We advocate for something because we believe it is good, needed, an improvement. We think of ourselves as the good guys eloquently convincing decision-makers to adopt our desired option or, if that fails, mobilizing a righteous grass-roots movement to demand action. It’s an attractive role, placing you in the middle of a supportive community of interesting people, whether as a job or on a volunteer basis. So it’s not surprising that people frequently ask me and others how to get more involved. (The short answer – volunteer, make connections, learn about the issues, and strengthen your communication skills!)
But people often have a distorted view of what Advocacy actually entails. Yes, it requires idealism, long hours, and a willingness to forgo salary increases. But there is a lot more to it than public speaking, rabble rousing, or even community organizing.
ADVOCATES’ ROLE IN CREATING CHANGE
The day-to-day reality of life in the Advocacy track contains lots of routine but even more variety, with the added pleasure of feeling that you’re making a difference. Successful Advocacy requires a careful combination of protest and partnership. As outsiders, Advocates’ power comes from their ability to disrupt business as usual, to at least create an embarrassing situation for decision-making elites. Opposing evil is an emotionally satisfying position to be in. But protest is primarily a veto power – it can stop what you don’t like (which is why most protests are “anti-“ something) but as an “outside-in” effort it is less effective at shaping the details of what decision-makers end up doing in response.
Lobbying is an inside job – providing political or financial support in exchange for influence over the details of what gets passed or done. Lobbyists sometimes gain influence by having (or being able to hire) deep technical expertise about a complicated topic, in effect serving as a consultant to the decision-makers and using that role to push a particular agenda.
Advocates also lobby and provide technical support. But more importantly they act as partners. Although it can be less emotionally satisfying, as partners Advocates have to respect the reality of the decision-making or implementing organization. Government (and private) groups need to work within their own legal and procedural requirements. They need to look good to their overseers (and funders) as well as the public.
As partners, Advocates need to be aware of and compensate for the weaknesses and failures of their official friends. It is usually the Advocates job to create the political will to adopt a new policy or embark on a new direction. It falls to the Advocates to make sure that the public agency doing the work actually has (or hires) needed technical expertise to do the work in the desired manner. And it is the Advocates responsibility to activate positive public response to the initial steps in the new direction.
All this leads to negotiations and compromises that seldom result in the full vision or transformative change that the Advocacy group initially wanted and that was the motivation of many of the Advocates. But it does move reality in the desired direction.
ADVOCACY NEEDS ORGANIZATIONS
Successful Advocacy usually takes more than quick outbursts that cause immediately gratifying results. True: sometimes a problem is simply a dead tree waiting to be pushed. But more typically problems are the result of a complex set of cultural assumptions, organizational history, elite interests, personal relationships, and total chance – all of which combine into an entrenched situation. Creating change takes various kinds of repeated efforts over long periods of time. Which means that Advocacy campaigns need to be sustained by stable and effective organizations.
And organizations need a wide range of skills: budgeting, bookkeeping/accounting, human resources, legal, and office management in particular. Organizations also need money: advocacy groups always need people with grant writing, major donor, event planning, mass mailing or telethon experience.
Social change happens from both the bottom up and the top down. Both of which are significantly helped by having a growing membership, who hopefully also turn out to be a significant source of funding. So Advocacy organizations also need people with membership development and Customer-Relations-Management expertise.
Attracting members, creating a positive impression on potential funders, and influencing decision-makers also requires good use of media – the Advocacy group’s own publications, mass market Press and TV, as well as digital (web, email), social media, and community cable. Good communications makes an Advocacy group seem larger, more insightful, and more powerful than its budget limits would suggest!
We may be right and have god on our side, but unless we are very rich or in charge of key institutions, our power comes from our numbers: we’re always stronger when we stand together. Creating coalitions requires a broad set of skills, from meeting facilitation to inter-group negotiation, from interpersonal relationships to self-confidence. A coalition lives in the common group created when people (or groups) have enough overlapping interests and mutual trust.
SPECIALIZED ADVOCACY SKILLS
There are some skills and knowledge of particular use to the advocacy aspects of Advocacy. Self-study and careful listening can give most members enough familiarity with key ideas and jargon to handle most public situations. However, it is vital that at least some members of the organization have deep technical content knowledge – what are the best ways to design a bicycle lane? How are low-impact building designed? The need for specialized knowledge includes legal details about procedures, regulations, and laws.
Perhaps most rare is strategic expertise – having a feel for the larger socio-economic trends in society, including among elites and decision-makers, in order to identify what changes are most likely to be winnable. Sometimes, Advocates need to push “hopeless” issues simply to keep the vision alive. But maintaining an Advocacy organization over time, being able to attract members and funding, requires a portfolio of success stories as well as righteous posturing. Strategists help organizations figure out what campaigns to prioritize, which to more cautiously participate in but not lead, and what issues to monitor and issue statements about but not pursue. This is a skill that comes more from experience than from books or training.
The special gift that volunteers bring is time. And the most common contribution they make (other than money) is helping with particular tasks, from stuffing envelopes to updating an on-line calendar, from handing out flyers to helping pack a hearing.
But it is possible for volunteers to play more intimate roles in an Advocacy organization, especially if they have any of the previously discussed administrative, organizational development, or advocacy skills. Even if a person starts with no more than good will and issue-oriented interest, a smart Advocacy group will provide “pathway to the center” that lets newcomers gain additional skills and (best of all) learn more about the issue, becoming knowledgeable enough to feel comfortable participating in internal conversations or even speaking at public events on behalf of the organization.
So, to end where it starts – if you want to get involved volunteer, even if all you know how to do is stuff envelops or hold up a sign. Meet people and decide if this is a community you want to be part of. Learn more; learn more; learn more. And work at getting over your reluctance to talk about the issue to others – the only way to improve your communication skills is to do it!
Good luck. I hope to see you at the next Advocacy meeting!
Thanks to Kara Oberg and Jackie Douglas for their suggestions on an earlier draft!
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