What is Advocacy?

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Marcela Sarmiento Mellinger, MSW, Ph.D. 

Advocacy as a practice strategy has served as a catalyst for nonprofits to respond to factors that impact the services they provide. However, when we talk about advocacy, a picture of moving legislation forward or stopping a bill that could potentially harm our constituents comes to mind. But is there more to advocacy than legislative action?

Defining Advocacy

Perhaps the simplest and most well-known definition of advocacy is to defend or promote a cause. This definition clearly shows that advocacy is active, not passive. As practitioners and researchers have attempted to define advocacy, action words, such as identifying, influencing, supporting, recommending, representing, defending, intervening, and changing, are often used in the definition. We also know that advocacy is a broad concept that goes beyond changing or shaping legislation; seeking change, securing and promoting social justice, shaping social and political outcomes, systematically influencing decision making, and educating the public with the purpose of bringing about change, are all actions associated with advocacy. These actions are not restricted to legislative involvement. In fact, those working for nonprofits know and understand that systems change often takes place at the local level. Advocacy includes many aspects of civic involvement.

Research tells us that legislative advocacy participation by nonprofit organizations is low. Many organizations do not have the resources to hire a full-time advocate or invest the needed resources to advocate for legislative change at the federal level. We also understand that knowledge of the legislative process, as well as the complexity of the systems surrounding this arena, impacts how much nonprofit leaders are involved. However, what we do not often hear about is the advocacy carried out in other arenas. In 2001, Dr. Ezell, a professor of social work currently at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, proposed a typology, which gives us a better picture of how nonprofit organizations interpret and carry out advocacy. Dr. Ezell has conducted research on nonprofits advocacy and management throughout his career. In this typology, he included administrative, legal, and community advocacy.

Types of Advocacy

Administrative advocacy takes place where laws are actually carried out. Once legislation is passed, it rests on administrators to set up rules and regulations needed to follow the law. Nonprofit practitioners are often involved in making sure these regulations are interpreted in a way that benefits clients. This type of advocacy involves identifying needed changes in programs’ policies and practices, and influencing administrators to make needed changes. A benefit of administrative advocacy is that changes in regulations can happen faster than changes (and consequently implementation) in legislation.

Legal advocacy happens when we seek to influence the implementation of laws or legal rules that impact clients or nonprofits through the court system. Since courts are the place where laws and regulations are interpreted, it is important for nonprofits to be active in this type of advocacy.

Legal advocacy, however, is often associated with litigation, and therefore dismissed as an expensive option. However, litigation is only one way to advocate at this level; there are many ways in which nonprofits can work with the courts so fair practices are used, and clients receive the services warranted them. Nonprofit professionals can team up with the community, lawyers, and even judges to seek fair court practices, the protection of individual rights, changes in court rules that negatively impact clients, the creation or improvement of court supported services, and even seek funding for court supported services. Furthermore, nonprofit professionals can play a role as advisors to judges and court officials so macro changes can be implemented.

Community advocacy involves challenging assumptions about vulnerable populations. Negative attitudes and myths, often promoted within communities, influence availability of services for those in needs. Using community advocacy to change mistaken public perceptions is one way in which nonprofit professionals can bring about change. Accepting the erroneous portrayal of some segments of the population creates adverse consequences for public opinion and therefore, social policy. Changing these perceptions at the grassroots level, providing accurate information on the issues that matter to the community, and assisting community members to make their voices heard are ways in which community advocacy can take place. Furthermore, educating business owners and executives, influential religious leaders, and others well position within the community on issues impacting vulnerable populations, can sway priorities or practices that can benefit vulnerable populations, while at the same time enhancing community life for all.


Although involvement in legislative advocacy, at the federal and state level, continue to be important for the nonprofit sector, we must also remember that bringing about change at the local level is as important. Collaborating with administrators and the courts can bring about more rapid and effective changes; furthermore, disseminating accurate information about the issues faced by our communities can sway public opinion and bring about systems change. In a climate where nonprofits may feel overwhelmed and at times vulnerable, utilizing local resources and effecting change at the local and state levels, may be as, or perhaps more important, as making our voices heard at the federal level.

Reference: Ezell, M. (2001). Advocacy in the human services. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Marcela Sarmiento Mellinger is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her main area of research is nonprofit advocacy; she teaches policy in the Baccalaureate Social Work program. 

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