Even though it wasn’t originally referred to as “advocacy,” the concept goes way back—to, at the very least, the mid-18th century. At the time, a British Parliamentarian named John Wilkes, a champion of individualism and free expression, publicly advocated for reform on a number of issues, among them the right to vote and religious tolerance. Years before the Revolutionary War began, he even supported and inspired the American colonists aspiring to independence.
But it wasn’t until the 1960s, here in the U.S., that the term “advocacy” began to gain traction. Which makes sense. It was the decade when the civil, women’s and anti-war movements, among many others, took root. And now, more than 50 years later, an argument could be made that “advocacy” is an overused term.
But it’s also more useful and, with help from technology, effective than ever—not just in the halls of legislature, but at the local, state and regional levels, in non- and for-profit communities. And it’s at the core of what CiviClick does for many clients.
But what, exactly, is advocacy in the modern era? We have an answer to that question.
A Definition (or Two) and Advocacy’s Early Days
“Advocacy,” according to Merriam-Webster, is “the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal; the act or process of advocating something.” OK, so what does “advocate” mean? “[T]o support or argue for (a cause, policy, etc.); to plead in favor of.” This makes sense, as the French word for “lawyer” is “avocat.” And legal advocacy goes back to ancient times, in Rome and Greece.
While the term’s exact origin is tough to nail down, in the mid-1960s a man named Paul Davidoff, a New York City activist and urban planner, penned an article in which he promoted “advocacy planning.” He felt that city government, represented by NYC’s planning commission, should not have the only and final say in how the neighborhoods of underrepresented residents are built and/or altered. The people themselves, he insisted, must have a voice in the process, with support from advocates.
“The advocate planner,” he wrote, would provide information, analyze trends and predict future conditions. “In addition,… he would be a proponent of specific substantive solutions.”
What followed, from the ’60s through the ’90s, was a succession of movements during which communities, supported by advocacy specialists, affected significant changes in a wide range of areas, from anti-nukes to education to veterans’ rights. Then, starting in the ’90s, advocacy was ratcheted up—first via email, then the internet, and, finally, social media. Today, we call it digital advocacy. And it enables just about anyone to advocate relatively easily at some level.
No matter what the means, however, there are a few basic reasons why advocacy is critical to reform.
Why Advocacy is So Important
Whatever the movement may be, advocacy fosters communities of people who’ve come together to promote their cause in a number of ways, which include:
- Empowering people and giving them a voice. On their own, people may be hesitant to advocate for issues near and dear to them. But backed by a support network, they’re more likely to speak out publicly. This attracts the attention of the media, politicians, and, in some cases, high-profile figures who can help spotlight the cause and, eventually, bring about change.
- Influencing policies and educating potential allies. Provided with a platform, advocacy communities make lawmakers aware of previously little-known issues and, through networking, demonstrate ways in which new legislation can positively impact society. They can also educate potential allies—and, in many cases, the general public—about hardships and injustices specific groups face.
- Promoting participation and problem-solving. Because advocacy at its best is a collaborative effort, advocates and their supporters find ways to solve problems together, through diligence and coordinated planning. Organizing protests, lobbying politicians, and engaging in digital advocacy, to name just a few tasks, require skills that ensure the smooth facilitation of advocacy efforts.
- Highlighting available resources and services. Rarely does advocacy occur in a vacuum. Well-coordinated efforts make use of already available resources and services. They could be financial resources, the expertise of like-minded organizations, or governmental services. Advocacy enables people to utilize tools that were previously thought unattainable.
- Fostering respect for a cause. In many cases, advocacy spotlights causes once thought to have little to no widespread relevance. The growth of environmentalist movements over the past century is the most obvious example. Fostering respect often helps propel an advocacy effort forward, enabling advocates and people in power to find common ground and solve problems civilly.
What Advocacy Looks (and Should Look) Like
Speaking of moving forward, where does advocacy’s history leave us today? What does advocacy look like, and what should it look like, in the modern era?
From 30,000 feet, it appears as if advocacy plays two roles: as a support system for those trying to affect change and a potential catalyst for that change. But, ironically, this view is shortsighted. More than ever, the people directly affected by adverse policies have the means at their disposal to do more than just participate in the rules-changing process. They can also proactively shape the lives they want to live.
It’s our job as advocacy professionals to help them. Collectively, we should question whether the fundamental assumptions about advocacy serve people, organizations and businesses as well as they should. For example, while advocacy certainly empowers the individual, should it do so at the risk of alienating like-minded people or organizations that could help individuals achieve their goals?
We must find ways to enable people to express their full selves while, at the same time, involving others—like trade associations, fellow nonprofits and government agencies—who might be able to help them. We also need to transform short-term victories into the realization of long-term goals, so that people are empowered far into the future. Again, the ongoing battle against climate change comes to mind.
The bottom line is that, as we see from history, advocacy is ever-evolving, regardless of fancy new tools or methodologies. Positive change is best achieved through continual dialogue, collaboration, and a commitment to ensuring that the people suffering the most are heard from.
At CiviClick, we remain ever vigilant and always look forward to working with clients who appreciate the value of support services and the wisdom of advocacy experts across many different sectors, each with one goal in mind: to make positive change a reality.