What is advocacy?

This is definitely the question I get the most — from my parents to country directors and heads of mission. The word “advocacy” (or “plaidoyer” or “Meinungsbildung”) isn’t terribly clear itself. So this is what I usually tell people. (And with a big smile and lots of passion! Advocacy is wonderful!)

Advocacy is about influence. It’s trying to get other people to think the way you think.

We all do advocacy all the time. Don’t let anybody tell you they don’t do advocacy, they don’t like advocacy, or they’ve never done advocacy. When you were five years old and you tried to convince your mom why you shouldn’t have to do your homework right now… that was advocacy.

Advocacy can be undertaken in a variety of ways. In the humanitarian/campaigning world of not-for-profits (NGOs, United Nations), I like to organize these activities under the “advocacy umbrella.”

The advocacy umbrella

The advocacy umbrella

Under the umbrella fall a wide range of activities, which I organize by policy, lobbying and communications. These areas have lots of crossover. Some organizations choose to group all of these activities under “campaigning.”

This is not an exhaustive list of advocacy activities (yes, I do have a spreadsheet and it is massive). Here I’ll illustrate a highly simplified situation where you would use all the areas under the umbrella.

Say for example you and your colleagues at Wonderful Humanitarian NGO in Somalia think that the Kenyan government should not be allowed to send back, against their will, refugees from Somalia who are currently living in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. (Obviously they can’t under non-refoulement but this is not a lecture on International Refugee Law.)

So you and your colleagues go about doing some research, and you come up with a good understanding of the situation, and you also have some recommendations about how Kenya can avoid sending back refugees against their will, but also take some of the pressure off Kenya. It’s not easy to host half a million refugees in one location, even with international assistance.

It’s likely that the first advocacy activity area you will undertake is policy. You develop a policy paper based on your research and recommendations. You think your policy paper is terrific and you think it says something new and fresh, and people will love to hear it. How to get it out there?

Now it’s time for the two other areas: lobbying and communications.

Lobbying is what I call anything that happens face-to-face with decision makers or influential people, where you’re trying to influence them to achieve the realization of your policy recommendations. Some people think lobbying is a dirty word, and in some settings it may be. But talking to people face-to-face is not necessarily a bad thing! You could also consider this “communicating” and thus “communications.” My labels for these activity areas are fairly flexible.

Next you have communications. Under communications, you have two areas: direct communications, meaning you are communicating directly with your target audience, which in this example is probably the Kenyan government, UNHCR, and maybe other involved governments. You might choose to communicate directly with them by sharing copies of your policy paper or undertaking lobbying (see, there’s a lot of crossover here!). You might choose to indirectly communicate with them, which often means through the media. Interviews! Op-eds! Press releases! You could also seek to influence influencers (not that’s not a typo). That means trying to get somebody who influences your actual target to influence your target on your behalf. In this example that could be influencing the US government to take your position. The US government could then talk to the Kenya government about also taking on that position. Sometimes you’re transparent about this influencing relationship and sometimes you’re not.

Throughout all of your advocacy, you need to be monitoring your success. Good advocacy isn’t necessarily quick, and sometimes it’s more about building an influential reputation for your organization than getting people to follow your exact recommendation on a specific topic. But if you’re not monitoring and noting your successes and failures… well, then you’re just screaming. Like the guy on the corner promising the apocalypse is coming. And he’s not terribly helpful, is he?


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