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by Suzanne Brown-McBride, Former Executive Director, California Coalition Against Sexual Assault

This article was written by the author for the RSP Executive Director Manual

I believe, and have come to learn over time, there is one activity that can realize a coalition’s aspirations for visibility and at the same time achieve a good measure of its mission: systems advocacy. Very few activities, in and of themselves, can serve as a more effective tool to market the expertise of the coalition, create meaningful collaborative opportunities and promote well-reasoned solutions to difficult problems.

It is my bias that systems advocacy is a skill an executive director must perfect if they hope to be successful as a leader. While the ED is not the sole practitioner of this skill within the agency, s/he serves as an important public focal point of the organization and can set the tone for collaborative efforts. I also believe that systems advocacy can be more important than its glamorous sister, legislative advocacy (which is eloquently addressed in a different section).

Now that I’ve thrown down that gauntlet, let me explain.

First, I offer my definition of Systems advocacy: it is the cultivation of collaborative relationships that assist a coalition in the capacity to imagine and implement solutions to statewide problems. Systems advocacy is not an outcome or a solution but a process that can outline an appropriate course of action that will remedy a specific problem.

For many membership associations, it is all too easy to lose sight of the fundamental need for external relationships. The professional association construct (rightly) places enormous importance on its constituent members. Sometimes it is tempting to stop there and assume that connection with the membership is sole key to improving systems and motivating action. While member activism is, of course, essential (and I’ll address it later), it is not even close to the only necessary component of achieving the coalition’s mission.

After thinking about systems advocacy and talking with an assortment of fellow coalition directors, I have a few strategy suggestions that can help shape the beginning of a new director’s tenure.

Strategy: Yes, it is about relationships.

The statewide scope of coalitions can also lead to the impression that relationships are as diverse and vast as the state itself. While we all live in a state, territory or nation, it is easier to wrap one’s mind around something on a smaller scale like a county or a town.

Keeping with this more manageable scale, I think it is helpful to draw a (limited) parallel between a hypothetical orientation process of a local sexual assault program director and the new coalition ED.

One of the first questions that a new executive at a local agency considers is: for our rape crisis center to successfully perform our services on behalf of survivors who do I need to know? Often this lengthy list is populated by decision-makers and local gatekeepers such as: the sheriff, the district attorney, the lead tribal administrator, the head of the campus women’s center, the SANE nurse, the mayor, the head of the local benevolent fund, and the managing probation / parole officer. The list could go on, and often does, to reflect the resources and personalities of that particular city. The work of a rape crisis center is not accomplished solely by its staff and volunteers; it is also accomplished through collaboration with other non-agency personnel.

Community based organizations must cultivate the trust, love and respect of members of that community in order to accomplish their goals.

A similar constellation of professionals exists in the realm of statewide bureaucracy and policy. Many of the disciplines I referenced above have their own professional associations that serve the same kind of training, education and advocacy needs that a sexual assault coalition was created to address for its member programs. Similarly, state agencies such as corrections, crime victim compensation, health departments, and funding agencies often spend considerable time and effort focusing on statewide issues. The vast majority of the services that rape crisis centers use, professionals they work with, and funders they are accountable to, have statewide counterparts that coalitions should identify and get to know.

Now that the lengthy list of contacts has been made, our ambitious local director has to prioritize her outreach and identify: why I need to know them? First, of course, she might focus on those professionals that are able to influence (either positively or negatively) the condition of a particular victim/survivor that the agency is serving. A secondary focus would likely be to cultivate relationships with those leaders she expects to work with frequently. Finally, she wisely decides to meet with folks that can provide resistance or opposition to the agency. Each of these collaborations can lead to tangible outcomes like solutions to specific challenges, diffused misunderstanding and tension or even result in a community vision that grows resources.

I believe that a coalition director should engage in a similar process. In the first few months, a priority might be placed on meeting those individuals who are closely involved with an issue your member programs are struggling with (state funders, for example). After those emergent issues are addressed, the next round of meet-and-greet can focus on those agencies that often work on allied issues. Finally, just like the local ED, a coalition director should reach out to potential resistors or individuals who are not typically seen as allied to the coalition’s activities and mission.

Especially in the more nebulous world of statewide policy, unlikely allies and occasional friends may be helpful to leverage the influence related to a specific challenge.


The coalition becomes aware that potentially embarrassing and detailed information about a specific sexual assault survivor is being released to the media by law enforcement during the early phases their investigation. In addition to traditional allies like prosecutors, the state defense bar joins with sexual assault advocates to press for changes in agency policy. The defenders are concerned that potentially prejudicial information about individuals who have not been charged with a crime being publicly released (in addition to the victim information). For each constituency, privacy during the early phases of a sexual assault investigation became the nexus of collaborative action.

This kind of occasional collaboration between unlikely allies can be particularly powerful. If anything, it gets the attention of policymakers because they are not being approached by the usual group of constituents. It can also create a foundation for a respectful process when the parties assume their more traditionally oppositional perspectives.

A few words on first meetings: Much like a first date, you will never have a better time to establish the parameters of a good relationship. Even if you were promoted from within the coalition, or worked at the state level in a different capacity, I think it’s helpful to imagine this interaction as a brand new introduction. Do your homework, know a little about the person / agency before you go, especially their history with the coalition. Think about what you want them to know about the coalition, especially how the coalition might be helpful in achieving their agency’s mission (give them a reason to want to work with you). Also, think about what you want them to know about you specifically. I’m not suggesting you bring a copy of your CV, but they are likely going to be curious about your background and skillset – don’t brag, but don’t be bashful!

New ED’s have a powerful opportunity to create lasting connection, refresh lapsed relationships, and hit the metaphorical ‘reset’ button on connections that have soured. Having gone through this process at a coalition twice, I have learned the importance of believing in the phenomena of “the brand new day.” No matter how amazing the last ED was (and I’m sure she was) someone felt misunderstood, ignored or slighted. It is also equally likely that the previous ED’s relationships were robust and valued by those colleagues that you are meeting. There might even be some trepidation that a change in regime may undermine connections that have been hard-won over time. That’s just the way it is when one is trying to lead a statewide agency. I guarantee that when you move on from coalition work, the same will be thought of you and that the same was thought of me (getting over that is a different article entirely).

Let me say for the record that I am not delusional (for the most part) and recognize that the first few months of a new director’s tenure are often futile attempts to stave off chaos and the distinct feeling of drowning. We are engaged in very public work with an equally public learning curve. In a perfect world (which wouldn’t require our services in the first place), the delicate orchestration of priorities, timelines and personalities would match seamlessly. In the real world, it never does. I suggest this intentional, two-step process because an important skill in mastering systems advocacy is to be mindful of who your peers are, and how they can help or hinder your mission.

The Welcome Wagon- an ad hoc list of people you might want to meet

  • Funding Agencies
  • District Attorney’s Association
  • Attorney General
  • Sheriff / Police Chief Association
  • Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Association
  • Statewide Reproductive Health Organizations
  • Crime Victim’s Compensation
  • Corrections (Director, Victim Notification Manager, head of parole)
  • Governor (and policy advisors)
  • Sex Offender Treatment Association
  • State Commission on the Status of Women
  • ACLU
  • Defenders Association
  • General Crime Victims Groups: (Homicide, Drunk Driving, Victim Witness)

Strategy: Don’t fixate on the destination

A coalition’s constituency can easily identify the problems caused by sexual violence, and the adjunct problems created by the system designed to prevent and intervene. The solutions, however, are sometimes more difficult to effectively identify and implement. Any systemic problem faced by a sexual assault survivor or a coalition’s membership might be resolved in a myriad of ways: education, administrative rulemaking, media attention, grassroots pressure, collaborative grant-writing, or legislation to name a few.

Good systems advocacy allows a coalition to investigate potential options and identify the most appropriate solution.

Effective systems advocacy also creates the framework for fertile, respectful collaboration. It is out of that collaboration that the best solution can be identified.

Henry Jenkins discusses in his book Convergence Culture the potential power of knowledge communities. This philosophy describes the creative power harnessed by a diverse group of people when faced with a problem. In knowledge communities, the application of an array of skills and experience will produce solutions and results that are more nuanced and accurate than the solutions that can be produced if those individuals worked in isolation. While the math is difficult, the result is common sense: we know more collectively than we do individually. And that should sound familiar; it is the rationale for coalitions to begin with – right? The same logic also applies to developing solutions at the state level: better, richer solutions are created when they are attacked from a multifaceted perspective.

While lobbying is often the most oft referred to (and perhaps most over mythologized) way to change statewide systems, I personally believe it should be the last, least used, and most narrowly focused tool in the coalition’s repertoire. I say this as a firm believer and practitioner of coalition legislative activism. The hard truth is that legislative success often depends on the quality of systems advocacy that has been achieved up to that point. Let me try to illustrate:


Member rape crisis centers have (rightly) identified a critical lack of specialized law enforcement training related to sexual assault. They turn to their coalition to address this issue.

What won’t work:

The coalition considers the issue and approaches a friendly legislator to sponsor a bill to mandate an increase in required continuing education hours for peace officers. The State Patrol Officers Association publicly opposes this unfunded mandate. Privately, many other associations also use their legislative influence to oppose because they fear you might pull the same stunt against their members. Fiscal cost estimates, likely based on numbers provided by the Association, indicates that training you are lobbying for will cost tens of millions of dollars in overtime. The bill grinds to a halt in appropriations and dies an unceremonious death. After session, the administrator of the Patrol Officers Association is polite but not in much of a hurry to return the ED’s calls.


Coalition ED calls Administrator at the Patrol Officers Association and asks to sit down and talk about some concerns. Since they have met before, the call is returned promptly and a meeting is set. After a productive conversation the Association agrees to jointly sponsor legislation that will ask for money to fund additional law enforcement training. The bill is still expensive (all those overtime hours) but makes it out of committee and appropriations. There is no public or private opposition. The Governor, however, vetoes the bill because it is too costly (your state is running a budget deficit – remember?)


Coalition ED runs into Administrator of the Patrol Officers Association at the quarterly meeting of the state Sex Offender Management Board. They have worked together on a variety of tasks and are on friendly terms. ED mentions training issue to the Administrator and offers to help figure out a solution. After a few moments of consideration, the Administrator mentions that the Association is reviewing their Law Enforcement Academy curriculum and it might be good to raise the issue there. He asks if coalition ED would like to join the working group. ED is happy to be asked and somehow fits it into her already unreasonable schedule. After a few months of meetings, the ED is pleased to report to the membership that 6 hours of sexual assault training were added into the Academy schedule. The added bonus is that the hours will be taught by local victim advocates.

This semi-fictional example is why I believe systems advocacy is so important; the most useful change is arrived at by mutual consent and imagination. I hope that the example also illustrates that systems advocacy is a process that can lead to a multitude of outcomes. As such systems advocacy is more flexible than legislative advocacy, which is constrained by its own process and mechanisms. Systems advocacy might lead to lobbying ultimately, but doesn’t lead to it necessarily. Good systems advocacy is flexible enough to encompass a range of solutions, and opportunities.

Strategy: Remember the Membership

Statewide sexual assault coalitions are philosophical and organizational hybrids: half membership association and half social change organization. At its best, these two parts are never in conflict; occasionally they might be. Ultimately, a coalition ED must maintain a balance of accountability between the coalition leadership, membership, issue and peers. It is a heady dance that will often require an ED to determine which constituency sets the guiding priorities.

Your membership is your touchstone about how to set systems advocacy priorities. Not only are they often the founding leaders of the coalition, but they are also hands-on practitioners that keep the perspective of coalition staff grounded and informed. Even though many of us come from a direct-service background the moment we stop actively providing services we have to be intentional about keeping in touch with the nuance, and heart, of the work.

The process for determining these priorities can be informal or prescribed by process. I personally prefer a blended approach that is flexible enough to take advantage of opportunity, but also includes intentional solicitation of information. Optimally, ED’s should strive to be accessible enough to be accessed informally by the membership and their own staff when issues and challenges arise. Additionally though, it never hurts to be intentional about asking for feedback about systems dilemmas on which the coalition might focus its attention. This solicitation of ideas could be done as: a beginning of the year email, a discussion item at the annual membership meeting, a part of the process you solicit feedback for the legislative agenda, or conducted by leadership during quarterly regional meetings. What matters is that you are able to demonstrate that your membership (the folks that pay dues remember?) is an essential reference point.

Staying connected to the membership also serves a separate, but equally important function; there may be times that you need their help to encourage change. Members are far more likely to actively respond to your pleas for calls, emails and letters to the editor when they are invested in issue and recognize it as an initiative inspired by, or connected to, their experience as practitioners. Even if you are working on an issue that has been brought to your attention by a non-member agency, communicating with your membership about the problem and asking for their related experience can help an ED understand the dynamics of a particular challenge.


A coalition is invited to work collaboratively with a taskforce that is focusing on human trafficking issues. When the coalition solicits input on this issue from the membership it is discovered that rural rape crisis were particularly challenged by a lack of access to immigration attorneys. This issue was added to the taskforce mandate.

After connecting with their membership, the coalition in the example above is not only able to be an ally on the issue of human trafficking, but will now be able to articulate particular service gaps related to their membership. When it comes time to apply pressure to state agencies to encourage them to serve these populations, the membership will know that their interests were represented and may feel more inclined to offer public support.

Strategy: We are more than the words used to describe us

There is a vast, and creative, array of words used to describe the experience and state of being impacted by sexual assault: victim, survivor, and conqueror to name only a few. Sadly, the language of sexual assault becomes more limited when working on state policy and the general term or art tends to be victim.

When large state agencies and organizations attempt to improve their skills and accountability there is a tendency to create advisory boards, councils and working groups focused on broad issues of importance. As such, sexual assault coalitions may find themselves lumped in with other interest groups that use the term victim such as violent crime victims, fraud victims, identity theft victims, domestic violence victims, etc. When this happens, it is easy to feel lost in the shuffle of competing priorities and language.

One important strategy I’ve used over time is to not get pigeonholed exclusively with the victim initiatives. I make an intentional effort to individually meet with agency leaders to establish a connection and discuss mutual priorities. Realistically, some leaders are easier to access than others but that personal connection is truly important and may create other opportunities.

Many large institutions (such as Corrections) may have a designated “Victims Council, or a “Victims Advisory Committee”, that ideally guides the leadership of these large agencies to employ victim-sensitive strategies to their work. However, if the leadership is not invested in this feedback mechanism, these committees can become an ineffectual backwater. Evaluate if your participation is actually influencing practice, or providing a cover for inertia. If it’s the latter, it might be time to re-evaluate your strategy.

Strategy: it is nobler to give rather than receive

Systems advocacy works best when the coalition isn’t simply seen as always asking, but is also standing with their collaborative partners. If we believe that sexual assault is a community problem that requires complex and comprehensive solutions then we must be prepared to support other agencies and individuals who work across the spectra of prevention and intervention. Exhausting I know, but essential to effective whole systems change.

Strategy: Let’s talk about you for a moment

When I started in the work as a community educator I would travel to the local junior high and conduct awareness seminars (a much tougher audience than legislators). After the conclusion of one of these talks I was walking down the hallway of the school and I heard a young voice say to a friend “hey, that’s the rape lady!” It was then that I realized that my role had become indelibly fused with my person. The same is true, if not more so, for coalition leaders. Executive directors are first and foremost people; however, they are also symbols of a larger organization and issue.

If you are a staff of two, or twenty, it is important that your state peers accord you, your agency, your constituents, and the issue the respect it deserves. We would be horrified if the needs of an individual survivor were marginalized or ignored, we should be equally vehement about the visibility and needs of our constituent organizations. As a director we have to recognize the fusion of our role and person in both our conduct and interactions we have with colleagues. ED’s have to be both hyper aware of the perceptions and attitudes or our collaborative partners and members as well as thick skinned enough to realize that hard truths are not (exclusively) personal ones.

I don’t want to sound trite but take a moment to get some support from your peer coalition colleagues. Seriously. We have all struggled with feelings of insecurity and isolation (yes, even her) in our roles. Even though it seems impossible to schedule, make an effort to connect and recharge. It will make all the difference over time.

A final thought.

Systems advocacy, like any meaningful relationship, takes time to develop. The initial steps can be frustrating and time intensive, but can pay off in amazing ways. As coalition directors, we spend an exceptional amount of our time attempting to promote our work and foster change. Systems advocacy can help raise the visibility of our work, increase potential for meaningful collaboration and create the resources for effective solutions.

Systems advocacy is a path that can lead to amazing destinations.