Advocacy Basics

"How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws, and those who write laws that make life hard for people.  They are not fair to the poor and they rob my people of their rights.  They allow people to steal from widows and take from orphans what really belongs to them."
Isaiah 10:1-2

What is Advocacy?
Advocacy is an action taken by individuals, groups, or organizations to defend, support, or protect others. Generally, advocacy is standing with or standing for a person or group that is disadvantaged or denied justice in society. In the effort to bring about justice, advocacy may include education, affecting public policy, joining coalitions, and participating in nonviolent direct actions. Effective advocacy enables and supports individuals and groups working to correct the injustices or abuses to which they are subjected.
Adapted from the website of the Latin American Working Group.

Do you wonder if your efforts make a difference with your elected officials? Check out our special section: Does Advocacy Make a Difference? 

Why should I care about advocacy?
These are challenging times for our nation, as debate rages over fundamental decisions regarding our national priorities, values and commitments, and how they will be expressed in public policy. Events of recent times remind us that we cannot ignore economic, social, and ecological realities that have led to greater abundance for some and scarcity for many others.  In the challenges before us today, we, as people of faith, can hear the echoes of prophets and believers who, throughout history, lifted up a vision of right relationship within human community and with God. God’s vision of the wholeness of creation has always challenged the human limits of our thoughts, imaginations, and hopes.

The Hebrew people were continually reminded that the way in which their human community was structured reflected their relationship to God. In the prophetic tradition, justice in human community is inextricably linked to being in right relationship with God. For as God had brought the people through great trouble, so they were to respond to those in trouble in their midst.

Jesus reminds us of the call to compassion and justice, showing special care and concern for those in his day who were considered “expendables.” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

How do I develop an Advocacy Strategy?
Before any advocacy campaign begins, before the letter-writing, petitions, or protests, advocates must have a clear strategy. This is an overall map of where you are, where you want to be, and how to get there. Start by asking yourself these five questions.

1. What Do You Want? (Objectives)
2. Who Can Give It to You? (Audiences)
3. What Do They Need to Hear? (Message)
4. Who Do They Need to Hear It From? (Messengers)
5. How Can We Get Them to Hear It? (Delivery)

When developing your message, ask yourself this key question: what piece of information that is missing from the debate can I offer that might change someone’s thinking on an issue if they became aware of it?

Timing advocacy to influence legislation is the most important skill needed by legislative advocates. Once an issue is decided by vote, it is very difficult, often practically impossible, to reverse the action until the next year or the next session of Congress. For more coordinated and strategic advocacy, which differs from rapid-response advocacy, it is important to plan ahead.

One excellent way to do advocacy is to enlist the help of leaders in the community, like clergy and other religious leaders.  Religious leaders command respect among their congregations and also from elected officials and those who do not belong to a faith community.  Partnering clergy and leaders of faith communities is a great, strategic way to engage your elected officials, especially if among the faith leaders is the leader of that elected official’s faith group.
Adapted from Democracy In Action, a newsletter of the  Democracy Center, The Institute for Public Policy Advocacy, 1535 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, 415-431-2051

Click here for the “Top Ten Ways to Work with Religious Partners.”

Who are my elected officials?
There are a number of ways to learn who your elected officials are.  The simplest way to find them is through our Find Elected Officials tool below, where you can look up your elected representatives by zip code.  Once you know who your officials are, visit their websites and learn more about who they are.  The more informed your communication is with them, the better.

Find Elected Officials:

Enter 5 or 9 digit zip code

What is the timing for Advocacy on the Federal level?
The key working days for the House and Senate are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. This allows members of Congress to travel to their home districts and provides time for committee work and various kinds of caucusing and negotiations. In Washington, D.C., Mondays and Fridays are better times for meeting with legislative aides, but advocates should not be deterred by this and may try to set up a meeting on any weekday. Even when there is floor action in the House or Senate, it may be the case that the important action is happening in committees, caucuses, and negotiations.

It is not easy to predict when members will be in home districts and states, but it is important to contact the home offices of members to pursue appointments, since it is just as effective to meet with a staff member there.  Of course, don’t forget phone calls, hand-written letters, and emails.  These are all effective ways to weigh in on important issues.

Why is it important to advocate on the state and local levels, as well as the federal level?
Advocacy on the state and local level is as important as your work on the federal level.  Today, the relationship between the states and the federal government in shaping and implementing public policy is being redefined on a broad range of issues, particularly budget deficits, homeland security, health care, education, environment, election reform, and welfare reform.  The connection between federal and state public policy is becoming more evident.  In this new environment, public policy advocacy is critical at both the state and federal level.  Every state and local legislative calendar is different, so check on your state and local webpages to find out when legislation is on the move.

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