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Working in Fields

Yellow flowers in a field

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how different it looks to work in a field instead of alone. And no, I don’t mean out in a field of flowers (though that sounds lovely). Rather, I’m referring to a field of organizations trying to cause the same type of change, though not necessarily in collaboration or even cooperation.

We are all part of these fields: it’s the five other organizations who submitted nearly the same proposal as you did to a local funder; the three groups who knocked on the same policymaker’s door last week, talking about the same issue; the two partners you call when a quick turnaround opportunity comes up that you can’t pull off alone. The mix of all these types of organizations comprises our field (or fields, for multi-issue, multi-area organizations).

Years of emphasis on collaboration and collective impact have made sure we all recognize that we can’t get to the big wins without partners. However, we also deal with the competing reality that collaboration is hard, time consuming, and rarely exists across all the relevant organizations. So what if we thought about our work at a field level as more than just our collaborations? What would it take to influence how a field of organizations can achieve major wins together?

It turns out some folks out there have started to think about this and, in fact, have begun to define some dimensions of fields of advocates who are trying to advance a policy or systemic issue. Within each of these dimensions, there are concrete ways advocacy organizations, funders or even evaluators can help to strengthen the field:

Framing of the issue or issues

Effective fields share a common frame or core set of values underlying their work. For example, pursuing Healthy Eating, Active Living (HEAL) policy change in order to address inequities v. to address the lack of capacity in the healthcare system to meet the growing demand. While each of these frames is valid, one would approach the problem fairly differently and identify different solutions within each frame. Because of this, they might be different fields.

  • So what can you do with this? You can look for partners who share the same frame and identify common opportunities to act together. You can promote your frame to other organizations in the same space and work to change the overall framing around the issue. As a funder, you can invest resources to strengthen organizations that share your frame.

Resources and skills

Fields are composed of organizations with different resources and skills to influence an issue. Most fields have deficits, such as a lack of strong policy analysis/research capacity or insufficient community organizing. Alternatively, they may lack key skills that are rarely needed, but when needed they are critical, such as launching ballot initiative campaigns or leading litigation processes.

  • So what can you do about this? Explore the deficits and seek to grow your organization in that direction, rather than duplicating already available capacity. Build the skills of other organizations so they can engage in work that is complimentary to your own.

Connectivity

Fields have varying levels of relationships between organizations. Strong relationships allow for coordinated strategies, leveraging of capacities, and use of common messaging on specific policy opportunities, while weak relationships can make it difficult to work together at the right moments to achieve policy or systemic changes.

  • So what can you do about this? Seek out organizations that are traditionally not connected to your part of the field, particularly those that bring a different resource, skill, or voice to the work. Intentionally leverage old and new partners for concrete opportunities to move an issue together. If you’re a funder, provide resources and convening opportunities to organizations currently not connected to one another.

Composition

Composition refers to the representation of different types of stakeholders, from the inclusion of public/private partners to racial, ethnic, and economic diversity and more. Fields that represent a broad array of stakeholders carry more influence when policy opportunities arise and also help craft policy solutions that are more likely to achieve the desired outcomes than when only a couple perspectives dominate the field.

  • So what can you do about this? Identify which voices are missing from the field or are marginalized. Expand the perspectives or organizations you engage. If you’re a funder, consider bringing new voices into the field by funding direct service or community organizations who want to advocate.

Adaptive Capacity

When the context shifts in a policy campaign or systems building strategy, effective advocacy organizations shift their strategies as well. A strong field doesn’t shift in 10 different directions or miss key signals indicating a shift is needed. Rather, when part of the field identifies the need for change, the need is recognized throughout the field and the changes are aligned.

  • So what can you do about this? If your organization is skilled at monitoring the environment, share what you’re learning actively with other organizations. If you don’t have the capacity to do that monitoring, seek out partners who do and share what you learn from them. If you’re a funder, consider funding one or more organizations to engage in environmental assessments ongoing with the expectation that they will disseminate the learning actively and in a timely manner.

This might be the longest blog I’ve ever written, but I hope you find the ideas are worth the number of words on the screen. Working at a field level may lead to stronger collaborations in the future, but just as important is the way it will change how organizations respond and react to each other and the environment in order to advocate in ways that collectively contribute to the likelihood of success.

I will be joining thought leaders on this issue of working collectively (without having to work collaboratively) at the American Evaluation Association’s annual conference this year. If you’re attending, I hope you can join us and move this dialogue forward.