Use Advocacy To Promote Social Change

Use advocacy
Advocacy as voice

What is “advocacy”?  The word is from Latin, meaning “to give voice” to a cause that it might progress and succeed.  Advocacy has recently become a legitimate strategy to promote social change. 

What is advocacy, more precisely?   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.”

Nonprofit organizations are all over advocacy these days, as a new means for promoting effectiveness in their various missions.  Advocacy to promote social change includes changing public policy to prevent problems and to reduce the flow of victims that stem from bad policy.  This can be more effective, and much more cost-effective, than the usual approach of charities, which tries to serve 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.  The 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 to eliminate the illness at its source, one cause or contributor 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 in well-regulated militias, let’s use the policy process to reduce the chances of innocent people getting killed that way.

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 intentional staging of interconnected phases playing out in time.  For grantmaking institutions, supporting and evaluating advocacy requires a different perspective than is the case with supporting service, just as supporting and evaluating public health requires different mechanisms than for medicine.

In particular, if foundations insist on one-year project horizons, supporting and evaluating advocacy requires legitimizing a different set of goals and outcomes to pursue in one-year grants but that connect over time in ways that move the strategy along. 

Progress in the advocacy and policy realm is sequenced in complex ways.  The funding model must adapt to this reality.

More on these tantalizing subjects in subsequent posts.

# # #

Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Consulting Evaluator / Effective Communities Project

January 12, 2013

lightly revised November 18, 2020

Originally appeared:

Original date: January 12, 2013

Author: Steven E. Mayer