Solution-Based Advocacy: Advocating with Empathy

By Al Etmanski, from the book IMPACT: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation


We need government, regardless of who is in power. Their track record and our previous disappointment with their unresponsiveness or callousness don’t really matter. We are they. They are we.

Laws, regulations, policy, taxation, contracting, procurement, setting and enforcing standards, reallocating resources – these are all indispensable tools for achieving impact. So is government’s distribution system, which is second to none. The government is in contact with everyone. We need government at its innovative best, particularly if we want its representatives to fulfill their roles as receptive social innovators.

That’s why a new breed of advocates is emerging, who support more innovation and risk-taking within government. These people are proponents of solution-based advocacy. They have two objectives: to propose solutions and to enhance government’s capacity to make better decisions.

Solution-based advocates want to do more than oppose government or focus unduly on what’s not working. They’re tired of reacting, and they work hard to cultivate a proactive mindset. Their focus is on workable solutions. These folks haven’t gone soft, parking their issues until government gets its act together. Neither are they naive. They are prudent. They want results, just like everyone else, but they also want to improve relationships among all the players, to attract new allies, to build a base for addressing the next set of challenges.

Perhaps where solution-based advocates differ most from traditional lobbyists is in their focus on means as well as ends. They recognize that jamming something through a system doesn’t usually work, because the system’s culture doesn’t change. If anything, it becomes more defensive.

Solution-based advocates bring empathy to their work. In doing so, they:

• strengthen relationships while seeking solutions
• accept that there are no easy answers to our toughest challenges
• create the conditions for joint problem solving
• understand that the vast majority of issues are not “either/or” or “we/they” but lie in the grey area between
• commit to sorting out competing principles and values, rather than leaving that role exclusively to government
• practise civility and respect, addressing the problem, not individual character

Five Characteristics of Solution-Based Advocacy

1. Search for a Heart of Gold
Look for points of connection regardless of political affiliation. It’s not that our differences don’t matter but their potential – what they can be and should be – matters more.

2. Use Strategic Inquiry
Strategic inquiry is a prelude to more active lobbying. It’s based on the premise that the best way to learn about the procedures, language and priorities of those you’re trying to influence is to ask them. Your job is to gain an understanding of government’s stated and unstated objectives.

3. Cultivate a Network of Champions
Solution-based advocacy focuses on relationships. People are more likely to say yes to someone they know and trust. There are allies attached to every system, at every level, who are waiting for a good idea and the right person to come along. It’s important to cultivate an informal network of champions that includes politicians, political advisers and public servants, as well as business and community leaders and, potentially, celebrities.

4. Solve Problems Together
More authentic collaboration among the sectors is needed. Government must shift from doing “for” to doing “with.” This means that citizens, far from being bystanders, must be meaningfully engaged. Some have labelled this new approach to public policy development “co-creation”.

5. Do it yourself
To move your issue along, you may have to take the lead and do it yourself. According to Sean Moore, advocates now have to do a lot more of the heavy lifting if they want to advance their issues in a timely manner and increase their chances of success.

This is an excerpt from Al Etmanski’s new bestseller, IMPACT: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation. This fabulously readable book details the process following decades of practice and research, and includes a wellspring of advocacy success stories from across Canada and around the world.