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Learn effective guidelines for getting support for your cause and tested personal strategies for continuing your advocacy work despite obstacles you might face.


Image of an orange lifebuoy on a dock.


In this section we discuss survival skills for the successful advocate.This list has been compiled from the experiences of many advocates, but it's by no means complete. Not all of these skills may be relevant to your particular situation. However, we feel a review of them may help provide a solid basis for your advocacy campaign.

What do you mean by survival skills for advocacy?

Advocacy survival skills are a set of general guidelines for pleading your cause--and for staying in the game long enough to be successful. They have been used effectively by other advocacy campaigns. You and your group may want to review and adapt them as you develop your strategy and tactics for community change.

Why do you need to use survival skills for advocacy?

Success depends on much more than just dedicated people working for a common cause (although that's one necessary ingredient!). This Tool Box section talks about the "Golden Rules" for advocacy - that is, how to be effective in promoting your cause while keeping your head about you.

How do you use survival skills in advocacy efforts?

None of the survival guidelines are set in stone. They should be used to fit your situation and resources. They have benefited many previous advocacy groups, but are not necessarily a recipe for instant success. The important thing is to study these guidelines and use what you find useful; then get to work!

Accentuate the positive!

Keep your eyes open for positive events that happen in and around your community initiative or because of your group's work.

  • When you notice something great happening, even if it's something small, recognize it publicly
  • Thank others for their efforts. Pay them public compliments. This will help motivate people to contribute in the future, knowing that you appreciate their contributions!
  • Being conscientious about thanking people will help set you apart from other groups that only complain

Emphasize your organization's values and accomplishments to the community

Always highlight the positive values and vision relating to your organization's work. For example, you may ultimately be working towards improved community health, safe workplaces and streets, a clean community environment, or quality education. Everybody wants to experience these things, so it's difficult for opponents or skeptics to argue against the kind of values you promote.

  • Keeping public attention focused on values and principles that benefit everyone helps move your initiative along and prevents petty or wasteful arguments from sidelining your efforts
  • Communicate to others your group's accomplishments: the new programs, policies, and practices it helped bring about

Plan for small wins

If members of your group aren't able to see any progress after dedicating a lot of time and effort to your mission, their interest and motivation won't last very long. People like to see results, no matter how small. Sometimes, significant progress on a particular community issue is slow to show itself. To break up the time that passes without major breakthroughs occurring, develop a plan of action that has some shorter term or intermediate goals.

 For a long term goal of providing all necessary immunizations to 100% of children age 2 and younger; developing an outreach program for high risk mothers and children 12 months from now might be a good intermediate goal.

When each of the shorter term or intermediate goals is met, celebrate! Celebrations along the way to "the big win" will build the confidence and reputation of your group.

Present the issues in the way you want others to see them

A common strategy of opponents is to "frame" or present the issues in such a way that the people or communities most affected by the problem are held responsible for their unhappy situations. Instead of responding to criticism in terms set forward by your opponents, move support away from their perspective by framing the issue in your own voice.

The opposition claims that mothers on welfare take advantage of the system by having more babies to get "free money" from the government. Try to avoid responding to their framing of the issue; for example, by claiming that no woman could possibly profit from the small amount of extra money a month per child the state pays. Instead, reframe the issue by focusing on what contributes to mothers being on welfare in the first place: lack of employment opportunities, lack of adequate day care, etc.

Develop your own public identity

Even if your particular organization is part of a larger movement, such as a nationally recognized group working to reduce drug use or teen violence, establish your own local public image. If you are too closely linked with a larger and better-known organization, the public may transfer its positive and negative image of the larger organization to your small group. This could overshadow whatever you really stand for and put your credibility as a non-biased, independent organization at risk.

Check your facts

Understand your organization's issues and actions inside and out. This involves being able to quote a source of information or point to reliable statistics for claims you make publicly. Facts should guide your actions and public statements. If you are caught with inaccurate information or documentation, you could seriously damage your organization's reputation, embarrass yourself, and take attention away from important issues at hand.

  • Document your claims. For example, if you claim that alcohol producers have targeted children for advertising campaigns, count and write down the location and content of the alcohol-related billboards and posters you find near elementary, junior high, and high schools.
  • Collect data. Obtain accurate, high quality information from experts or those who most likely have current facts and figures about the issues and options you present.
  • Verify your information. Use as many believable sources as possible. The more people who can say, "Yes, that's right," the more backup you'll have if someone challenges your arguments.
  • Practice using those facts and figures to explain why your organization does what it does. Be able to point to the source of your information. Most importantly, express information clearly, showing that you've done more than just swallow a bunch of facts--you understand them.
  • Having solid documentation will protect you from counterattacks from your opponents and improve your reputation in the community.

Keep it simple

Small successes help build morale and sustain commitment to the issues. They don't always happen as a result of complex, super involved actions. Give simpler, short -term solutions that move toward a bigger solution a chance before you take a step up in complexity.

 A workers' strike protesting inadequate protection from hazardous materials may be premature unless simpler and less confrontational approaches have been tried first. A simpler, more effective starting point for this situation would be for workers to file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Be passionate and persistent

Working for community health and improvement can be an uphill battle, because so often the solutions need to be the responsibility of everyone, not just of a few. It's important to have the passion and persistence to overcome entrenched attitudes the public may have toward health and community problems, and possible public resistance to change.

  • Passion lends energy to your movement. It can help sway undecided people to your viewpoint, and it helps you focus on your goals
  • Persistence keeps your issues in the public eye, helps you follow through on commitments, and keeps your opponents scrambling to keep up with your kind of dedication

Be prepared to compromise

Building healthy communities sometimes calls for compromise with groups whose goals may not be identical to your own.

  • Although you want to stay true to your vision, be open to alternative plans of action or compromises that, although not ideal, may get you closer to your goals
  • Your willingness to compromise fosters good will between you and your opponents by making you appear reasonable. This may encourage wider support within the community, as long as you are not too willing to compromise, which might be perceived as weakness.

Tobacco control advocates in San Francisco wanted to include bars in a smoking ban in public places. The advocates realized a ban on smoking in bars was considered too extreme by the general public, and including bars in the list of targeted establishments would greatly decrease support for the ban. The advocates decided to drop bars from their list of places to target. This was perceived as a reasonable compromise by the public, and the ordinance passed.

Be opportunistic and creative

Look out for opportunities to promote your goals and seize them when they come along. This may involve lying in wait for an appropriate, "natural" time when you can capitalize on some event related to your objectives.

February is already strongly associated with Valentine's day and hearts in the romantic sense, so the American Heart Association has long had an increase in cardiovascular and "heart health" promotion during this month.

Stay the course

Advocates have successfully gone head-to-head with some pretty powerful people, including politicians, CEOs of well-known businesses, and national lobbying organizations like the National Rifle Association. Facing such influential opponents can be scary, especially when they will most likely have greater name recognition and resources to oppose you.

As an advocate for your community, you will have some credibility with the public--after all, you're fighting for their well being; whether that's safer streets, decent jobs, cleaner air, or more access to medical care. The public will recognize this!

The bottom line is this: if you are intimidated into inaction, your opponents will automatically win and nothing will change.

Look for the good in others

When you encounter members from groups that disagree with your goals or viewpoint, don't assume they are "out to get you" or ready to pick a fight.

  • If an opponent criticizes your organization, begin by assuming the person doesn't have the same understanding that you do and is speaking out of a lack of information
  • Educate the person. You could even invite her to attend some of your organization's functions to find out what your group is really about

Keep your eyes on the prize

Opponents may try to distract you from your advocacy activities by attacking you personally. By responding to their name-calling, you waste precious energy and lessen your chances for future cooperation or compromise with these people. Also, your public image may suffer if the general public sees you involved in mudslinging. Instead of giving in to the temptation to fight back, stay focused on the really important issues at hand.

Advocates for increased enforcement of alcohol sales laws were once accused by the alcoholic beverage industry as being in favor of a police state, or of being anti-business

Sometimes it may be necessary to respond to their attacks in order to maintain your credibility in the eyes of the public. When you do, make sure your defense or counter attack is well documented with facts and/or data to back you up.

Make issues local and relevant

When you bring your issues to the local level, you increase your chances for public support. Issues become relevant to community members when they are close to home. For example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has been very successful in many communities because many people know someone who has lost a child to an alcohol related accident. Some ways to really bring issues home to people in your area include using statistics for the issue gathered locally, using such local role models as businesses or volunteers, or presenting the issues in a certain way to help community members understand how they will be affected.

  • The state legislature plans to start selling lands for the development of a turnpike interchange. The interchange will only travel through one mile of your county, yet county residents will be charged an extra 55 cents to travel on it. In addition, the proposed development runs through lands used for Native American religious ceremonies. In addition to advocating to stop the destruction of the sacred grounds, your organization could publicize the extra cost to residents who use the interchange.
  • Your organization works to build self-esteem and create life options for local teenagers. Invite local business people to speak to your organization on how they are working to create more part-time employment for teenagers and on what kind of skills they would like future employees to have. Perhaps you could create a mentoring pool where professionals from your community would work with students in developing their career goals.

Get broad-based support from the start

Sometimes it may seem as if becoming part of an advocacy movement automatically puts you on the "other side" from state and federal services, politicians, community leaders and private organizations.

Even though there may be some differences between your group and key segments of the community, you may all be more or less working towards the same broad goals of helping the community become healthier.

It's important to include people from "inside the system" in your advocacy efforts. This helps you not only widen your perspective on the issues, but it helps you identify "ins" with key agencies and people who can provide valuable support and clout to your efforts.

Work within the experiences of your group members

The actions that your group takes should agree with the experiences, values, and interests of individual group members. It's important that you regularly monitor the preferences and limitations of group members in order to choose actions that members feel comfortable doing.

If your group of advocates wants to stage a protest that could result in getting arrested for trespassing or violating a city ordinance, make sure members are prepared to experience getting arrested or ticketed--especially if they have never been arrested before.

Try to work outside the experiences of your opponents

A confused or unsure opponent is a weak opponent. When you have the ability to work outside your opponents' experiences or field of expertise, do so. Most companies don't plan in advance to deal with public opposition to their policies, actions, or products. Likewise, they don't know how to respond to unexpected alternatives presented publicly to them by advocates.

An anti-tobacco advocate was invited to debate a tobacco industry representative on smoker's rights. Instead of arguing against smoker's rights as expected, he argued for the right of smokers to sue the tobacco industry for health costs.

Make your opponents play by their own rules

Federal, state, and local agencies and governing bodies all have rules and regulations for how activities are carried out. Make sure you take advantage of those guaranteed procedures when dealing with these groups.

  • Advocacy groups can use mandatory public hearings to show support for or opposition against proposed policy changes.
  • Citizens' groups can also file appropriate complaints with government agencies or organizations responsible for enforcing certain regulations. Once you are familiar with an organization's procedures and protocols, exploit them to the benefit of your goals.

Tie your advocacy group's efforts to related events

Watch for events that might be relevant to your group's objectives or tactics. Linking to such events helps publicize your cause and strengthen your position in the community.

  • Advocates wanting to increase public assistance for the poor, including adequate housing, could link their cause to the death of a local person who died of exposure during the harsh winter
  • Opponents of nuclear power might link their claims about the dangers of nuclear power to an accident at a nuclear power plant

Enjoy yourself!

Remember how we talked about celebrating successes to maintain commitment to your cause? That's about having a good time, too. If members of your advocacy group don't enjoy what they're doing, then there's something wrong.

Great! You've made it through our list of survival skills. We hope that a few, if not all, of these will provide you guidance as you prepare to take action. You may even want to refer back to these as your advocacy campaign progresses. Again, feel free to modify these to best suit your needs and situation.

Good luck and have fun!

Eric Wadud
Tom Seekins
Stephen B. Fawcett

Print Resources

Alinsky, S. (1971). Rules for radicals. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J.(1994). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., Max, S. (1991). Organizing for social change: a manual for activists in the 1990s. Minneapolis, MN: Seven Locks Press.

Daly, J. (2012). Advocacy: Championing ideas and influencing others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Throughout the book, Daly provides practical knowledge for how to transform advocacy ideas into practice, 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.

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.

UN Learning & Information Pack (World Bank). Though this resource was initially designed to advocate for gender mainstreaming, it was intentionally designed in such a way that its information can be adapted to other causes.

Online Resource

Advocacy Toolkit. This page has a downloadable toolkit link at the bottom of the page which provides general guidelines for advocating for yourself and your peers.

A YouTube video from the Connecticut Network: Advocacy Strategies - Learn some skills and attributes that can help you successfully champion your cause. (5 min.)