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What Is Advocacy?

The word “advocate” comes from the Latin word advocatus, which means “one called to aid” or “a pleader on one’s behalf.” Advocacy is any action that pleads, supports, defends, or speaks for other people or on behalf of a cause. Today, you can find people advocating for individuals, communities, corporations, and governments, though most tend to think of advocates as people working for the greater good. In this article, we’ll discuss the history of advocacy, what advocacy looks like, and what careers there are in the field.

Advocacy includes a wide variety of actions (like running educational events, volunteering at organizations, and working for the interests of others) that speak on behalf of others or in defense of a specific cause.

A short history of advocacy

Advocacy doesn’t have a specific start date because at its core, it’s simply the act of standing up for others. In one form or another, humans have always done that. However, according to The Borgen Project, advocacy as a more organized act outside of charity started within the legal system. Lawyers serve as advocates for their clients and represent their interests in court. Today, legal advocates play an important role in society, though advocacy has also come to include human rights organizations and nonprofits focused on raising awareness of issues, short-term aid, and systemic change.

Advocacy groups working today include the NAACP, the ACLU, Amnesty International, and Anti-Slavery International. Advocacy groups typically focus on research, monitoring, legislative campaigns, and education, though they may also provide services.

What does advocacy look like?

Advocacy is a broad term encompassing a huge variety of activities. To get a better idea of what advocacy can look like, let’s consider the organization Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest human rights organization. Through its long history, it’s engaged with many forms of advocacy.

Lobbying governments

Lobbying and advocacy are technically different. Lobbying involves influencing specific legislation while advocacy focuses on education regarding a specific issue. That said, many advocacy organizations participate in lobbying. Anti-Slavery International has lobbied national governments to change how they respond to slavery practices and adopt anti-slavery laws. In 1926, the organization lobbied the League of Nations and got them to investigate slavery. This led to the 1926 Slavery Convention, which required all ratifying states to end slavery. More recently in 2004, the organization’s lobbying efforts encouraged the UK to make the trafficking of sexual and labor exploitation a criminal offense.

Monitoring trends and progress

To “plead on one’s behalf,” advocates need good information on what’s going on if they hope to be effective. Many organizations have research arms that release reports on trends and progress. Anti-Slavery International has the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group (ATMG), which is a coalition of 17 UK-based human rights organizations. The group looks into all kinds of human trafficking, publishes reports, and releases briefing papers on human trafficking in the UK. Its results on prevention, protection, and prosecution support the coalition’s advocacy.

Campaigning for specific causes or legislation

Campaigns form the foundation of advocacy organizations. These are organized movements intent on raising awareness of specific causes, encouraging action, and creating change. Anti-Slavery International has a handful of campaigns going on, including “End Cotton Crimes.” This campaign focuses on forced labor in Turkmenistan’s cotton industry. Every year, as summer turns into autumn, the Turkmen government forces tens of thousands to harvest cotton in life-threatening conditions. If workers don’t comply, they are fined and risk losing their jobs. Anti-Slavery International partners with the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and Turkmen.news to document and report abuses. Anti-Slavery International encourages people to join the campaign by raising awareness and asking brands to sign the Turkmen Cotton Pledge.

Collaborating with different sectors

Advocacy doesn’t occur in a vacuum. For individual advocates and organizations to be effective, they need to raise as much awareness as possible. This is best done with the collaboration of different societal actors, such as other nonprofits, businesses, government agencies, and others. Anti-Slavery International emphasizes how important its partnerships are, listing groups like service providers, NGOs, trade unions, lawyers, and supporters. Globally, they have around 40 local partner organizations in over 20 countries, as well as informal partnerships.

Hosting fundraisers

Fundraisers serve a three-prong purpose: they raise awareness, they provide education, and they raise money. Many advocacy organizations hold regular fundraisers centered on specific campaigns, general awareness, and education. Anti-Slavery International’s website has a page on how supporters can hold their own fundraisers with a fundraising action pack. The organization also has suggestions for outdoor challenges and birthday donations.

What traits do effective advocates need?

Whether you’re volunteering or working as an advocate, there are certain traits you’ll want. Here are five of the most important:

Education on the cause/issue

Having a good education doesn’t necessarily mean having a lot of degrees. If you’re working as an advocate, the specific role you’re filling will likely ask for at least a bachelor’s degree. Some organizations will want post-grad degrees like a master’s, but again, it depends on the job. You don’t need to work in advocacy to be an advocate, however, but you do need to be educated on the issues and cause you’re focusing on. As an example, if you want to advocate for a specific piece of legislation, you’ll need to know that legislation inside and out. People you talk to will have questions, so you should know the history of the legislation, who created it, who supports it, what’s in it, and the impact (both pros and cons) it could have.

Excellent communication

It’s very hard to be an effective advocate if you don’t communicate well. That includes spoken and written communication, as well as the ability to communicate through social media, video, audio, and more. Depending on how you engage in advocacy, you may not need to communicate in every existing medium, but being able to explain facts and encourage others through conversation or writing is likely something you’ll need to do at some point.

Strong community engagement

Advocacy is movement-driven. Laws have rarely changed because of one person. As an advocate, you need to know how to engage communities and work with others. Part of that engagement involves knowing who has influence and encouraging them to support your cause. Important figures can include politicians, business owners, activists, religious leaders, and others. You shouldn’t only focus on influential people, however. You don’t want to appear elitist and uninterested in anyone who doesn’t bring money or power to the table. A big part of community engagement is treating everyone as equally valuable to the cause.

Active listening

In advocacy, listening is just as important as talking. As we said before, advocacy is movement driven, and for something to be a movement, it needs a plethora of voices. If one person or one group dominates the direction of a cause or organization, its effectiveness will likely be severely limited. Good advocates understand they don’t know everything. They value the experiences and opinions of others and don’t wait around waiting for people to speak up. They actively seek out different perspectives. They consult and collaborate. This is especially important if the advocate isn’t part of the community directly impacted by an issue or a piece of legislation. They need to listen to people who are if they hope to be effective.

What are examples of careers in advocacy?

Some advocates work in a volunteer capacity, but there are many careers focused on representing the interests of others. Here are three:

Victim advocate

Victim advocates support victims of crimes. Their primary role is to ensure the victim’s emotional well-being, provide them with resources on therapy, housing, etc, and ensure they understand how the legal system works. Many law offices have trained advocates on staff who work with clients through the case and even afterward if necessary. Advocates can also be found at medical establishments, social service organizations, and nonprofits. Advocates typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in social work, psychology, or criminal justice, as well as around 1-2 years of experience.

Patient advocate

Patient advocates work with patients in a medical setting to help coordinate treatment, negotiate with insurance companies, and serve as a guide through the healthcare system. Their role is to protect the patient’s rights, including but not limited to privacy, confidentiality, informed consent, and more. Advocates may specialize in a specific field, such as mental health advocacy, and work at places like hospitals, schools, treatment centers, community clinics, and nonprofits. Many patient advocates only need a high school diploma or GED, though further education in a healthcare or science field is very beneficial. Certificates can also help with job opportunities. To work in an entry-level patient advocacy role, you’ll likely need at least a few years of experience in a healthcare setting.


Many advocacy organizations hire researchers who collect and analyze data. Without good researchers, organizations like Anti-Slavery International would have a much harder time monitoring progress or understanding human rights abuses. A researcher’s tasks can include gathering, verifying, analyzing, and reporting data. Researchers work for nonprofits, medical institutions, governments, universities, media companies, and more. Entry-level research jobs typically ask for at least a master’s degree, as well as experience with research projects. To advance in your career, you’ll likely want a doctorate in your research field.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

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