Advocacy Insights from Nick Kristof


November 12, 2014
Cindy Changyit Levin, RESULTS Grassroots Board Member

I met one of my heroes last week: Nicholas Kristof! While attending the ONE Campaign’s AYA Summit about issues of girls & women in poverty, I had the opportunity to see him as a keynote speaker and receive a copy of his new book, “A Path Appears.”

Kristof has long covered underrated topics of extreme poverty in his column for the New York Times. His poignant coverage has inspired me as an activist for many years. When I heard that he dedicated pages of his new book to the work of RESULTS and recommends that people join our groups, I was thrilled. I definitely wanted to speak to him about RESULTS and I so hoped that he could share his thoughts about the importance of advocacy.

But how do you get the attention of such a celebrity? The same way we get the attention of members of Congress, of course! Whether I’m a campaign event, a constituent town hall meeting, or an author lecture, I can always rely on the skills RESULTS taught me to bring our issues before a large audience. 

Using my birddogging training from RESULTS, I formulated a question ahead of time and got my hand up in the air up high and first, so I could be recognized to ask a question at the end of his talk. Once I had the microphone, I introduced myself to him as a member of RESULTS (which he immediately recognized and praised!) and pressed onto my question.

My question was “What you might tell someone about why pure advocacy is worth engaging in, donating to, and investing in?” 

Here are some snippets of what he said:

Two points. First, for individuals, I think that we just too instinctively think about pulling out the checkbook. In fact, advocacy essentially enables people to pull out Uncle Sam’s checkbook or other people’s checkbooks and it sometimes can make more of a difference than anything we as individuals can do. President Bush’s best legacy by far was PEPFAR, the program against AIDS. And that was because he got pressured from his base, there was a push from his base to address it. And that kind of advocacy had incredible impact on southern Africa and some other places. I think that we don’t often enough think about that tool as a way of getting things done.

I think we also don’t quite appreciate that while there are a lot of issues that are on the public debate where there is opposition, [there are other issues where there isn’t]… RESULTS did fabulous work advocating for money for tuberculosis. Nobody is against funding for tuberculosis. Nobody thinks about it. So, if a modest number of calls is made to a congressman’s office asking, “So, where do you stand on TB funding?” when he hasn’t got any calls in the other direction, he has no idea where he stands on TB funding. It’s easier for him to make that move. That’s my argument for individuals getting engaged in advocacy. 

But, you also alluded to the question of investing in advocacy. I think that the development community and donors focus too much – almost exclusively – on investing in services and not enough on marketing, if you will. In the business community, everybody understands you want to have a significant part of your budget to go into marketing to spread the word about it. I find it so frustrating that, as a journalist, I get pitches all the time from commercial products. Somebody wants me to write about it. Pitches are done incredibly well to entice me into something on products that don’t matter a bit for the world. And then I’ll get NGO’s that are trying to make the pitch and it will be the lamest pitch imaginable because people are kind of embarrassed about marketing. Because, you know, marketing is what Coca-Cola does.

Boy, it is so much more important to market girls’ education or clean water or micronutrients than it is Coke. I think we have to get over this….I’ve seen that when issues are marketed well, then they get traction, they get on the agenda and they get results.

 

Wow! That answer was everything I could have asked for if we had actually planned it beforehand. This is my takeaway from what he said:

  •       Remind people of the impact advocacy can have. RESULTS helps us all have much more impact when we work with Congress than we could as individuals.
  •       Remember that we have the right cause and a modest number of activists can be effective. No one in Congress is actually against saving children’s lives. There are no organizations in the U.S. actively advocating against teaching girls to read or feeding American toddlers. There is no “pro-polio” lobby. We must be grounded in our mission to end poverty and go for it!
  •       We have to be better at marketing ourselves. Not just with slick, glossy handouts or commercials. I believe he also means that we have to train ourselves to confidently and fearlessly make the pitches to our editorial boards and members of Congress in a way that is enticing to them. Don’t be lame and don’t be embarrassed. Take advantage of RESULTS’ training to become better. If you’re hands are shaking (like mine were), remember that’s a sign that you’re learning, growing, and taking a new risk with RESULTS!

 

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