The Meaning and Actions of Advocacy

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The word advocacy can mean many different things in the nonprofit world and can be at the heart of activities, strategies, mission, core values, and overall organizational effectiveness.  Fundamentally, advocacy is about speaking out and making a case for something important. The target of the advocate’s voice is most often a person, group or institution that holds some power over what the advocate wants.

Advocacy can be a challenging concept because there is no one set of instructions about where to begin, how to begin and what constitutes effectiveness. Moreover, our lexicon for advocacy-related concepts and actions complicates matters by using multiple words for the same actions, as well as by blurring understanding of what an organization is really doing. The word advocacy is often used interchangeably with related words such as lobbying and education. An outsider is not certain whether they mean engaging in public policy, or advocating on behalf of clients or their mission in other ways.

The term “lobbying” is much narrower in definition than advocacy or civic participation.  Lobbying is legal strategy nonprofits use to influence legislators and executive branch administrators about pending legislation or regulations. It should not be considered synonymous with advocacy because there is much more advocacy people and nonprofits can do than is the case with lobbying.

Advocacy for individuals. Client advocacy is often carried out in the social work and legal services fields. Occasionally, the case of one person can lead to a broader advocacy effort about the rights of a population or community. Efforts to secure food stamps for a family or advocacy for an immigrant’s rights are examples.

Advocacy on behalf of a field-specific issue. Advocacy efforts are most often focused on a specific population or cause. Examples include groups like AARP advocating for Medicare-coverage for prescription drugs (advocacy on behalf of seniors). Another example is environmental organizations advocating for regulations requiring ‘brownfield’ cleanup by corporations (advocacy on behalf of geographic, often politically and economically disadvantaged, communities).

Advocacy in the self-interest of your organization. Self-interest advocacy by a nonprofit might be an effort to secure a line item in its state’s budget for a program it provides, such as a residential housing facility for the homeless. Other examples might be advocating for your own organization’s bid to secure a government grant or contract or to participate in a public planning commission created by the mayor or city council.

Advocacy for the interests of the nonprofit sector. Examples include lobbying and educating government officials to protect the property or sales tax-exemption for nonprofits in a state or city. Lobbying to defend against attacks on advocacy rights such as the Istook Amendment, or to increase federal or state tax incentives for charitable contributions (such as proposed in the Charitable Giving Tax Relief Act promoted by Independent Sector) are other examples.

Advocacy on behalf of broader social and economic policy. Examples include advocacy for campaign finance reform, a living wage, increased racial tolerance, and fundamental changes in our tax system or for human- and workers-rights in debates over global trade policy. 

The matrix provides a framework for the understanding of advocacy (individual-to-societal) in relation to the modes of advocacy most often employed (e.g., legislative, judicial).

Obviously, advocacy efforts often overlap these categories. When a nonprofit lobbies for increased appropriations from the state legislature for services it provides, its effort benefit its own programs but also the field of organizations that provide similar services.