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Section 1. Overview: Getting an Advocacy Campaign Off the Ground

Learn how to actively promote a cause or principle involving actions that will lead to a goal your organization has selected.


What is advocacy?

Before direct action comes planning, and before planning comes an understanding of what needs to be put in the plan. So first, here's a reminder of what advocacy is (as well as what it's not).

  • Advocacy is active promotion of a cause or principle
  • Advocacy involves actions that lead to a selected goal
  • Advocacy is one of many possible strategies, or ways to approach a problem
  • Advocacy can be used as part of a community initiative, nested in with other components.
  • Advocacy is not direct service
  • Advocacy does not necessarily involve confrontation or conflict

Some examples may help clarify just what advocacy is:

  • You join a group that helps build houses for the poor--that's wonderful, but it's not advocacy (it's a service)
  • You organize and agitate to get a proportion of apartments in a new development designated as low to moderate income housing - that's advocacy
  • You spend your Saturdays helping sort out goods at the recycling center - that's not advocacy (it's a service)
  • You hear that land used for the recycling center is going to be closed down and you band together with many others to get the city to preserve this site, or find you a new one. Some of you even think about blocking the bulldozers, if necessary - that's advocacy

Advocacy usually involves getting government, business, schools, or some other large institution (also known as Goliath) to correct an unfair or harmful situation affecting people in the community (also known as David, and friends). The situation may be resolved through persuasion, by forcing Goliath to buckle under pressure, by compromise, or through political or legal action.

Several ingredients make for effective advocacy, including:

  • The rightness of the cause
  • The power of the advocates (i.e., more of them is much better than less)
  • The thoroughness with which the advocates researched the issues, the opposition, and the climate of opinion about the issue in the community
  • Their skill in using the advocacy tools available (including the media)
  • Above all, the selection of effective strategies and tactics

For some people, advocacy is a new role. It may be uncomfortable--particularly if confrontation and conflict are involved. But, for others, advocacy is more attractive than setting up and running service programs in the community.

Advocacy can be glamorous: the David vs. Goliath image, manning the barricades, making waves. But the decision to put major resources into advocacy is not one to be taken lightly. If it doesn't work--if you stick your necks way out and don't succeed--not only will you fail, but you may do so in public, discrediting your cause, perhaps making conditions worse for the people you set out to help.

Does advocacy always involve confrontation?

Advocacy can be confrontational, but conflict is usually a bad place to start. Good advocates know they must think very hard about any confrontation that's going to be necessary. That's one reason for careful planning of strategy and tactics. Even if the issue seems as clear as a bell, and your choice of actions seems just as obvious, it's a good idea to take another long, hard look.

Why and when would you choose advocacy?

Advocacy is best kept for when "routine" work such as gathering support for a cause, raising money, and recruiting members of a community initiative or program won't get you where you want to go.

In most cases, it's a good idea to think twice before launching yourselves (or your group) as advocates, because it's a strategy that's more effective if there isn't too much of it around. Imagine a city where there were public demonstrations every day, where City Hall was besieged constantly by groups with special petitions, resolutions, and assorted agitations. The community would quickly develop advocacy fatigue. So would the advocates.

The best time to start planning for an advocacy campaign is:

  • When your direct experience or preliminary research shows you cannot achieve your goals in any other way
  • When you are sure you have (or will have) the capacity to carry it through
  • When you have enough enthusiasm and energy to last for what could be a long haul!

This chapter will help you get launched. And this particular section will give you a taste of what's coming up in the seven remaining sections of the chapter, where you will gain a deeper understanding of the issue, identify allies and opponents, plan out your strategy and tactics, and evaluate your efforts.

What are the basic components of advocacy?

Each of these components is addressed in greater depth in the following sections of this chapter, but this is a broad overview of how to advocate for your issue.

Survival Skills for Advocates

Once you go public with an advocacy campaign, you may draw the attention of a number of people, not all of whom will wish you well. If things go wrong, you could end up looking very silly in the local news, which would not be good for your future campaigns. Even worse, in some circumstances a wrong step could land you in court. At the very least, there's a risk of spinning your wheels if you don't go about the many tasks of advocacy efficiently.

For example, to look at a worst-case scenario, think of what could go wrong with a campaign to promote better health for the poor:

  • You accuse the local hospital of turning away a sick patient, without checking your facts. The hospital proves that it treated the man, but he discharged himself early.
  • You push your allies out of shape by launching a press release that uses their name, without checking the wording with them first.
  • You announce a big demonstration outside the hospital, and only three people show up.

It's amateur night!

In the next section of this chapter, we've gathered 20 tips that will help members of your group avoid disasters. They'll be able to take on their tasks efficiently, confidently, and with a low risk of tripping over their shoelaces.

Understanding the Issue

You probably already have a pretty good idea of what the issue or problem is.

For example:

  • You are aware of a growing problem of homelessness, particularly among people with small children
  • You feel that not nearly enough is being done in your community to prevent youth smoking
  • Your group is afraid that a new industrial park up river will pollute the water

However, it is important to develop a deeper understanding of the issue, including research to analyze of who has power. Remember, advocacy is about power--who can influence things that matter. You will need to know where the power of your opponents lies, and how you can most effectively influence or confront it.

Recognizing Allies

If you are the only people in town who want something done about the problem you have identified, your cause could be in trouble. It's one thing to fight city hall: much harder to take on a whole community of hostile or indifferent people. If there are only a handful of people on your side, it may be all too easy for those in power to dismiss you as the lunatic fringe. One of your jobs will be to make that "fringe" start to look like a representative slice of the whole population affected by the issue. Then people in power will take notice.

Somewhere, there are allies - people who can band together with you and give your cause bulk, visibility, and clout. You can use methods such as a "power grid" that will help you pinpoint those groups and agencies in town that have the power to help your group. This grid will also help you identify specific ways in which these potential allies can help.

Of course, you'll need to be careful about who you invite on board--some allies may bring baggage that you don't need. We'll help you balance potential benefits against potential risks, and come up with some useful backers who will help, rather than hinder, your cause - whether you want to build a full-fledged coalition, or an informal alliance or network.

In addition to deciding whether other groups have an interest in your cause, it's important to find out if an alliance with them is in your interest. For example, suppose you are planning to make life difficult for retailers who sell cigarettes to kids, and you know that the American Cancer Society, a couple of local youth groups, and a pair of enlightened churches have the same goals. Just how can you best help each other? Do you want a close relationship? Suppose these people are limited by their own charters in the type of action they can get involved in? Suppose they might want to take over the direction of the whole campaign? Suppose they are with your interests on some matters, and against you in others?

Identifying Opponents and Resistance

Although it's possible to advocate without having an opponent (for example, you may be working largely to overcome ignorance and inertia), most advocacy campaigns have a recognizable Goliath--or even several big (and potentially mean) kids on the block. Who are your opponents? Why are they putting up resistance? And what can you do about it?

Those questions should be answered together. There's not much point knowing the names of your opponents unless you also know why they are opposing you. Sometimes, this may not be for the most obvious reasons, so you'll need to know what's going on.

Starting with the cause for resistance is often more fruitful than starting with a list of people you expect to be bad guys: you may get some surprises. For example, a big developer might turn out to support your drive for more low-cost housing, because he recognizes that the presence of homeless people in the neighborhood can deter rich people from buying his expensive houses. Similarly, people from whom you might expect support might turn out to oppose you. Perhaps a big agency that seems to share your goals is bent out of shape because you seem to be trespassing on their turf or accusing them of ineffectiveness in the past. You can't take anything for granted.

Encouraging Involvement of Potential Opponents as well as Allies

Once you have a plan, you'll know where you are going, and how to get there. That will give you confidence, and that confidence will give you clout. Armed with that, you may be able to approach certain groups or individuals whom you thought were opposed to you. Maybe they still are, but you may find that you can find help in unexpected quarters. Now that your plan makes you more business-like, people may decide to cut a deal. Or, now that your position can be made clear to others as well as to yourselves, you may find that although a certain group still may oppose you on some issues, you are on the same side of others.

Developing a Plan for Advocacy

Planning for advocacy is often a complex program because we have to deal with power and opposition. As you know by now, an advocate will usually have to overcome obstacles much greater than "mere" inertia, or lack of funds, which are often the main barriers where other types of community development projects are concerned. In advocacy situations, there are likely to be well-prepared opponents waiting in the tall grass. And they will need to be out-planned.

You will need to develop a plan based on your knowledge of who those opponents are; and knowledge of who can help you.

For a useful analogy, we'll invite you to think of the overall campaign as a building project:

  • Your vision and mission is to provide a place to live that is warm and safe
  • Your objective is to build a house
  • Your strategy will take the form of blueprints for the house
  • Your action plan will include the specifics: who will pour the concrete for the foundation, put up a frame, add the roof, et cetera, and when will they do it

And all will go together as part of one big action plan.

In Summary

Advocacy is exciting work. You get the pleasure of fighting the good fight, and sometimes, the thrill of victory. In order to have that, though, you need to get through all of the day-to-day details and specifics. You'll need to keep an eye on the forest while working on the trees individually. By going through this chapter carefully, we think you will be better prepared to bring about the changes that matter to your community.

Prue Breitrose

Online Resources

 Community Advocacy: A Psychologist’s Toolkit for State and Local Advocacy is a science-based toolkit that highlights various advocacy strategies to inform policy at the state and local levels. It aims to build a community of grassroots psychologist advocates that can intervene to promote well-being in the communities in which they reside. 

YouTube videos from Connecticut Network: Defining Advocacy - What does “advocacy” mean, and who qualifies to be an advocate? (2 min.), and Your Right to Advocate - Petitioning leaders at the national, state, city or neighborhood level, plus: the role of lobbyists. (6 min.)

Print Resources

Advocacy and Campaigning Course Toolkit (INTRAC). This online PDF provides theoretical and practical information for advocating and establishing a positive campaign.

Advocacy Toolkit (International Competition Network). The purpose of this toolkit is twofold: (1) Share and disseminate alternative approaches to advocacy across competition agencies; and (2) Provide a useful, practical guide to competition agencies looking to amend or refresh their current approach.

Altman, D., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J. (1994). Public Health Advocacy: Creating Community Change to Improve Health. Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention. Palo Alto,CA.

Article: Community Health Advocacy (U.S. National Library of Medicine). Loue, S. (2006). Community health advocacy. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 60(6), 458-463. This article addresses six key questions about advocacy and highlights the foundational issues of advocating for community health.

Avner, M., & Smucker, B. (2002). The lobbying and advocacy handbook for nonprofit organizations: Shaping public policy at the state and local level. Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. This book offers a clear step-by-step guide to implementing a successful advocacy program at both the state and local levels.

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., Max, S.(1991) Organizing for Social Change: a manual for activists in the 1990s. Minneapolis, MN. Midwest Academy.

10 Common Elements of Successful Advocacy Campaigns (PDF). This freely accessible PDF is Chapter 6 from the Lobbying Strategy Handbook. This particular chapter discusses steps 4-7 in the list of ten.

Community Health Advocates (from Community Health Advocates website) is a health portal to advocates who work to help their communities get, keep, and use health coverage. Through the portal, there is access to several publications designed to educate advocates and consumers on gaining health coverage.

Daly, J. (2012). Advocacy: Championing ideas and influencing others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Practical knowledge for transforming advocacy ideas into practice are provided, emphasizing the power of action-oriented marketing. Daly draws off of current research in the fields of persuasion, power relations, and behavior change to explain how to successfully advocate for a cause.

How - and Why - to Influence Public Policy. (1996). Community Change. 17, 1-40.

How to Run an Online Advocacy Campaign (Network for Good Website). On this webpage, a blueprint is provided for designing and running an online advocacy campaign.

Libby, P. (2011). The lobbying strategy handbook: 10 steps to advancing any cause effectively. SAGE Publications, Inc.This book provides a 10-step framework that walks readers step-by-step through the elements of a lobbying campaign. Three separate case studies are used to show how groups have successfully employed the model.

Sen, R. (2003). Stir it up: Lessons in community organizing and advocacy. Jossey-Bass; 1st Edition. Sen goes step-by-step through the process of building and mobilizing a community and implementing key strategies to affect social change. Using case studies to illustrate advocacy practices, Sen provides tools to help groups tailor his model for their own organizational needs.

Understanding Advocacy (Article from International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC)) provides basic information about communication, action, and goals as they pertain to advocacy.