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What is advocacy? Definition, types, and examples

August 06, 2020
Young excited females walking on the city street during a protest, laughing and hugging

Have you ever supported a cause that’s near and dear to your heart? Have you ever used your own platform to raise awareness of a societal issue that can’t fix itself? If you answered "yes" to either of those questions or have taken similar steps, there’s a good chance you’ve participated in advocacy. Rather, you’ve been an advocate.

In a nutshell, the term advocacy encompasses the actions a person takes in order to effect change for a cause they are invested in. To help your nonprofit organization turn supporters into advocates, you need to understand the ins and outs of what advocacy looks like in all forms. We’ll walk you through the process, types, and benefits of advocacy for nonprofits.

What is the definition of advocacy?

Advocacy is when individuals publicly express their interest in specific causes and take clear actions to support the positive advancement of those causes. Advocacy can be done for many reasons, each with its own merits.

Nonprofit organizations typically use advocacy to advance these goals:

  • Raise awareness
  • Create change
  • Build movements

There are many different types of advocacy campaigns, and some might benefit your nonprofit more than others. 

For example, organizations can rally support through grassroots advocacy, which involves supporters taking action on their own with guidance from your nonprofit. This way, your nonprofit can raise awareness and gain support in an organic way. 

When getting involved with advocacy, your nonprofit should know what acts fall under the advocacy umbrella and which do not. As part of that delineation, it’s important that we discuss advocacy in relation to the two terms that it is often paired with: lobbying and activism.

Lobbying versus advocacy 

Here's a common way the two interconnected terms can be explained: Lobbying is always advocacy, but advocacy is not always lobbying. To delve into this distinction a bit more, it’ll help to first define lobbying.

Lobbying occurs when someone attempts to influence legislation. Lobbying is one method of advocacy, and there are caps on the extent to which your nonprofit organization can lobby according to the federal tax law.

In other words, you can think of advocacy as taking action in the hopes of making changes for the betterment of your cause. Lobbying limits the scope of advocacy, parceling it down to solely legislative aims. Regardless of the legislative specificity, lobbying still represents a significant part of advocacy work.

Activism versus advocacy

While you may have heard activism and advocacy referred to as synonyms, they actually have important differences.  

The best way to understand the distinction between the two terms is by contemplating the respective roles of activists and advocates:

  • Advocates are people-oriented. They act on behalf of other people and represent the concerns of others.
  • Activists are action-oriented. They take concerted steps to cause social and/or political change.

Advocates can take steps to effect change as well, but they approach their actions from the angle of representing others, which can color their behaviors. That’s why advocates are often associated with the concept of working within the system and activists are seen as working outside the system. Both work towards the same goal, but they have different priorities.

What is advocacy work?

With a deepened understanding of the relationship between activism, lobbying, and advocacy, let’s now investigate the most popular forms of advocacy.

Although advocacy is an action that can be defined as helpful for a certain cause, it’s crucial to remember that advocates are not offering specific services. Rather, advocates work to assist those who are being negatively affected by institutional systems through various means of supporting, pleading, defending, or arguing.

Advocacy work occurs in a wide variety of ways. Let’s focus on a few key highlights:

  • Lobbying: As we defined earlier, lobbying is a method of advocacy work. Any time advocating involves working to alter legislation, it’s in the realm of lobbying.
  • Litigation: Litigation is the aspect of advocacy directly connected to the law. It focuses on advocating for your cause from within the court system.
  • Educating: Educating is a fairly broad advocacy topic, but it boils down to raising awareness of your cause to spur supporter action and effect change.
  • Organizing: Organizing is pivotal to advocacy. You have to be able to gather your supporters and unify them as one coherent voice in order to effectively enact change. That all starts with organizing.

Here is an example to give you a more concrete idea of what constitutes advocacy work. In this example, your organization works to help students who are testing below grade level catch up to their classmates.

  1. Advocacy is not: Tutoring those students in an after school program.
  2. Advocacy is: Gathering signatures from members of your community for a petition to alter public educational practices that are putting the students at a disadvantage and not offering ample classroom support.

Now that you understand the practice of advocacy, it’s important to recognize the various types of advocacy groups you might encounter.

What kind of advocacy groups are there?

While there are many types of advocacy groups, for simplicity and clarity’s sake, this article is only going to focus on a select few:

Nonprofit organizations

Nonprofits advocate for the causes they serve, which are outlined by their purpose. Nonprofits can lobby as well, but the amount they can lobby is regulated by federal tax law.

527 organizations

527 organizations are named for their place in the tax code. These organizations are tax-exempt and run with the specific purpose of influencing elections, either advocating for or against certain candidates.

527s encompass two types of advocacy groups we’ll cover next, PACs and super PACs. When someone specifically refers to a 527 advocacy organization, however, that person is often talking about one grouping of the larger term: organizations that advocate for issues but not political candidates or parties explicitly.

Due to that semantic difference, organizations popularly deemed 527s are not regulated by federal or state campaign finance laws.

PACs and super PACs

Political action committees (PACs) gather funding from members and donate to campaigns to help either elect a candidate or keep a candidate out of office. There are legal limits on how much money a PAC can contribute.

The much more recently legalized super PACs can raise unlimited funds in order to advocate for or against certain candidates. They cannot, however, directly coordinate with or donate funds to a candidate.

As you can see, advocacy groups are varied and work within different systems to effect change. Politics and the lobbying portion of advocacy are clearly critical, but there are plenty of other areas of focus, as well. 

Using advocacy to create change

As a whole, advocacy is one means of creating change. Advocacy groups are often the impetus behind changes we see in political, social, and economic institutions. It’s empowering to be able to draw a line from your organization’s actions to a tangible change for the better regarding the cause you’re advocating for.

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