Use Advocacy to Promote Social Change

By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D

Advocacy includes promoting changes to public or private policies to reduce the flow of victims from unfortunate circumstances (or from bad policy!) and to prevent further problems.  

What is “advocacy”?  The word is from Latin, meaning “to give voice” to a cause – to push it toward success.  It is a strategy to encourage improved social policy.  

What is this strategy?   Wikipedia recognizes advocacy as “an activity by an individual or group that aims to influence decisions within political, economic, and social institutions. Advocacy includes activities and publications to influence public policy, laws, and budgets by using facts, their relationships, the media, and messaging to educate government officials and the public.”

Advocacy includes promoting changes to public or private policies to reduce the flow of victims from unfortunate circumstances (or from bad policy!) and to prevent further problems.   Adopting policies that reduce the flow of victims can be much more cost-effective than the usual approaches taken by charities which try to serve already-needy individuals one at a time.  Improvements to policy can improve the quality of life for whole communities or regions at a time.  

It’s like public health vs. doctoring.  A physician’s practice of medicine can treat an illness one person at a time — one health professional working with one patient — such as in a clinic.  The practice of public health seeks instead to eliminate or control the illness at its source, one contributing cause at a time, such as by eliminating unsanitary disease-bearing water, or controlling disease-bearing insects, or educating people on healthier practices.

Thinking like a public health professional is becoming useful in many other arenas of improving the public’s health…

  • If too many people are hungry or malnourished, let’s use the policy process to fix the food distribution systems.
  • If too many people are unable to find or get to meaningful work, let’s use the policy process to fix the employment and transportation systems.
  • If too many people are getting killed by gun-toting citizens not part of well-regulated militias, let’s use the policy process to reduce the chances of innocent people getting shot. 

Public policy plays the role of public health in this analogy.  Rather than let random or powerful systemic forces play havoc with the well-being of individuals, let’s use the wisdom of good policy, good practice, and good cultural norms to stabilize, elevate, and equalize the playing field to produce far fewer victims.

How does it work?

PolicyLink presented its Getting Equity Advocacy Results (GEAR) in 2012.  It names four interconnected components of advocacy: (1) organizing; (2) capacity building; (3) research; (4) communications – and four interconnected stages of advocacy: (1) build the base; (2) name and frame the equity solutions; (3) move the equity proposal, and (4) build, advance, and defend.

Aspen Institute presented its Advocacy Progress Planner in 2012.  Its on-line tool helps organizations track progress with: (1) goals: what change needs to happen? (2) audience: who can make it happen? (3) context: what else is going on? (4) activities: how will you get it done? (5) inputs: what do you have? what do you need? (6) benchmarks: how will you know you’re on the right track?

My own Effective Communities Project first presented its Pathways to Progress  online in 2007 to advocate and accelerate progress by philanthropic organizations in reducing racial disparities.  Key ingredients include grantmaking and institutional leadership to support: (1) emerging promising workable solutions; (2) organizations capable of moving them along; (3) relationships among key people built on trust; (4) networks and partnerships to generate public support; (5) financial, human, informational, technical, and political resources; (6) strategies for pulling these together that produce noticeable progress along the way.

Advocacy, as revealed in these three illustrations, requires intentionally connecting different efforts in ways that give all of them greater oomph or impact.  For grantmaking institutions, supporting advocacy requires a different perspective than is the case with supporting simple service delivery, just as supporting public health requires different mechanisms than with supporting medicine.

Of course, giving voice to a cause must be met with ears that listen.  More on that in another post.

Progress in the advocacy and policy realm is sequenced in complex and often unpredictable ways.  The funding model must adapt to this reality, by supporting projects with multi-year timelines, and learning to look for short-term progress that builds to long-term progress.


This blogpost was published in an earlier form to this website on January 12, 2013.  

How to cite this blogpost: Mayer, Steven E., Use Advocacy to Promote Social Change. Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from EffectiveCommunities.com [month, date, year]