With so many critical issues to work on, how do you decide where to allocate your limited time and resources? This is a perennial question for advocacy groups that arises in situations as wide-ranging as a community organization choosing between building a campaign on affordable housing or on equitable transportation, a multi-issue think tank allocating funds between several policy areas, or a professional association determining whether to back a particular piece of legislation. A single organization can wrestle with all of these questions at multiple stages from big picture strategic planning discussions to daily advocacy campaign decisions.
It turns out the list of considerations for where to allocate resources and what to support are surprisingly similar across types of organizations, and should be very consistent within a single organization across different types of decisions. Speaking broadly from my own experience, organizations will weigh 1) internal factors such as core values, constituency preferences, and an assessment of potential impact; and 2) external factors like the landscape of other groups working on a policy issue and opportunities to enact policy. During my time at Young Invincibles, a staff committee came up with a checklist, initially to help us decide whether to take up a new issue we had not worked on before. For example, should we expand beyond health care and education to work on immigration or climate? Since then, I’ve joined multiple other organizations applying versions of the same questions to a wide range of strategic choices including a) strategic planning; b) resource allocation among campaigns; and c) whether to publicly support legislation, coalition letters, or other political positions.
There is no mathematical formula for making the right strategic choice in these scenarios, but there are several benefits to creating and applying your own organizational checklist. Reviewing the same factors every time improves consistency and outcomes. How you write the checklist and what factors you weigh more heavily than others will help you implement your organizational strategy. For example, a constituency organization will emphasize the internal preferences of their members, perhaps putting major policy decisions to a vote. On the other hand, a think tank without a membership that seeks to reduce poverty might look to data about which policy areas have the greatest effect on poverty rates to guide resource allocation. Finally, having an explicit, prioritized checklist improves transparency: it provides a tool to explain to key stakeholders—including your staff, board, and funders— why and how a given decision has been made.
In this post, I’ll go through seven of the most common factors I’ve seen advocacy groups consider when making resource-allocation decisions, including examples of how different organizations with various strategies include these factors in their political and policy decision-making.
Any organizational decision should start with your values. Frequently, values will serve to help you “gut check” decisions, and veto options that would compromise your core beliefs. Your mission and culture will also guide how you do your work in a positive sense. If your organization believes in “going bold” regardless of the political scenario, you may take on issues like climate change that demand big reform. Within an issue area your values will also guide decisions about where to place your support. For example, you might pass on modest legislation in favor of a Green New Deal. Finally, your values also help you determine how much you weigh the other factors in your checklist, including how you involve your constituency if you have one.
2. Constituency Voice
If your organization has a specific constituency, their opinions are going to matter on any given decision you make. For example, if you’re a civic association representing accountants, their interests and values will drive your advocacy work. You’ll likely focus on tax law or licensure requirements where their professional interests lie. To the extent building power within a constituency is part of your mission, this factor will take on a large and overriding focus in decision-making. If you hail from a community organization with a local membership, you will want to work on something that speaks to your members’ daily lives. If affordable housing comes up as the most common personal challenge in member meetings, that could weigh heavily in favor of an affordable housing campaign. Some membership organizations will have formal votes on major issues, strategic plans, or even legislative bills, often through a board led by constituency representatives. Conversely, for think tanks without a natural constituency or membership, the process may look different. An anti-poverty think tank could look to polling data on the priorities of Americans with low incomes to influence the problems it seeks to tackle. They may also look to the next factor as well.
Another factor to consider is which policy or policy area would make the biggest impact on the population you care about. The anti-poverty think tank in the previous example would judge potential issues to focus on based on which would do the most to alleviate poverty. Perhaps their assessment is that increasing the minimum wage would lift the greatest number of people out of poverty. Alternatively, a lack of affordable housing may hold a greater number of people back from achieving financial stability, suggesting the organization should focus its resources on developing housing policy. This need not be an entirely quantitative exercise. Human rights organizations looking to preserve the dignity and well-being of refugees will probably learn more from surveys, focus groups, and interviews about what matters most in developing fair asylum policies. For certain groups, the assessment of impact may look no different than the constituency voice above.
The level of impact your organization can have is always limited by your level of resources, both in terms of time and money. The more staff you have, the more work you can do. Even those staff face limits, however. If you are making a strategic planning decision on whether to build a new program, you should consider your ability to financially support that program over the long run. A hot-button issue that matters to your volunteer base might generate plenty of revenue through individual contributions and enable you to build a bigger team. For shorter-term questions like whether to join a coalition campaign this year, you’ll need to consider what resources you have— if any— to support that work now, where the allocated staff will come from, and what you are choosing not to do to free up those resources.
5. Value Added
In contrast to the first four areas, which mainly focus on internal factors—that is, who you are, what you care about, and what your capacity is—the following three areas focus on external factors. The tension between internal and external reality reflects a fundamental dynamic of political advocacy where you must balancing your interests and values with those of the stakeholders around you.
One initial question advocacy organizations will ask themselves when determining where to allocate resources is how much their voice will help on a given issue. Usually, the first step in assessing this value added involves checking whether other organizations are already leading on that issue. Let’s say a member of your local coalition is already focused on affordable housing. You may deemphasize it as a priority in order to avoid duplication, choosing to support their events and legislation when you can and focus most of your resources on equitable transportation. Value added can also be found in a particular expertise or skill your organization brings to the table. Let’s say an advocacy coalition seeking improved health regulations in your state is struggling to overcome industry opposition. If your organization has volunteers who would benefit from improved rules and are willing to pressure lawmakers, you could have an outsized impact leading the coalition organizing effort and countering the other interest groups.
6. Opportunity for Policy Change
Another feature of the political landscape to examine is how much of a political opportunity there is to move your preferred policy. Whoever is in power—whether in Congress, a state legislature, a city council, or an executive administration—may simply not agree with you or be unwilling to prioritize your cause. No matter how often you show up at Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky Senate office he is not likely to bring up a bill to ban coal-fired power plants. If you want to change climate policy you may need to look at a different issue, different policymakers (e.g. state, local, or administrative), or change strategy to focus on shifting control of the Senate.
How much weight you place on the opportunity for near-term policy opportunity results your values and organizational strategy. I recall reading a mission statement for a think tank that very explicitly stated that they would not take into account the current political environment and would work on and supporting policy that they deemed to be most important for creating a just society. They emphasized a long view of ultimately changing what was politically possible. Other organizations may alternatively place a higher priority on near-term impact and adjust their issues and policy agenda commensurate with their opportunities for convincing relevant policymakers to enact a preferred policy. The choice between long-term and short-term gains is not necessarily an either/or proposition. For example, it’s possible to seek shorter-term, smaller wins that build momentum to eventually change the political climate.
7. Political Capital
The final factor to consider is an issue’s impact on your political capital. You might consider capital like your overall influence in the political sphere. Some organizations will refer to it as “reputational risk” while constituency groups might consider the collective power of their movement. Whatever you call it, the issues you work on and which positions you take can impact your overall influence. An education advocacy organization may disagree with a recent bill proposed by the chairwoman of the state senate education committee but hold off on public criticism because they need her support on another bill. Conversely, a parent organizing group may highlight the harmful regulation proposed by the governor’s office because the controversial proposal will galvanize their members and provide an opportunity to recruit more volunteers. The benefits and costs are not always straightforward. Taking on an unpopular issue may look like a bad idea now, but may dramatically increase your influence down the road. Progressive groups advocating for free college and single-payer health care five years ago may have received little initial traction, but are now driving the agenda of the Democratic primary debate.
How to Apply These Factors to Actual Decisions
Thinking about how to apply these seven factors to organizational decisions can quickly get abstract, so I will try to demonstrate with a systematic example. Step one is to create your own list either through a strategic planning discussion or another venue. This should include some version of the list above with your own language and framing, as well as a sense of which factors might have a special emphasis. Are you a constituency organization that emphasizes the voice of your membership? A think tank seeking to impact a particular problem? How much do you care about short-term wins versus. long-term impact? Once you have a general sense of your own list and what factors weigh most heavily, step two is to start applying that list to real-world choices.
On the biggest-picture level, work through your considerations as you weigh decisions as part of a strategic plan. Should your organization continue to work on local public health issues or shift to take on a broader environmental justice program that emphasizes the impact of local energy production on marginalized communities? Your values, the preferences of your volunteers, potential resources, coalition dynamics, and opportunities for policy change will all help answer that question. While there is no mathematical formula, you will want to test your reasoning with your staff, board, membership, and funders as part of your strategic plan. The checklist itself won’t make the decision for you, but should help you organize relevant information and clarify which factors matter the most.
For shorter-term decisions such as whether to support a particular piece of legislation, you likely won’t need the thoroughness of a strategic plan review. A verbal run through a checklist may be enough in some cases. As I noted above, at Young Invincibles we built a list for taking on major new issues such as building an immigration policy program, but also ended up using it when smaller-scale questions arose. For example, we knew we supported expanding access to financial aid for students with low incomes, but would a new proposed bill that accomplished this using resources from existing higher-education programs be worth it? We’d run through our checklist.
Having a list of considerations in and of itself will not guarantee the best political decisions all the time. Nevertheless, having the conversation about which of these seven factors you consider and how you will weigh them helps make your organizational strategy more transparent, and your ability to implement that strategy more consistent. And by nudging you to consider the most relevant information every time, it should lead to improved decision-making.
Are there other factors you would add? Let me know through comments or by email.