Advocates work to change the world. While their responsibilities and focuses can vary widely, they’re all engaging in advocacy, which comes from the word advocatus. In Latin, this means “a pleader on one behalf” or “one called to aid.” What should everyone know about advocacy? In this article, we’ll outline the different types, real-world examples, and unifying principles.
When someone publicly supports the interests of an individual, group, or cause, they’re engaging in advocacy. There are many types of advocacy, as well as methods, but they’re united by principles such as clarity, flexibility, and transparency.
What are the different types of advocacy?
Advocacy is an umbrella that shelters many types of advocacy areas and methods. The three main types are self-advocacy, individual advocacy, and systems advocacy.
Self-advocacy is when a person advocates for their own interests. It involves skills like knowing your rights, understanding your needs, and effectively communicating those needs to others. Everyone self-advocates at some point in their lives. Students with disabilities often self-advocate for accommodations in a classroom setting. As an example, a student with ADHD may need to ask their teachers for more time to complete tests or a separate testing location.
Individual advocacy is when a person (or group) focuses on the interests of one or a few individuals. It can be informal or formal. Informal individual advocacy often involves family members and friends. As an example, parents often advocate for their child’s needs at school. Formal individual advocacy often goes through organizations like government agencies or nonprofits. When someone is escaping domestic violence, organizations help with shelter, medical care, mental healthcare, financial assistance, and more.
Self-advocacy and individual advocacy focus on the needs of one or a few people, but systems advocacy zooms out. It seeks to change things on a local, state, or national level through laws and/or policies. Because it wants to change systems for the long term, this kind of advocacy can be complex. Multiple organizations often work together to research, raise awareness, and pressure legislators. Groups working for gun control in the US are an example of systems advocacy.
What other types of advocacy people should know about?
Within individual advocacy and systems advocacy, there are different settings where advocacy is common. You’ve likely heard of at least three: healthcare/patient advocacy, legal advocacy, and victim advocacy. Here’s what they mean:
In most countries, the healthcare system is difficult to navigate. It can be especially difficult for people with disabilities, older people, and caregivers. Healthcare advocates, who are often employed by healthcare systems or nonprofits, play an essential role in demystifying the system. Responsibilities include helping with access to care, educating patients, and helping with insurance, administrative, and legal issues. Caregivers often educate themselves on the healthcare system and act as advocates for their family members or friends. There are also healthcare advocacy groups that work for system-wide changes regarding healthcare access, funding, and more.
Like healthcare systems, legal systems are complicated and confusing. Legal advocates are trained professionals who help people navigate the justice system. They tend to specialize in specific areas and help groups like children, prisoners, victims of crimes, refugees, and so on. Legal advocacy includes tasks like educating people on their rights and legal options, representing an individual’s best interests in the system, and helping with administrative activities.
Victim advocacy is a type of legal advocacy, but they serve slightly different roles. While legal advocacy tends to focus on the law and navigating the justice system, victim advocacy is also about emotional support. Victim advocates help with things like protection orders, safety planning, crisis intervention, and access to mental healthcare. Advocates need to be educated on the law, but many professionals come from therapy or social work backgrounds.
What does advocacy look like?
Most individual advocates and groups rely on a variety of advocacy methods to be effective. Here are four of the most common examples:
Writing letters and signing petitions are tried-and-true advocacy methods. Both allow people to raise awareness, clearly articulate their stance on an issue, and present solutions. In the case of petitions, it’s a relatively convenient way for lots of people to express their support for a cause. Effective advocacy writing contains several ingredients, including a clear “ask,” essential facts, and a polished style.
Amnesty International, which is a human rights advocacy NGO, has run “Write for Rights” for over 20 years. Amnesty supporters can get a kit with items like case cards and template letters. Over the years, supporters have written advocacy letters on behalf of prisoners of war, torture victims, political prisoners, and others. Individuals, student groups, and schools participate every year.
Good advocacy is built on good research. Without the facts, advocacy campaigns run the risk of misdiagnosing the problem and the solutions. A poorly-researched campaign can even cause more harm than good. Research is such an important part of advocacy that many groups focus on it above other methods like petitions, protests, or fundraisers. Using experts in data-collecting and analysis, groups release extensive reports on issues like violence, poverty, gender inequality, and more. Other advocates and groups can then use this information when building their own campaigns.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigates and reports on human rights abuses around the world. At the time of writing, recent publications included “Access Denied” (which documents how Florida judges are denying young people abortions) and “Trapped in a Web” (which analyzes Hungary’s 2022 elections).
Social media has transformed advocacy. Essentially anyone with a free social media account can become an advocate, build an audience, and raise awareness for causes. Their reach can go international very quickly and connect advocates in a way they were never able to connect before. While hashtag campaigns and social media organizing can strengthen advocacy, this method is still fairly new and far from perfect. Because it’s so accessible, there are many bad actors and well-meaning, but inexperienced advocates. It can also be challenging to build strong relationships over social media, which is essential to advocacy’s long-term success. Social media can be a good tool, but it shouldn’t be the primary one.
In 2006, Tarana Burke created the #MeToo Movement. Nine years later, the hashtag went viral. Allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein followed, along with reports of assault and harassment from other men in Hollywood. People outside Hollywood began sharing their stories, as well. This social-media-driven movement revealed the scope of what women face every day. While one of the best-known social media campaigns, #MeToo also reveals the limitations of social media activism. The court system continues to be biased against survivors and gender-based violence remains a global issue. It takes more than a hashtag to create real change.
In-person action encompasses many activities, including peaceful protests, fundraisers, town halls, workshops, and more. Education, training, and networking are just three goals. Some of the best advocacy happens in person as individuals and groups may find it easier to develop the genuine, long-lasting relationships vital to advocacy. While in-person action isn’t always possible, advocates should embed the person-centric approach into all their actions, even if they need to meet online or by phone.
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States used several in-person actions, including marches, sit-ins, bus boycotts, and more. This era also showed the risks involved with in-person events. Participants and supporters faced physical violence and harassment. Advocates committed to in-person action must prepare for resistance.
What are the principles of advocacy?
Advocacy can look very different depending on its focus and method, but there are unifying principles. Here are three everyone should remember:
Good advocacy has clear messaging and clear asks. With very little work, people should be able to understand what the problem is and how it can be fixed. This is the first step to good advocacy, but it’s often the most difficult because many issues are complex. Good advocates are excellent communicators who can frame even the most complex issue in a way most people understand. They’re also very good at determining what “clarity” means for specific audiences and refining their message accordingly. As an example, a group advocating for reproductive rights will use a different message when they’re holding youth events than when they’re speaking to adults.
Situations can change very fast. Whether it’s an individual’s case or a system-wide issue, events impact the problem and what the best solutions are. Good advocates are flexible enough to adapt to new information, adjust their methods, and pivot their messaging. Without flexibility, advocacy is doomed to ineffectiveness or outright harm. As an example, advocacy groups focused on healthcare access needed to shift quickly as COVID-19 spread around the world.
Advocacy typically involves speaking on behalf of others, so trust is essential. How do advocates build trust? Transparency. That includes open, honest, and consistent communication about things like finances, leadership structures, messaging, methods, and much more. For advocacy organizations, transparency also means conducting internal audits on systemic problems. As an example, in 2020 Amnesty International found evidence of systemic racism within their secretariat. Responding to major issues within an organization is also part of being transparent. If advocacy groups choose to hide, it damages trust. Without trust, advocacy will have little to no impact.