 

  1. Organizing

Several organizations offer trainings on key organizing skills including recruitment, coalition building, power mapping, and campaign strategy. This is an obvious option for field or organizing staff, but can also help senior leaders with experience in other functional roles who want or need to understand organizing. Like many of the training opportunities in this list, identifying a skill or two to apply after the training can be helpful for making the most of the opportunity. Midwest Academy and Training for Change are two established trainers, but there are many others out there. 

  1. Digital Organizing

Digital tools including email, text software, and social media can enhance the capacity of your organization to communicate with and mobilize supporters. Organizers, digital staff, and fundraisers can all benefit depending on your organization’s roles and needs. Arena Academy is a newer provider while re:power (formerly Wellston Action merged with New Organizing Institute) has a longer history. Both offer data analytics training too and while the programs tend to focus on electoral campaigns, they have plenty of applications for advocacy. 

  1. Basics of Fundraising

The ubiquity of fundraising has also resulted in a lot of easily accessible tools. These opportunities are great for junior development staff and any program staff interested in fundraising. Candid (a merger of the Foundation Center and Guidestar) has a number of free and low-cost options to help staff learn fundraising strategies while also gaining tools for identifying new potential funders. 

  1. Writing

Do you find yourself constantly correcting basic writing mistakes? Sometimes a writing workshop can help your team tighten their writing skills. This can be especially important for policy, research, or communications staff or those interested in moving to one of these roles. Where possible, have employees take a blog post or policy paper they are working on to the training, making it as practical as possible. I don’t have a specific workshop to recommend, but please include one in the comments if you do! 

  1. Data Visualization

A former colleague who led our research once expressed a desire to attend a data visualization workshop. At the time, I didn’t know these workshops existed, but it turned out to be a great idea. Quantitative analysis is only useful insofar as you can explain you findings to your audience. With augmented visual tools, our charts and graphs improved across the board. Quantitative research staff may stand to benefit most from  this training, but finance staff may also want to learn ways to present budget and spending data. General Assembly offers some relatively affordable workshops in multiple cites. 

  1. Public Speaking 

Public speaking is a great skill for pretty much everyone to build and there are firms all over the country dedicated to building communication. One way to make it practical is to identify an upcoming opportunity, such as a panel discussion, for a policy or research staff member to participate in and have them attend a public speaking training in advance. That way they can both practice and build confidence for a near-term goal, and hone their skills for future events as well. I just benefited from a great workshop led by Spoken with Authority. If you’re up for a regular commitment, Toastmasters likely has a group meeting near you.  

  1. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 

Building an inclusive culture is a foundational value for progressive organizations and a critical skill for all staff. I have most often seen trainers provide workshops for entire teams or organizations, but it’s also an option for individuals, either to develop cultural competency or to build more advanced skills. Deepening understanding of best practices around racial equity and inclusion is particularly important for staff in many predominantly white advocacy organizations. Raceforward provides trainings in cities around the country, but there are many others. Training for Change, mentioned above, offers anti-racism workshops as well. 

  1. Association Memberships

Another option is to cover membership fees for a professional association that your staff member can join. There are local and sometimes national groups for communications professionals, lawyers, government relations leaders, academics, and more. Associations not only provide networking opportunities but also potential for additional trainings, workshops, and conferences. 

  1. Management and Leadership

Finally, there are a bevy of management and leadership development opportunities out there. The Management Center offers training for new managers, project managers, manages of color, and more. I have also heard a lot of good things about the Rockwood Leadership Institute over the years, although it can get a little more expensive depending on your organization’s size. 

What am I missing? Please add more ideas or trainers in the comments below. Eventually, I’m hoping to aggregate all of this information into a resource page and happy to shout out folks who contribute.