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Advocacy: A Bridge Between Research and Policy

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Julie Griffin and Tatia White

As a land-grant university, NC State is committed to providing students hands-on, highly-engaged learning opportunities AND to providing research that is of direct, practical use to the fields we work in. Philanthropy Journal proudly presents this series of evidence-based resource articles developed by Dr. Amanda J. Stewart‘s masters level Management of Nonprofit Organizations class. These articles represent a perfect overlap of engaged learning and practical research.

Local Advocacy to Bring National Change

Advocacy is the vehicle organizations use to affect change in policy. Many associate advocacy with legislative lobbying but it encompasses so much more. For nonprofits, especially those in the public health arena, data provides the key to unlocking the minds of decision makers, though determining how best to communicate these results can be a challenge. Using data derived from credible research in advocacy efforts is one way to combat challenges in policy adoption. Compelling research from Advances in Communication Research to Reduce Childhood Obesity suggests the most successful advocacy campaigns work on a local level combining grassroots mobilization of constituents while also strategically marketing through a top-down approach.[1] Strategies from this research were identified and compared with advocacy efforts of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (Rudd Center), a nonprofit with a successful history in local, state, and national advocacy. While this article views advocacy through a public health lens, these strategies are applicable to other nonprofit missions as well.           

Academic research is the cornerstone of activity at the Rudd Center. They use it as the primary tool to execute their mission: “To promote solutions to childhood obesity, poor diet, and weight bias.” According to Sally Mancini, MPH, Director of Advocacy,[2] they began a couple of years ago to “ensure individuals at the local level have the ability to make changes that will most impact them and impact their health” which has proved to be beneficial in light of potential policy changes from the new administration. By focusing locally, nonprofits can capitalize on the knowledge of what is important to their specific community to improve their foothold as change agents.   

Advocacy Strategies

According to Sally, the biggest challenge of public health advocacy is that, “It is very difficult to move people past the mentality that this is an individual problem that has an individual solution.” This thought process also threads its way through many mission areas like poverty, homelessness, and education. Nonprofits can begin to break this mentality by affecting policy change at the local level closer to the heart of the individual. The following strategies from Advances in Communication Research to Reduce Childhood Obesity can be used towards that end:

1) Interpret issues using evidence and identifying solutions. Using research based evidence as well as collective phrasing to make the issue meaningful and convinces stakeholders that problems exist. Research combined with key messaging is used to address issues collectively instead of individually. Collective phrasing encourages a public mentality which appeals to more stakeholders. The Rudd Center incorporates collective phrasing terms such as, “helping kids grow up at a healthy weight,” or “accessing healthy foods and beverages,” which has also been effective in highlighting solutions. Nonprofits using collective phrasing based on evidence have a greater chance of influencing more community members than individual phrasing.  

2) Assemble public education experts and frame the issue proactively. Using academic research can draw media attention resulting in low cost advocacy. One of the ways the Rudd Center does this is by using research guided by experts in the field of childhood obesity which supports policy change. The communication research used to identify these strategies further suggests that advocacy efforts should be framed proactively to increase community concern. For example, the Rudd Center frames obesity in a public health manner highlighting social determinants of health. In addition, they translate their research into fact sheets and  infographics which are intentionally accessible to the public and health advocacy organizations throughout the nation. Social media is also used to diversify advocacy efforts. Social media is a cost-effective way for nonprofits to disseminate to wide audience in real time.

3) Address opposition concerns by neutralizing vested interests. Identifying opponents early allows community organizations to prepare counter arguments, identify common ground, and develop modified solutions. The Rudd Center does this by partnering with the Better Business Bureau to encourage food marketers to take a pledge to either market healthier foods to kids under 12 or to abstain from marketing to kids. This results in a modified solution for those who would typically oppose food policy to acknowledge community benefits of such policy. Recognition is provided to those who take the pledge. Nonprofits can use positive public recognition to appeal to opponents. 

4) Strengthen the support of the solutions by building in evaluation. Building in evaluation components assists nonprofits with documenting benefits of policy efforts. These benefits spur continued community support. To ensure even greater results of evaluation, enforcement of the policy is critical. The Rudd Center conducts a significant amount of research on child and adult care feeding programs in coordination with the United States Department of Agriculture. Through evaluation, they have identified that programs implementing the standards provide healthier food resulting in greater community health benefits compared to programs not implementing the standards which justifies the value of the healthier food standards. Nonprofits building in evaluation components can justify existence of programs and policies, and funding necessary to maintain or enhance efforts.

Final Thoughts

Advocacy experts stress the importance of top-down as well as bottom-up advocacy efforts. The strategies highlighted in this article support the bottom-up advocacy efforts local and state nonprofits can employ to create policy change. The Rudd Center provides examples of tools, supported by research, that nonprofits can use if interested in conducting advocacy at the local level to impact change at the state or national level.  


[1] McCarthy, W. J., Goldstein, H., Sharp, M., & Batch, E. (2013). Voluntary Health Organizations and nonprofit Advocacy Organizations Play Critical Roles in Making Community Norms More Supportive of Healthier Eating and Increased Physical Activity. In J. D. Williams, K. E. Pasch, & C. A. Collins, Advances in Communication Research to Reduce Childhood Obesity. New York: Springer.

[2] Sally Mancini is the Director or Advocacy Resources at the Rudd Center. Sally uses the Rudd Centers’ research to inform the public, public health organizations, community organizations, advocates, and policymakers about food marketing to children and its impact on health disparities. Sally also assists advocates develop the resources to support food policy improvements in all communities.


Julie C. Griffin received a Masters of Public Administration degree from North Carolina State University. Professionally she is the Vocational Services Director at Community Workforce Solutions, Inc.

Tatia L. White is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Administration degree from North Carolina State University. Professionally she is a Senior Project Manager for the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

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