Friday, October 16, 2020

Advocacy and Direct Service: Both are Needed

How can I help the most people? Where am I most needed? What's the best way to use my unique gifts to help others? 

These are questions I continue to ask myself over and over. The answers led me to learn to advocate to my members of Congress, but they also still compel me to keep my hand more directly in service efforts connecting me with people struggling with the policies I discuss on Capitol Hill. There's a difference between these two important, but very different kinds of work. Sometimes, I find it hard to explain when I'm recruiting new advocates. The question will always come up:

What is the difference between advocacy and direct service?

The River Metaphor

Imagine you are having a picnic near the banks of a raging river. You hear a cry for help and see several people—men, women, and children—fighting for their lives in the middle of the current. Mothers try to hold their babies above the water, but they are drowning. Children are being sucked under with exhausted parents. 

You and your fellow picnickers jump into action, tossing ropes and floats into the raging waters to reach as many people as you can, one by one. The survivors are grateful, but they point upriver to show you even more victims swept helplessly along. Maybe you and your shore-side buddies devise a brilliant system of ropes and pulleys to rescue multiple people, but there are far too many to save.


While your party is fishing people out of the raging waters, you turn your eyes upriver and wonder: “Why is this happening? Did a bridge collapse? Is there someone pushing people in the river? Is there some terrible danger up there that makes a perilous plunge the better choice?” 


You hike upstream to find a way to prevent people from falling into the river in the first place. Because you are a change-focused advocate, you decide to find the root cause of the suffering and strategically use your influence to eliminate that cause so that no one has to drown. Once you discover the reason for the suffering and figure out a strategy to save the most people, you will speak up and convince your community to follow your plan.

Direct Service Versus Advocacy

The river scenario illustrates the difference between “direct service” and “advocacy.” Direct service workers give of their energy and talents to help people in their moment of need. Disaster relief volunteers, soup kitchen servers, and polio vaccinators are examples of direct service providers. On-the-ground relief work can be incredibly satisfying as it connects volunteers directly to individuals who need help. Most people think about direct service when they think about volunteering and charity work. 


Change advocates take a wider approach and use their voices to rally even more help for the long term. At its best, advocacy is about seeking out root causes, finding effective solutions, and persuading other people to help implement those solutions. The work can feel far removed from the people you are trying to help, which some find less rewarding than direct service roles. 


Working to change a system requires an ability to delay the natural human desire for instant gratification and personal words of thanks. But when you are successful, when you know that no more people will fall into the metaphorical river or—in the real world—that we are 99% of the way to eradicating polio, then it feels very, very gratifying to know that you saved many more people than you ever could have if you never took the mental leap to leave the river bank.


Serving Millions, not Hundreds

My decision to move upstream in the fight against hunger in America came after my children were born. As a busy mom, I have learned to continually ask myself: “Since I’m just one person, how can I make the most difference with the limited time and energy I have to volunteer?”


When I was childless and single with lots of free time, I started serving dinner regularly in a church soup kitchen. Standing behind folding tables, scooping casserole and welcoming the hundreds of people who streamed into the great hall became a highlight of my month. It warmed my heart to hear their words of thanks and to see children happily munching dessert I put on their plates. I drove home knowing people had full bellies because of those hours I had volunteered with fellow congregants.


A bunch of RESULTS advocates teaming up for a night of
hands-on work as food packers much like I used to
do for the Greater Chicago Food Depository  
Over time, I started to worry about what soup kitchen clients did on days when they couldn’t get hot meals from the church. So, I moved a little farther upstream and began volunteering with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to supply food pantries all around the area. Although I felt like my work was making a difference, my personal efforts seemed dwarfed by the immense need in the echoing warehouse. Unfortunately, even those efforts ended after my first baby was born. I had to step away from those hands-on projects as neither were compatible with the hands-on work required for baby care. 


Eventually, I learned from Bread for the World that I didn’t have to give up the battle against hunger even if I could no longer spend hours in a soup kitchen or food pantry. In fact, I learned that the work I had been doing was addressing only a symptom—hunger—without addressing its root cause—poverty. Lack of a living wage, mass incarceration, lack of affordable housing, and even food subsidies in the U.S. Farm Bill all play a part in perpetuating a cycle of poverty resulting in hunger.


If I truly wanted to help more people, I could use my voice to change the systems and policies that perpetuate hunger. Plus, I could pursue that work even while caring for my small children. Of course, moving my efforts further up the river meant I would never meet most of the people my work would benefit, and would rarely hear personal expressions of gratitude. But I soon discovered that I'm okay with that because far fewer people can get along without the thank you's and have the patience for congressional work. I feel like it's the best place for my personal gifts.


Both Roles Are Vital

Even if you prefer to work as a direct service provider, you’ll probably find it helpful to take a simple advocacy action now and then, such as writing to Congress or signing an online petition. You could also team up with an advocate who is working on a similar issue. Advocates can set up meetings with elected officials, write newspaper pieces, or arrange for public awareness events that create opportunities for direct service volunteers to tell their stories to the right people at the right time.


Similarly, being an advocate does not mean you can never be involved in direct service. I find that hands-on volunteer work frequently provides inspiration and personal stories to fuel advocacy. You don’t have to choose between one and the other!


Food donations AND better government policies are needed to feed our communities, so we need direct service providers AND advocates to solve the complicated problem of hunger—and many others like it.

I'd love to hear your answer to the question...

How do you like to help?