Nonprofit Leaders Are Social Change Advocates

Sarah Fox is the director of advocacy & community impact at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness;  Gretchen Raffa is the director of public policy, advocacy & strategic engagement at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. Both work extensively in the areas of public policy and advocacy.

Five Frogs [FF]: How do you define advocacy?

Sarah Fox [SF]: Advocacy is about helping to build the voice of your community, your stakeholders, and the people you serve. In advocacy work, you try to effectively use stories and personal experiences to highlight the impact of an issue.

Gretchen Raffa [GR]: I think of advocacy as the process of influencing someone’s attitude about an issue. For me, it is also about fighting for what you believe in.

FF: In LDR, we spend time exploring our personal values and uncovering the values of our organizations. How important is advocacy to the values of your organization and to each of you as individuals?

SF: Advocacy is at the core of everything we do at the CT Coalition to End Homelessness. We work closely with homeless service providers across the state and those who have experienced homelessness to make sure their stories and their voices are heard by state and local officials; our efforts are aimed at educating legislators and developing public policy solutions to end homelessness in Connecticut. Through advocacy, we give our elected officials the opportunity to hear from their constituents and understand the importance of this issue.

GR: At Planned Parenthood, we can’t live our mission without being advocates. Today’s political climate makes it more important now than ever to speak up for our patients and give them the tools and resources to advocate for themselves. A crucial piece of providing healthcare services is ensuring our patients have access and the ability to take charge of their health—our public policy and community work strives to knock down any barriers to access.

Advocacy has always been important to me—I have always believed in fairness, in equity, and in fighting an unjust system. I have a curiosity about communication and learning about people; advocacy work is a good outlet for discovery.

SF: I am a policy practitioner with a background in social work, so I have been involved with advocacy for a long time. I became tired of just putting “bandaids” on problems and wanted to contribute to more systemic solutions and make lasting change.

FF: What is the goal of your advocacy work?

GR: We try to be constantly learning. Planned Parenthood is working to be more intentional at identifying those who are most harmed or affected by the system and bring them into the advocacy process—especially those in underserved and minority communities. We want to build relationships with patients outside a healthcare setting and empower them to speak up and have their voices heard. We try to give people the tools and the room to share their stories and show them how to fight for their reproductive rights.

SF: We want to convey the important work our homeless service providers perform every day, and talk about those who have been affected by homelessness. A big focus of our work at the state level is the mantra “every dollar matters,” reminding our legislators that any cut to state funding has a serious impact on our organizations to do their work toward ending homelessness.

FF: Do you have some advice for our readers? Any advocacy DOs and DON’Ts you can share?

SF: Definitely DO work at building relationships and coalitions, especially with those also involved in your issue area. If you are advocating for change or proposing new policy, everyone should agree on the right priority and approach—present a united front. (DON’T be divided!)

GR: DON’T make assumptions about what your constituents need. Look around the table and ask “who isn’t here? Which voices do we need to hear from?” and make sure those people are included at the beginning. Be active, engaged, authentic listeners.

SF: DO be strategic, succinct and direct in your asks. The core of advocacy is education: once someone understands the problem, be clear and direct about the solution you need.

Legislators want to and need to hear from their constituents and experts — they are not fluent in every issue area. People are hesitant to call, but your voice truly matters; empower people in your organization, on your board, and those you serve.

GR: Make time to develop your strategy; DON’T rush into action without being thoughtful. When planning your advocacy campaign, DON’T do only the things that are “fun”—instead, constantly ask yourself, “will this work towards my overall goal?” If not, ditch it.

DO have honest conversations with your community. Don’t shy away from tension or conflict, work through it to develop solutions.

FF: Why should all nonprofit leaders work as advocates for their cause?

SF: If you don’t have a voice in the system, you can’t well represent the people you’re serving. Our voice is what drives change; any nonprofit that is disconnected or uninformed is not going to be effective in serving their mission.

GR: Because we have to: advocacy is how we advance our cause. We have a responsibility to deliver our mission by using our power to speak up for those who struggle to find power in the system.

FF: Can you share with us what you’re working on now?

GR:  We are working to give our patients a voice and protect healthcare for the 60,000 Connecticut residents who rely on Planned Parenthood services. We are exploring the intersection of different issues that present barriers to healthcare access—affordable minimum wage, paid family leave, immigrants; rights, transportation issues.

SF: We have made great progress on ending homelessness in the state. We are setting some strategic goals and objectives for the future, and remain committed to focusing our efforts on affordable healthcare and strengthening our network of services.