Interview with Liz Birnbaum: In approaching a problem I try to understand the underlying causes of it

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What are some of the basic advocacy practices that NGOs should follow when engaging in advocacy?

Key elements for NGOs approaching an advocacy campaign are (1) to thoroughly research the issues, (2) to approach decisionmakers in a way that makes it easier for them to adopt the NGO’s solution, and (3) to work in coalition with others who may not have the same interests over all, but may share an interest in the solution. Research is essential both to understand the problem and develop a solution and also to approach decisionmakers with the knowledge to be persuasive. The approach to decisionmakers must be non-combative and informative, since educating decisionmakers about a problem is essential to persuading them to understand the value of the NGO’s solution. Coalitions can often approach various decisionmakers from different sides of the political spectrum and bring different understanding into the fight for the same solution.

When you approach a problem, what are the key parts that you are looking for?

In approaching a problem I try to understand the underlying causes of the problem. Just asking how many people are out of work, or how many people live in poor housing, doesn’t lead to a solution. Why are people out of work – is it a lack of jobs or a lack of education to do those jobs or a lack of transportation to get to those jobs? Only by understanding the root causes can you figure out what solutions will be most effective.

What would you say to people who are starting with advocacy work?

There’s a saying in English – “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It means that you can’t succeed if you insist on getting everything or nothing. Advocacy for change takes a long time, and often proceeds by small steps. It’s good to aim high, identify your ultimate goal, and educate the public about what needs to be done. But when it comes time to actually persuade decisionmakers to take action, you may have to settle for smaller goals. Don’t think of this as a failure – it’s likely the first step in a long campaign toward solving your problem.

In your sessions you often underlined a simple fact that we should treat politicians and public officials as people. Why do you think that advocates need to be reminded of it?

Advocates are often very unhappy or angry about the problems they are trying to solve. There may be good reasons for that anger, but it often doesn’t help in achieving a solution. The people who need to take action to solve the problem are just like anyone else – anger won’t persuade them. You can persuade them or change their minds only by approaching them reasonably and trying to get them to understand you and your problem.

Confrontation isn’t persuasive – it can achieve public awareness about a problem, and you may want to use it for that purpose. But more ordinary personal persuasion will ultimately be necessary to get results from decisionmakers. This is why you should always approach decisionmakers with solid data, a “narrative of impact” – an explanation of how your solution will solve the problem – and also personal stories. These elements are all parts of how you persuade someone to change their mind. Then you also need to use common sense about what kind of communications will lead someone to respond positively to you.

What are the questions that NGOs should be ready for, when asking for funding from donors regarding advocacy work?

The “narrative of impact” is the most important thing in approaching donors – what solution are you proposing, and how will it lead to social change? Then you will also need to explain how you will achieve your solution – How will you inform the public? How will you persuade decisionmakers? What information will you bring to the debate, and how will you develop that information? Who will your allies be? And most funders will also want to know “how can we measure whether you’ve been successful?”

What interesting moments do you recall and you are bringing home from the visit of Prague, Brno and discussions with Czech civil society?

First, I have to say that I was delighted to have a chance to see Brno, which is a beautiful city and very different from Prague. It was also good to hear that advocacy work extends beyond the capital, and that there are so many groups active in Brno. This indicates a broad interest among Czech society in achieving social change. From the discussions themselves, I was probably most interested in the conversation with the funding community in Prague. The conversation after my remarks was very sophisticated, and demonstrated a lot of long-term thinking on the part of funders about how to achieve change in Czech society. I also thought the conversation with Czech government officials indicated that there are a lot of common elements in interactions between the public and the government in the U.S. and Czechia.