Engaged Advocacy Practice For Leaders



This chapter builds directly on the previous chapter, which dealt with persuasion. Advocacy is a special case of persuasion, in that you are working to negotiate and persuade people in elected or appointed offices, rather than staff within your organization, board members, clients, peers at other organizations, and other important people who are in your environment. Everything covered in Chapter 13 applies directly to advocacy, though we should consider advocacy a process that extends both before and after the persuasion effort.


In an insightful analysis of the role of nonprofit organizations in welfare states, Ralph Kramer (1981) indicated that being change agents “comes close to being a unique organizational competence of the voluntary agency” (p. 231). According to the Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs (1975), also known as the Filer Commission, an ambitious examination of the role of nonprofit organizations in the United States, “the monitoring and influencing of government may be emerging as one of the single most important and effective functions of the private nonprofit sector” (p. 45). These statements from nearly 40 years ago may not have come entirely true, partially because nonprofit managers have not been taught a systematic approach to advocacy that fits in with other skills they have had the opportunities to develop. Yet, advocacy remains an important function of the nonprofit sector. Ruggiano and Taliaferro (2012) support this view, arguing that lobbying is important for nonprofits to gain the resources they need to serve the public good.

In addition to this view of nonprofit organizations being needed to voice important viewpoints, advocacy by individuals is considered an ethical responsibility by some organizations’ codes of ethics. The National Association of Social Workers (2008), for example, states this explicitly:

Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice. (Section 6.04a)


Hoefer (2012) defines advocacy practice as taking “action in a systematic and purposeful way to defend, represent, or otherwise advance the cause of one or more clients at the individual, group, organizational, or community level in order to promote social justice” (p. 3). He describes the advocacy process as a form of the general problem-solving method used in social work and other professions. Specifically, Hoefer describes six distinct stages in his unified model of advocacy practice. Each will be covered briefly.

Stage 1: Getting involved. The idea of getting involved is simple: Are you going to put some of your life into trying to make a difference in a particular area, or are you not? Large numbers of Americans are not involved in political efforts at all (not even voting), much less a more difficult and time-consuming activity such as political advocacy.

Seven variables are seen as affecting the likelihood that a person will get involved with advocacy (Hoefer, 2012). These are the person’s educational level, values, sense of professional responsibility, interest, skills, level of participation in other organizations, and amount of free time. No matter your current level on all of these variables, you can increase them to some extent by consciously shaping your own environment to support growth on each variable.


Education: Get CEUs or other training relating to political advocacy.

Values: Shape organizational norms by hiring people with an activist orientation.

Sense of professional responsibility: Hire professional social workers.

Interest: Expose staff members to results of political decisions on clients.

Skills: Provide advocacy mentors to selected staff members.

Participation in other organizations: Assign staff members to work with coalitions.

Time: Allow flextime to assist staff members to attend meetings.

Stage 2: Understanding the issue. Inexperienced advocates or people new to a specific policy arena often want to move forward quickly without taking the time to understand fully the issue(s) at hand. In particular, there is a temptation to try to understand the issue from only your own side without trying to research and appraise any other approach or perspective. Moving forward without truly understanding the issue from at least two perspectives is a mistake and may doom your advocacy effort from the start.

Hoefer (2012) lists five steps in understanding an issue. First, advocates must define the issue so that they can talk confidently within a particular frame of reference about the impacts of a problem on a particular group of people (see Chapter 13 for the discussion on persuasion frames, such as “it isn’t fair” or “after what they’ve been through, they deserve this”). Without completing this step, there is a danger you will adopt the frame someone else has set forth rather than developing a clear sense of how you view the situation.

The second step is to decide who is affected by the issue, and how. If there is a problem, then the issue is hurting someone or a larger group of people. But it is also vital to understand who is being helped by the current situation—is it helping someone make money, or does it support the current emotional needs of a powerful person or group of people? Is the situation just “tradition” that has not been examined for some time? The third step is to decide what the main causes of the issue are. It may be impossible to determine what the ultimate cause is, but if you can determine what is causing the issue, at least at the proximate (immediate) level, it is far easier to solve the issue.

Fourth, you need to generate solutions to the issue, at least to the immediate problem. It is tempting to take the first plausible solution you come up with, but you should generate (at least) several potential solutions to have a wider variety of choices, some of which may be easier to adopt than others. You can look to other cities, states, and countries for ideas, or generate additional potential solutions on your own through techniques such as brainstorming.


Brainstorming: A process of generating ideas without evaluating them right away. Save evaluation until after a set time period for idea generation is completed.

George Costanza approach: Think of how things are done now, and imagine what “doing the opposite” would be. What benefits might ensue from doing things “oppositely”?

Win-win approach: Create an alternative policy that restructures the current situation. A set of prompts and questions can be used to generate ideas.

Source: Hoefer (2012, pp. 73–75).

The fifth step in understanding the issue is to review all of the proposed solutions to estimate their impact on the problem and on social justice more broadly. Each advocacy effort requires a thoughtful decision about which solution or solutions to pursue. The ones you choose may be of different priorities, and you may trade off achieving one for having a better one enacted. Sometimes you may have to accept an easy-to-pass bill when you’d rather have a law that has a greater chance of impacting the problem.

Stage 3: Planning. Just as it is easy to want to try to solve a problem without taking the time to understand it fully, it is also easy to want to jump into action before planning adequately. Hoefer (2012) uses the analogy of using a map of getting from one place to another to planning in advocacy, which is laying out how to get from here (the current state of affairs) to there (a different and better state of affairs). Advocates can use various methods to lay out the steps in their plan, but it is important to relate the actions you take to the outcomes you want to achieve. You need to choose the precise goals and objectives of your advocacy. You also want to select an appropriate target—if you try to change Medicaid funding formulas at the local level, for example, you’ll find your concerns can’t be addressed at that level—it is a problem for the federal and state governments to address. Before you can advocate with your targets, you need to know who they are. Getting information about legislators and their staff members is not difficult. Elected officials almost all have websites where you can learn what their interests and positions are on issues. You can also discover their contact information such as office address, phone number, and e-mail address.

Your advocacy plan should also include a timeline for action, perhaps tied to other stakeholders’ schedules. For example, if you wait until after the legislative session is over to advocate, you may seriously delay achieving the policy change you want. Planning does not take place on its own—all the steps up to now must be completed, and the information must then be used in the planning stage. Good planning takes the information from before it and makes it possible to apply a clear set of feasible steps in the future.

Stage 4: Advocating. This is the stage where you actually contact decision makers. Using your skills in persuading (as discussed in Chapter 13), you make your best efforts to have your target adopt (to the greatest extent possible) the ideas, plans, and positions that you put forward. You have your desire to be involved and you have your plan, based on your understanding of the issue. Advocating is simply the stage to put your plan into action. You may not have considered everything that you could have, and your plan may not be working as well as you thought it would. Then, of course, you may need to adapt your plan to better fit the changing realities before you. It is much better to adjust your advocacy plan and tactics than to abandon your values and goals.

Stage 5: Evaluating. Once your advocacy effort is completed, it is time to take stock of the results you achieved, and the costs that you paid to achieve those results. It is rare when you achieve everything you started out wanting. Other participants in the policy process will want their views adopted, and your persuasion efforts may not have been fully effective. It becomes vital to judge exactly what you achieved compared to what you planned to accomplish—is it close to three-fourths of what you wanted? More like half? Even less than half? This is an important part of your evaluation but not the entire evaluation. (This should sound similar to the material in Chapter 7 relating to outcome evaluation.)

You also need to compare what you did with what you planned to do—were you (or your group) able to meet as often as you desired with key decision makers? Were you able to round up the number of volunteers needed to make calls or write letters? If the answers are no, you’ll want to examine the reasons why you weren’t able to do so. If the answers are yes, you’ll want to document what you did so that you’ll also be able to do it again in the next advocacy effort. (In Chapter 7, we covered the idea of fidelity assessment, which is important in advocacy evaluation as well.)

The final element of the evaluation is to link your actions and your achievements. It may be you didn’t do as many of your actions as you thought you would need to. If this is so, then you likely didn’t achieve as much as you thought you would. But it may be that you did everything you planned to do and still didn’t achieve all that you desired. In your evaluation, you’ll want to analyze what happened and why you weren’t as successful as you thought you would be. What lessons can you develop to improve the results from future advocacy?

Beyond the immediate results of your advocacy effort, you will want to examine the context of the policy debate. It may be you didn’t get the exact policy you were working for, but you may be changing the terms of the debate (the frame used to discuss the issue). If you find key actors starting to use the same language you use when describing the problem, the population affected, or the policy options, you are winning many small victories that should be celebrated, remembered, and built on for the next time the issue is raised.

Stage 6: Monitoring. The final stage of advocacy practice is that of ongoing monitoring. You need to pay attention to the way any programs you supported are actually being run. Regulations determine much of what program staff members can do, so you will want to pay attention to the way these are written. You may find that you lose much of the gains you believed you had won if others control the way the rules are written. You also need to attend to the budgeting process to ensure that any new provisions you supported have enough resources to do what they are supposed to do. A program that is not given sufficient funds to run itself will be crippled and ineffective, thus leading to charges in the future that it should be eliminated.

Monitoring by advocates almost always takes place within the executive branch, not the legislative branch. The executive branch operates in significantly different ways than does the legislative, and skilled advocates will need to be aware that this is true. Legislators, for example, are used to being lobbied by constituents and interest groups. This is less true of people working in the executive branch who are selected primarily for their specialist expertise and are not lobbied often in the same way that lawmakers are. Another important difference is that legislators and their staff members are well known to advocates because they have chosen to be in the spotlight. Executive branch employees, however, are much more likely to be fairly anonymous, working far from the public eye. It may be more difficult just to find out who to contact.


Recent years have brought a number of research studies that provide nonprofit managers with empirical information to be better advocates. The research indicates that policy-relevant information and research results are important when lobbying. Giesler, Parris, Weaver, Hall, and Sullivan (2012) studied how local level policy makers are influenced in their decision making. Decision makers at this level use “social service agency reports, social service agency staff consultation, and other [decision-makers’] opinions” (p. 236). At the state level, in Texas, research was seen as very important to legislators when voting on human service issues (Cochran, Montgomery, & Rubin, 2010). This insight regarding research is strengthened by a study examining conservative think tanks at the national level, even if the “research” is of poor quality and ideologically biased (Miller-Cribbs, Cagle, Natale, & Cummings, 2010).

Two state-level comparative policy studies have very similar results as to what variables shape particular policies. Lee and Donlan (2009) found that Democratic political party control leads to higher expenditures for Medicaid; Hoefer, Black, and Salehin’s (2012) results show that Democratic Party control is the primary determinant of strong teen dating violence prevention policy. This indicates that advocates in favor of stronger human service legislation may wish to help ensure that candidates from the Democratic Party are elected. Conversely, people who have another viewpoint may wish to work to elect Republican Party officials.


While this is only a quick overview of the advocacy process that nonprofit leaders can use, you can see how the steps of this approach fit in well with the general problem-solving approach that emphasizes assessment, planning, intervention, and evaluation of intervention. In addition, you must decide to get involved to begin with and you must keep monitoring the situation to determine if the problem is improving, getting worse, or staying the same once some new proposal is adopted, or if nothing is done. Additional information regarding empirically supported ways to be effective in your advocacy efforts is also presented to provide more specifics for new and experienced advocates. Persuasive techniques (information covered in Chapter 13) need to be recalled as you plan and conduct your advocacy efforts.


Cochran, G., Montgomery, K., & Rubin, A. (2010). Does evidence-based practice influence state legislators’ decision-making process? An exploratory process. Journal of Policy Practice, 9(3–4), 263–283.

Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs. (1975). Giving in America: Toward a stronger voluntary sector. Washington, DC: Author.

Giesler, F., Parris, A., Weaver, L., Hall, L., & Sullivan, Q. (2012). Sources of information that influence social service public policy decisions. Journal of Policy Practice, 11(4), 236–254.

Hoefer, R. (2012). Advocacy practice for social justice (2nd ed.). Chicago: Lyceum Press.

Hoefer, R., Black, B., & Salehin, M. (2012). Making the grade: Correlates of dating violence policies. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 39(4), 9–24.

Kramer, R. (1981). Voluntary agencies in the welfare state. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lee, J., & Donlan, W. (2009). Cultural, social and political influences on state-level indigent health care policy formation. Journal of Policy Practice, 8(2), 129–146.

Miller-Cribbs, J., Cagle, B., Natale, A., & Cummings, Z. (2010). Thinking about think tanks: Strategies for progressive social work. Journal of Policy Practice, 9(3–4), 284–307.

National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of ethics. Washington, DC. Author. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/default.asp

Ruggiano, N., & Taliaferro, J. D. (2012). Resource dependency and agent theories: A framework for exploring nonprofit leaders’ resistance to lobbying. Journal of Policy Practice, 11(4), 219–235.


Advocacy practice—taking action in a systematic and purposeful way to defend, represent, or otherwise advance the cause of one or more clients at the individual, group, organizational, or community level in order to promote social justice.

Executive branch—The executive branch interprets and implements the laws developed by the legislative branch. This is true at the national, state, and local levels. (See also Legislative branch.)

Legislative branch—The legislative branch passes bills that may then be signed into law by the chief executive. These are then interpreted and implemented by the executive branch. This is true at the national and state levels. Local governments also have legislative bodies, although chief executives at that level operate somewhat differently than at the national and state levels. (See also Executive branch.)

Proximate cause (of a problem)—the immediate identifiable cause of a current problem. Focusing on the proximate cause can give advocates something to work on, even if it isn’t the “true” cause in some philosophical sense. (See also Ultimate cause.)

Target—the individual or group that can make the authoritative decision that you desire.

Ultimate cause (of a problem)—the root cause of a current problem that may extend back in time and across political boundaries. It is the “true” cause of the problem but may be intractable and impossible to impact. Focusing on ultimate causes can quickly lead to demoralization. (See also Proximate cause.)


1. In-Basket Exercise


For this in-basket exercise, personalize your response by finding legislators for your location. Use any human services agency you desire for Question 2c and Question 3. Be as realistic as possible when considering who should be the targets of your advocacy.


Date: September 6, 20XX

From: Kenyonne Hightower, Chair of Board

To: Samantha Velasquez, Advocacy Volunteer Coordinator

Subject: Beginning Steps for New Advocacy Efforts

It is becoming clear to us on the board that we need to become involved in the realm of educating our legislators about our organization’s needs. Unfortunately, we have very little idea about how to begin. This is where your expertise comes in.

We believe that the first step is to get to know more about our legislators. We would like you to write up the following information:

1.   Search for information on the following four people: our U.S. senator, our U.S. house representative, our state senator, and our state house representative.

2.   For each of these four elected officials, get this information:

a.   The committees they serve on

b.   Their office location, phone number to speak to an aide, and an e-mail address to communicate with them

c.   Their position on one issue related to our agency’s mission

3.   Of these four legislators, which one do you think is the one we should start building a relationship with first? Why?

2. What’s in a Name?

Discuss with one or two other people what your perceptions of lobbying and advocacy are. Would you want to tell new acquaintances that you are a “lobbyist”? Would it sound better if you indicated your job is to influence elected officials? Why or why not? How would you like talking about your position if it were called “social justice champion”?

3. Social Media and Advocacy

While this chapter doesn’t address the ways to use social media in an advocacy campaign, brainstorm with colleagues how you could use Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, or other social media outlets in an advocacy effort.

4. Give It a Try

Search the web for an advocacy organization or interest group that has views you agree with. Look on its website for information about advocacy and how you can be involved in their issue. Select one of their suggestions (don’t choose “donate money”!) and tell your colleagues or classmates which one you have chosen to do. Within one week, complete this self-chosen task. Discuss what you did and how you feel about your effort with the colleagues or classmates you declared your intentions to.


1.   The seven variables related to getting involved with advocacy are the person’s educational level, values, sense of professional responsibility, interest, skills, level of participation in other organizations, and amount of free time (Hoefer, 2012). Give yourself a grade from A to F on each variable. Discuss why you think this is so. Create a plan to improve each area where you have a grade of B or less.

2.   Choose a human services issue that is of interest to you. Write a one- to two-page letter that you can send to a legislator that presents your ideas on this issue. Review your letter in light of the information on persuasion discussed in an earlier chapter. Send it.

3.   Select an existing human services program. Find information on how its budget has changed over the past five years. Relate this to the change in need for the program. Write a short paper (two to three pages) summarizing the information and whether you believe the budget has been adequate or not. If you feel particularly passionate about this topic (or for extra credit, if your instructor agrees), schedule an appointment with an appropriate target to explain why you believe the budget needs to be increased, decreased, or remain the same.