Advocacy Tools & Tips

What is Grassroots Advocacy?

Advocacy is the process of supporting a cause or proposal. Even if you do not know it, you advocate for things on a daily basis.  Most people advocate often on behalf of themselves, their families, their neighbors and their friends. For instance, you may convince your co-workers where to go for lunch.  Or persuade your child to try something new at the dinner table. Advocates have issues that they are passionate about.  They see problems in the world around them that they want changed.  Everything that is done to make those changes happen is some form of advocacy.  The bottom line to successfully advocating is the ability to convince someone else to support your cause.


Grassroots Mobilization and Motivation

Often advocates will be facing an issue that they know has a lot of support.  That support may not always be obvious though.  This can be especially true when the time comes for taking specific action and getting things done.  With almost every issue, there are very many allies that you can get to support your efforts.  The real challenge is motivating those who do support you.  There are also new groups that are likely to support you but you must find them first.  There are many kinds of support as well, from speaking out at a rally to making calls to policymakers, to just showing up physically at an event.

Advocacy and Leadership training is a great way to motivate your allies, and may even bring out a few new ones.  Goals for this training vary, but some of the reasons to participate in this kind of training may be to:

  • Inform about the current state of the issues
  • Help the average citizen transition into the effective advocate
  • Clear up misconceptions about the commitment required by advocacy work
  • Convince people of the benefits of advocacy work
  • Create a common ground for parents/teachers/center directors/community leaders as advocates
  • Motivate all advocates to take action and keep making a difference
  • Train the trainers to keep the advocacy education moving

Once a core group of advocates and allies has been created, they need a way to be informed of your specific needs and ways they can help.  E-mail alerts are often very useful in the age of technology, but it depends on the community you are trying to reach.  Some groups of people will not have easy access to e-mail so posting fliers in high-traffic areas may be the best way to reach a large number of people.  These alerts will be most useful if they contain a brief statement of a specific problem, steps that can be taken to help, and all of the contact information required to do so. 

E-mail alerts with direct links can motivate many people to contact their elected officials who might not otherwise do so.  Also, the focus of these alerts should be on things than can be done quickly and easily.  Very rarely will people do advocacy work if it will take a large amount of their time or if it will be a challenge.  Convince them that it is an easy process, and you will be able to get many things accomplished.


Setting your Advocacy Agenda

Establishing an advocacy agenda is an important, early step in the advocacy process.  An agenda will help you stay focused on the specific needs of your advocacy efforts.  The process can also be viewed as a means of goal-setting and it will make you consider many sides of the problem you hope to solve. 

In determining which issues you or your organization should address with your advocacy efforts, there are many questions that should be considered.  These questions are meant to get you started off on the right foot by pushing you toward a solid plan of action.  Give each part of the questions consideration.  If you are working with a group on an advocacy issue, bring these up at your next meeting and have an informal discussion around them:

What is the problem you are going to address?

  • How big is the problem
  • What affect does it have on children and families
  • Is the problem getting worse lately    
  • Which specific groups are impacted
  • How urgent is the need for a solution

Is it the right time to get involved?

  • Have other groups succeeded or failed in their efforts on the issue
  • Who has collected data previously
  • Are there groups currently working on the issue
  • Do you want to join their efforts/partner with them or other groups

Is the public interested in this issue?

  • What is the Importance to your spouse/father/sister/friends/co-workers
  • What is the overall feeling seen in the community
  • Has there been television/radio/newspaper coverage recently
  • Are there special interest groups on either side of the issue

What do you want to accomplish?

  • How big of an impact do you want to make
  • What specific changes are expected
  • What are your long-term/short-term goals
  • Are there barriers to your success

How will you accomplish it?

  • Which key policymakers have the ability to change things
  • Are there local/state/federal groups that could  influence those policymakers
  • How do you make policymakers hear your message
  • What must they hear to inspire them to take action
  • Which steps should be taken first


Framing Your Message

What you say is just as important as how you say it when it comes to influencing policymakers.  Who is articulating the message can also be important for making change happen.  Shaping your message so that it can be understood and interpreted exactly how you intended it to be is known as framing.  The facts of your issue are the backbone of your message, while the frames you create for policymakers, community leaders, and the general public make up the rest of the advocacy message.  If done well, your message will even be able to convince those on the other side of your issue to support your cause. Here are some suggestions to help frame your message effectively:

  • Every issue needs a specific message.  If there is no message, people will believe whatever they want.  Making sure that your message is the one that people hear will begin the process of convincing them of your cause.
  • Every message needs to be direct and understandable.  Stick to one unified concept with your message.  Multiple ideas in one message can become confusing and will weaken your message.
  • Always work toward a solution.  Saying that something is bad is only half of the message. You must go further and tell people why and what you want to happen.
  • Different frames work for different groups.  The same standard response will not persuade everyone, so be prepared to speak differently to different audiences.
  • Work the most on those audiences who might not agree with you.  Convincing those who are already with you is not the best use of resources.
  • But don’t forget to remind your allies to take action.  Just because your allies agree with you, does not mean that you should ignore them.  They can help spread your message and provide valuable connections.  Also, when things get busy everyone may need a little reminder of what work is needed.
  • Always include your position when conveying your message.  Without connecting yourself to the message, it is hard for you to be seen as a persuasive source of information on that side of the issue.
  • If the public is opposed to your issue, reframe the message to fix their opinion (turn negatives positive).  Do not talk about the issue in negative terms used by the media or your opponents.  Speak only of the positives that will drive people to action.
  • Draw on people’s emotions and their natural concern for children.  There are many negative opinions held on issues around poverty and welfare – making it about the children will get people to soften their harsh views.
  • Make the issue real by tying it to individuals.  Instead of sticking just to the numbers and the facts of your issue, use actual people’s stories to persuade others to support your cause.
  • Don’t forget to use the numbers and facts either.  Find the data that has been collected on the issue and use it to support your message.  Giving the public your interpretation of the existing data can be very helpful in reframing negative opinions around an issue.
  • Build a wide base of support.  The more people you can bring to your cause, the more people they will bring, and the greater affect you can have.  Work toward reaching people from a variety of different groups, including various races, genders, income backgrounds, and faiths.  Be as inclusive as possible, because everyone will bring a unique strength to your efforts.
  • Use every connection you have and make allies out of everyone.  If there is a group who could reach a segment of the population that would likely be opposed to your message, have that group help to reframe the issue for those people.


Working Together

Although one person can accomplish many things with their advocacy efforts, often there are many benefits to working with other advocates on a common goal.  Several groups or individuals working together on advocacy are often known as a coalition.  Increasing the number of advocates and the total resources that support a given advocacy effort is likely to increase the number of people your message can reach and convince. 

Whether the partnership is short-term around a single goal, or long-term around several related goals, there are many reasons why you should consider coalition work:

  • You draw attention to your cause more easily.  The more individuals or groups that are out in the community working on an issue, the more likely that people will take notice of them.  The best way to get through to policymakers is to convince them that your cause is the cause in their district.  If it appears as though everyone in the community is deeply concerned about your issue, then your elected officials will often start to pay more attention to your efforts.
  • One voice rises above the crowd.  When many groups are working around a same issue, but not working together, many messages will result.  Because message forming is so important, this is the perfect opportunity to form a coalition.  Many messages may confuse policymakers as to what the community wants to happen on your issue.  A coalition can work together to create a unified message that policymakers will then hear over and over and over.  There will be no doubt as to what your coalition wants to happen if everyone gets behind one idea.
  • It reminds you that you’re not alone.  Advocacy can be really hard at times, especially when you feel like you are the only person/group working for change on your issue.  Coalitions are the perfect place to share experiences and realize that there are others who are there to support you. Often times, there are many others who are doing the same work you are, but you may not be aware of it.  Becoming part of such a group can bring new life to advocates who are feeling close to burn-out.
  • Everyone shares the wealth.  A coalition allows many groups to pool their resources.  This includes technology, previously gathered data, influential connections, and often times finances.  While one person may not have the ability to send fliers to 5000 voters urging them to call their elected official, a coalition may be able to do that easily.  Allowing your partners to use what you have reduces the overall cost of the effort.  This way, each group does not have to raise funds to do one task repeatedly when they could pool funds to do it really good once.

Coalitions can be both beneficial and challenging. Here are some tips to help your coalition work better together:

  • Establish goals and stick to them.  Make sure that everyone is working toward the same things and making progress.  Another part of this may be assigning individual members specific tasks or formally dividing up the work into smaller projects to accomplish a greater overall goal.
  • Find a size that works for you.  Small enough to be manageable, large enough to get things done is a good rule of thumb.  
  • Define your leadership.  Anywhere in the leadership spectrum from a single person to a steering committee is more than acceptable, but decide who is in charge early on to prevent problems later.  Also, who will have the authority to make decisions when things need to be done immediately?
  • Think about your voice.  Who will contact the press? Who will keep your members updated?  Is one person sufficient as the face of your work, or would several speakers be better?
  • Set aside your differences.  Many times, especially when dealing with a diverse group of interests, several groups will have to give up one or two of their priorities to make the coalition successful.  That does not mean that those priorities are any less important, but to support the coalition, conflicts of interest should be limited.  Perhaps the priorities that do not make the agenda at one point in time can become the main goals later on.  Cooperation and being flexible to support the overall coalition goals will mean greater success for the coalition as a whole.  Allowing too many individual interests to get in the way of the group agenda will weaken the coalition.


Staying Informed

Part of the advocacy process is making sure that you, your friends, family, and coworkers stay informed about the issues.  There are many ways to stay informed, a few include:

  • Joining e-mail ‘list serves’ to get weekly or periodic news updates
  • Reading magazines and newsletters put out by groups working on your issues
  • Frequently visiting websites of groups working on your issues
  • Reading position papers circulated by groups working on your issues
  • Going to local community meetings or forums with policymakers
  • Attending trainings on advocacy and other issues

Keeping yourself informed is only half of the process.  You should also do some of the following to inform others, including policymakers:

  • Send out e-mail updates to others when you learn something new
  • Distribute informational fliers from other groups to your coworkers and friends
  • Write opinion/editorial (op-ed) pieces and letters to the editor of your local newspaper about the issues that are important to you
  • Train others on how to advocate effectively
  • Send letters or make phone calls to policymakers informing them of your opinion on the issues