ADVOCACY FOR THE COMMON GOOD: Action, Organization, and Power

Advocacy is the mobilization of resources and power to deal with societal problems.  It combines protest against what you don’t want, pushing for what you do want, and partnering with those responsible for implementation to make sure you actually get what you want  – although it is the pushing that we most generally think of as “advocacy”.  Advocacy starts through the spread of motivating information and bringing people together.  Having ideas and energy is vital, but not enough.  Success requires having the momentum and power to actually implement the desired change.  Vision and talk are the starting points.  Changed awareness – knowledge and empathy – and vital building blocks, but the goal of Advocacy is visible change in individual and social reality – which almost always requires action.  Advocacy occurs when you seek change outside yourself, in the surrounding world.

Advocacy can be done in pursuit of specific benefits for an individual – although individual-benefit Advocacy, especially for yourself, has relatively little impact on society as a whole.  Increasing the contribution of Advocacy to the common good requires moving up the slope from interested observer, to passive supporter, to low-key participant, to activist, to organizer-of-others, to catalyst for the self-organization of others. 

At its most generalized, Advocates go through a process of:

-Identifying and defining a problem and proposing solutions through the creation and dissemination of a compelling story that embodies core values and vision and solicits support;

-Identifying, convening, and mobilizing potential contributors to the advocacy campaign to develop a unifying strategy;

-Leading or participating in the campaign, monitoring progress, and deciding when maximal likely success has been reached;

-Evaluating implementation and pushing for further improvements.



Sometimes, Advocacy activity is based in (and sometimes financed by) an organization providing services to those in need, often helping people deal with the effects of the problem the group’s advocacy also addresses.  When done well the combination is a powerful bridge between the need to relieve immediate hardships and the slower effort to change the systemic dynamics that cause problems.  Like all service agencies (and charities) these organizations and their staffs walk the complicated line between paternalism and empowering partnership, between ameliorating immediate suffering and doing the long-term work of helping people to help themselves.  But Advocacy is more than providing support for individual or family coping, it is creating societal change – combining the two can be very challenging

More typical is issue-oriented Advocacy, focusing on specific programs such as food-stamps, housing, food policy, etc.  The intended goal is to produce better outcomes for large populations through changes in institutional policies, procedures, structures, and systems.  Similarly, Value-based or Mission-driven Advocacy focuses on a broad issue such as racism, civility, or some other general theme.  Activists often use the three terms interchangeably, as well as Social Change or Social Justice Advocacy – which adds a desire to not only improve specific-issue outcomes but to raise society’s floor in general, to broaden the ranks of those who share in the exercise of every type of power, starting with those at the hierarchical bottom: the poor, discriminated-against, exploited, oppressed, marginalized.  Social Justice Advocacy (my preferred label) is based in Proverbs’ (31:8) moral command to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” but takes the next step by adopting the goal of “change, not charity.”


Advocates are, in some senses, social deviants – the vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their lives looking for ways to do well for themselves (and perhaps their families) within the existing society.   Advocates, by definition, seek social change.   Certain kinds of change – both against forces you wish to escape and for virtues you wish to embody – start internally.    As an individual, you can act in ways that let you “be the change you wish to see” while modeling new behaviors for others to emulate.  But personal change, by itself, is not Advocacy. 

Lawyers are called Advocates because they argue for others.  The rest of us become Advocates when we help make things happen.  Advocates take action, preferably with others, to effect change in the world around us.   But the success of those efforts requires an entire eco-system of support by people who may not think of themselves as Advocates or even as activists.   User groups and clubs, professional associations and “community of practice – people bound together by a common activity or interest -- are not inherently Advocates, although they can serve as the social and financial base for Advocacy efforts.  People with relevant expertise or experiences can provide a public voice and legitimacy.  Spreading information to one’s friends, colleagues, or “friends” via social media is a powerful extension of Advocates’ communication and outreach.  Phone calls and letters sent to the media, public agencies, and elected officials from people who don’t think of themselves as Advocates are, in fact, a vital part of the process.  Funders, large and small, play a major role – few long-term Advocacy campaigns survive without a patron or two as well as a large number of regular but lower-level contributors.

But making change happens requires the contribution of people playing many different roles in government as much as in civil society – the idea that all progress happens because of grassroots pressure is as naïve as the idea that all change comes from the top.  Advocates need friends on the inside – agency staff, appointed leaders, elected officials – to respond to their requests (and pressure) with positive action of their own.  Of course, even when the “ask” is simple, success usually takes repeated, patient effort because public agencies are subject to multi-directional pressures and are bound by the extra steps needed to appear impartial and transparent.


Individual and informal group advocacy can be effective around relatively small-scale problems and non-controversial issues.  Elected officials and agency staff seldom hear from the public about most issues, so unless you are dealing with some well-publicized controversy five signatures on a letter or five separate phone calls to a politician’s office often feels like a groundswell. 

However, what most of us think of as “Advocacy” is the organizational kind.  Organizational Advocacy incorporates elements of all the individual roles.  And like them, it starts with raised awareness, focused research, a scan of alternatives, and tentative proposals.   Advocates identify problems and frame them in a way that emphasizes the values and interests at stake, attract support, and describe a path to possible solutions.  They identify barriers to adoption and maximal implementation of those solutions, and help mobilize the people and resources needed to overcome them.  They monitor the results and push for incremental improvements.  (Reforms also have unintended consequences, some good and some bad – a reality that Advocates need to acknowledge.)

The distinguishing advantage of Organized Advocacy is its ability to sustain effort through the full cycle of Protest, Push, and Partnership – stopping what you don’t like, pushing for adoption of what you want, and then working with the implementing agencies to make sure it happens close to the way you want.  Moving on if things go well or finding the energy and resources to repeat the whole process if things go wrong.  It is hard, if not impossible, to do this as an individual or even as an informal group. 

Being organized is different from being an Organization.  Both can be mission-driven.  However, while the former implies efficiency the second also requires effective administration and financial stability.  Organizations require a lot of work simply to maintain.  The payoff is that it can support longer term efforts beyond the scope of any particular person. 


The larger and more transformative the goals being pursued, the less likely that success is the result of a single dramatic moment, although memory and media often conflate the years of effort into its climatic moment.  In reality, there is no single fulcrum stable enough and no single lever long enough to move the human world with one push.  Advocacy is almost always the glacial accretion of small steps, both in process and result.  Even the biggest movements grow on top of ideas repeated at meeting after meeting, comment letters sent and then revised and resent by someone else and then by someone else again, phone call after phone call, and quick mentions in every chance encounter.   Even the biggest leaps take off from a long runway of incremental advances – and defeats. 

Advocacy tends to be a small-group phenomenon – people united by a common passion for (or against) some aspect of societal functioning or culture.   However, some Advocacy campaigns are so in tune with their times that they turn into mass Movements. And Movements are most transformative when they create space for the powerless to empower themselves; as Civil Rights pioneer Bob Moses writes about the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer effort: “we learned [that it is] getting people at the bottom to make demands, on themselves first, then on the system, that leads to some of the most important changes.”  As my father used to say,  there are three kinds of leaders: the kind that when it’s all done people say, “he did it.”  The kind where they say “he led us.”  And the kind where people say “we did it!”


Much Advocacy is simply a fight against institutional and cultural inertia, the difficulty or unwillingness to deviate from past patterns of practice and thought even when obviously inefficient, unsustainable, or even self-defeating – those with a stake in the status quo are seldom eager to loose what they actually have, no matter how little.  It frustratingly often takes an enormous amount of work and time to achieve even the most miniscule reforms.  So Advocacy is also and perhaps most fundamentally about power.  

Whether value-based around religious or cultural ideas or mission-driven towards a specific reform, whether benefit-focused or issue-oriented or social justice seeking, the more that an Advocacy demand threatens the power or interests of the powerful, or even the hard-won little concessions that let the majority of people feel secure in a difficult world, the harder it will be to win.   Yet convincing or forcing  people with power to act is an inescapable part of the process.  Advocacy starts with the creating and spread of ideas and culture, it gathers strength through public engagement, but it culminates in action by decision-makers and implementers, direct or induced.  At its best, this is not simply an effort to replace one elite with another, but a search for a special kind of power -- democratic, inclusive, and based on universal values in a way that makes the world move in the desired direction.


Advocates can push for improvements in, transformation of, or even the total replacement of their target institutions.  They can work for change from within or create alternative models of disruptive innovation from the outside.  At its most radical, Advocates promote values or social visions with implications beyond the particular action being advocated for.  However, no matter how militant it’s actions, Advocacy is inherently reformist rather than revolutionary.  Although it’s possible for a revolutionary movement to emerge out of Advocacy efforts if enough people come to believe that their most essential needs cannot be secured within the existing institutional arrangements, and even though the leadership of a reform Movement is often more radical than its average participant, Advocacy is almost always based in a belief that meaningful change is possible within some version of the existing society.  Like most people, few Advocates start out wanting to overthrow their entire existence and world.  They just want something better.

But the challenge as well as the joy of the effort is that you never know where it will end up.  And it won’t even start unless people push.  As Frederick Douglas insightfully said over a century and a half ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”


Thanks to Jeff Rosenblum who, years ago, first got me thinking about the roles people play in Advocacy campaigns.


Related Previous Postings:


> ADVOCATE'S DILEMMA: When the Need Is Urgent But the Pace of Change Is Slow

> THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY:  Movements & Movement Building

> THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY: Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development

> FOLLOWING THE LEADER:  Lessons from NYC’s Janette Sadik Kahn

Take our website survey!