Our CEO, Justine, discusses the theme of this year's Advocacy Awareness Week and how we may still have a long way to go when it comes to demonstrating impact.

This week marked the second national Advocacy Awareness Week, with a focus on demonstrating impact. It was a brave theme to choose as the advocacy sector, in my humble opinion, has a long way to go in this regard. Impact, or in the simplest of terms, to have a strong effect on someone or something, is what we are great at doing, but not so good at evidencing. We take to social media, tell our stories about life changing advocacy and dutifully send our service reach stats into our funders and commissioners, but what are we really saying, or more importantly showing? And ultimately, does it matter?

At Advocacy Focus we have a strong vision and mission. That advocacy is available to all who may need it in our communities and that we will help people to achieve the outcomes that matter to them in their lives, by providing high quality advocacy. We are in fact steadfastly working towards the day when our friends, family, neighbours and colleagues don’t need advocacy.  We work hard to put ourselves out of a job. Why? Well, at the heart of all we do and all the services we deliver, are people. We work tirelessly to enable them to be front and centre in the decision making process and have spent years co-producing our services, resources and literature to help them do just that.

"Self-advocacy is the dream. The day when every individual is able to speak up, get their point across and have their voice heard."

Self-advocacy is the goal. The golden ticket. The day when every individual is able to speak up, get their point across and have their voice heard. We are in the process of launching our self-advocacy toolkit and subsequent app, and will disseminate it far and wide to anyone who needs it.  Sure we will have download stats from our website every time someone clicks through and takes a copy and the same will apply for our app, but how we will we know it has the desired effect?  How will we know that the document we have lovingly and painstakingly co-produced with some wonderful individuals with lived experience across Lancashire and the North West has had an impact? How will we know if it has helped people to live the lives they want to live? Well the short answer is, we won’t, well not fully anyway. And you know what we are good with that.  Because ultimately we want people to be their own best advocate and put us out of a job. Simple. 

The harsh reality though, is that people will always need advocacy in some way, shape or form. People that lack the capacity to make decisions for themselves, people that have no friends or family to support them, people who feel overwhelmed by the sheer red tape they face, with little or no knowledge of where to start. Statutory advocacy is not going away. It never will. There are too many people out there that need independent advocacy at the most challenging and difficult points in their lives. If those people are lucky, they will have a positive experience with an organisation such as ours. A team of Advocates that will put them at the heart of the process, fight their corner and enable them to have their voice heard.

"In our sector there are pockets of excellence and individuals that go above and beyond to fly the flag for advocacy and the people they serve."

In our sector there are pockets of excellence and individuals that go above and beyond to fly the flag for advocacy and the people they serve. Advocacy at its absolute finest. However, we still face the same challenges we have always faced.  Reduced budgets, significant demand, areas of unmet need and lack of services to signpost people to. There is also the need for significant resources for the training and development of Independent Advocates to ensure they are Care Act compliant and delivering a seamless service for individuals. 

However, the biggest challenges I can see in regards to demonstrating impact are two-fold. Firstly, many statutory advocacy contracts are short term. One or two years of funding to deliver a quality focused, independent service. That simply isn’t long enough to bed in a service, build on what you have achieved and sustain it. Many weeks, sometimes months, are spent writing funding tenders and competing with other providers to ‘win’ an advocacy contract.  And then the cycle begins again. This process is time consuming, stressful and has to be done alongside the day job. It also prevents many smaller, grass roots charities from even starting the race, so our sector grows smaller and smaller as charities go to the wall or diversify their service offer to stay afloat. Diluting advocacy when it needs to be the strongest it has ever been.

Secondly, there’s the dark side of our sector. The larger providers with an assertive business development strategy that lay in wait until your contract is up for grabs and then swoop in and try to take your contract, your staff and ultimately set local advocacy offers back months – even years -  just to add the contract to their portfolio of services. This is having a significant impact on our sector.  When you are in direct competition with other advocacy providers and mindful of the fact that they are just waiting in the wings to take your ‘patch’, then it shuts down partnership working and the sharing of best practice. All to the detriment of the people who use and rely on our services. Don’t get me wrong, if contracts are failing and providers are not delivering high quality, person led advocacy, then all bets are off and the contract is fair game. However, I am talking about contracts that are not only working well, but are thriving. The nature of the tender process as it is currently however, means that another provider can simply come in, bid lower, promise the world and the contract is lost. Along with all the years of relationship management, networks and solid partnerships. All gone in the blink of an eye and usually to save what amounts to pocket change for many funders.

But we are where we are. At Advocacy Focus we continue to push forward with our gold standard advocacy, despite the fact that austere times mean we sometimes receive only bronze level funding. We work in partnership, we fundraise, we co-produce and most importantly we work hard at putting ourselves out of a job. How’s that for impact?