What is advocacy?
Advocacy is an activity that aims to influence decisions within political, economic, and social institutions. It includes activities and publications to influence public policy, laws and public mindset. Advocacy software is used by organizations to manage their supporter activities and lobby power-brokers like legislators or government bodies.
Advocacy strategies are designed to make an impact or create change in some way. In this piece we will look at concrete tactics for achieving these outcomes but it is first worth looking at four advocacy strategies broadly, inspired by Keck and Sikkink's work, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics.
1. Information politics
Advocacy groups develop information that is usable in creating a political outcome. They are able to develop this information from direct sources, online, in text, video and image format so that it is usable in creating an impact. This impact might be in the form of social media content, or in the form of narrative but it is the act of reusing information as an advocacy tool that is the defining characteristic.
2. Symbolic politics
Advocacy groups use symbols, actions or stories that make sense of an issue for a wider audience that is frequently far away or not directly impacted. The Black Lives Matter protests are a good example of how symbolic politics can be used to help very wide audiences understand the challenge being faced by a minority. They are also very repeatable because the symbolic nature of the action can be copied in other areas, and by different actors. The power of storytelling, though tragic in the case of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, can be seen to be a clear outcome of a complex problem while also being a huge driver of action.
3. Leverage politics
In many cases advocacy strategy can be finding influential people to represent the issue. Alternatively, it might involve building coalitions with other political actors or groups to work together for change. This politics is about leveraging power that is already in the community and just needs to be harnessed for the cause. Many advocacy strategies are built around a celebrity advocate or a powerful political figure taking up the mantle. In election season this type of strategy is very obvious with voting access or voter rights groups being endorsed by celebrities in particular.
4. Accountability politics
Sometimes advocacy is as simple as holding people to account for their policies or principles. If an organization or a legislature is not living up to its stated obligations it might be more effective to make them accountable to their constituency in this regard rather than pursuing other causes.
1. Recruit and retain supporters
First and foremost, you will need to do the work of recruiting new supporters to your cause and retaining those supporters by giving them actions to take that make them feel like they are contributing. Recruitment can be done with recruitment drives online or at events, but in Covid times a lot of advocacy groups are using their existing supporters to recruit from their own network of friends and family using advocacy software. This p2p recruitment strategy is highly effective as it builds on word of mouth referral. Retaining supporters is done through giving these people meaningful work to do that has a positive impact. Make sure to track activities that are being done too so you can highlight efforts and build motivation.
Action tip: Create a recruitment strategy that uses existing supporters’ micro-network. Give them a way to simply log an interest and bring that person into your database.
2. Obsess about the stories you tell
Retaining control over the narrative is essential in any advocacy organization. The story you tell and the way it is framed will have a huge bearing on how the organization as a whole is perceived. This perception then has a knock-on effect on your ability to recruit new supporters or fundraise or achieve your goals. Obsess then about the stories you tell and how they give context to your goals. Maybe you need to reframe a misconception around a minority group or you need to put a human face on the impact of a piece of legislation. Remember that stories are far more engaging or memorable than simply stating your position and the story itself can change mindsets without anyone necessarily associating it with your organization.
Action tip: Once you have sketched out your 1-3 stories that you will focus on telling find a way to track how effective those stories are. Check for mentions of your org in the media and online using sentiment tracking tools.
3. Covid means digital first or virtual advocacy for now
Covid is changing everything in our world and advocacy work is no different. You will need a strategy to take your real-world events online and your day-to-day activities be controlled with virtual communications tools. So in short, events move to Zoom and meetings move to Zoom and Slack. Communications are done on your website and social platforms and you need to get your supporters amplifying social posts. Critically, and this is the one that many advocacy groups are missing, is the need to move ‘conversations’ to p2p. By that we mean the simple conversations that were had in the community at large need to be tracked and logged with mobile apps so your can continue to recruit new supporters and donors.
Action tip: Roll out Ecanvasser’s mobile Go app to all your supporters to recruit new donors and volunteers.
4. Don’t try to keep it together!
Advocacy work is, by its nature, dispersed across a large geographical area and you will typically have local groups of activists working together in distinct communities and demographics. Embrace this network of supporters as a diverse group rather than trying to control everything from the central office. Give local teams the tools they need to do their outreach, fundraising, campaigns and awareness drives. Balance the autonomy they want with control over the way they operate, dictating processes and safeguards to your operational standards.
Action tip: Create a digital infrastructure for your network of campaigners with outreach tools, donor database, campaigning materials and so on for local leaders. Use the software to track activities and sync information back to a central database.
5. Use relationships
If you have a functioning advocacy network then you will have a large number of connections and relationships in your community already. You have the relationships to effect the change you need whether that is an information campaign or a change to legislation or whatever. Find a way to leverage the relationships you have to influence your community or the power brokers that represent it.
Action tip: Do an audit of your supporters, board members and partners to find those people most likely to help your effect change this month. Reach out to them with a direct ask.
6. Do outreach
So many advocacy organizations become siloed in digital-only campaigning and do not get out of the office and into the community. Use the supporters you have to organize outreach work. Not only is it a great way to do on-the-ground communications and storytelling, but it is an awesome way to find new supporters and donors. Outreach can be formal, such as door-knocking, but in the current restrictions it might need to be done p2p. Your supporters are still talking to lots of people in their own networks everyday (just like you are if you think about it). In advocacy terms this is ‘reach’ into the community that needs to be considered to be informal outreach.
Action tip: Make informal outreach count by giving your supporters the mobile tools to capture surveys, tell stories and recruit new donors in the community.
7. Be wary of programmatic or automated advocacy
It can be tempting to move a lot of your advocacy campaigning to automated campaigns, especially in Covid times. However, it is important not to become too reliant on this as the returns from cold outreach or automated newsletters can be the steady attrition of your community database. The mantra in all communications departments is personalized and tailored, so make sure to mix programmatic campaigns with one-to-one outreach.
Action tip: For every automated campaign you run, make sure your organization runs a balancing campaign that focuses on direct outreach.
8. Focus on those things that will bring the change, not the easy things
Going back to the beginning of this piece, think about the type of advocacy campaign you are running. Is it an information campaign or is it a way to make sure your political representatives are being made accountable to the people? If you know what actions you can take to bring change then it will be clear to you what to focus on. There will always be distractions and easier things for you and your team to do but they may not have a direct impact on the organizational mission.
Final action tip: List in order of importance your activities as they contribute to the mission. Make sure the time being spent on each is commensurate with their importance.