What Does Advocacy Have In Common with the Mexican Train Game? (Or Advocacy Superpower #2)


Last weekend I flew to Phoenix to deliver a training to members of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies. The Network is a brand new entity that resulted from the merging of two separate networks.

The CEOs came together in their first formal meeting to discuss how they could use advocacy to advance their leadership. A key part of the morning was focused on how to better engage key stakeholders, including boards and legislators because they understood Rule #2 of using your Advocacy Superpower: Play well with others to achieve greater impact.

Stakeholder engagement is the driving force and differentiator behind nonprofits who know how to maximize their impact and those who don’t.

As we went around the room and members shared stories about how they had tackled this, I was struck by the similarities between this process and a game my kids and I like to play called the Mexican Train Game.

In the game, each player receives a set of dominoes to begin building their “track” out from the central station or hub. The goal is for each player to use up their dominoes first. The game really gets interesting when players are sometimes forced to play with others by making their private tracks “public.”

It’s this wrinkle in the game, the element of the unknown, that makes it interesting and is often the game-changer because, by creating more possibilities, it enables a leader to emerge more quickly.

It’s precisely this messiness of opening ourselves and our organizations up to the unknown possibilities that I find often deters nonprofits from reaching out and more proactively engaging stakeholders in advocacy.

What I have observed is that we are much more comfortable playing it safe, and managing known risks, then taking a risk and opening ourselves up to working with others. However, if we don’t take this risk….

We risk irrelevance. This was the very fear that had prompted the leaders of the Network to assemble their members together to discuss advocacy.

What I know for sure is nonprofits who choose to play with others are able to create more impact and emerge as leaders.

As I listened to members share their success it was clear that those who committed to engaging one of their most critical stakeholders – their boards – early on in advocacy were by far more well-positioned then their peers.

The story shared by the San Diego Jewish and Children Family Services was no exception. Five years ago their CEO decided to begin engaging in advocacy to address the rising homelessness problem in the area. At the same time, a new board member expressed an interest in advocacy.

Together, this joint commitment propelled them to begin reaching out and forming relationships with local, state, and federal legislators. Over time, their visibility attracted the attention of both public and private funders, resulting in a significant increase in grants to address the problem of homelessness in new and innovative ways with a widening group of other public and private entities.

Another much smaller organization shared how once they made the somewhat controversial decision to expand beyond assisting their traditional client group to assist Muslim refugees, they attracted a significant private donation.

How about your organization? Do you know who the key stakeholders are that you need to engage with? Or are you a member of a network, association or coalition that is looking to work better together? Do you have a plan in place to do so?

Oftentimes, it’s the internal resistance to increasing our visibility and taking a step in the unknown toward working with new stakeholders that can prevent us from achieving the impact we long for.

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