Demystifying the term Advocacy- What it is and why it matters

What advocacy means and why it matters

If you search the word “advocacy” on the internet, you will come across different definitions. These definitions are shaped by the different contexts in which advocacy is carried out. It is thus important to look at the origin of the word. The word advocacy can be traced to the word advocare used in medieval Latin and which meant to “summon or call for support on particular issues”. From this, Oxford Dictionary has defined advocacy as public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy.


Ritu Sharma in her book “An Introduction to Advocacy; A Training Guide” offers several explanations of the term advocacy; amongst the most comprehensive is “a tool for putting a problem on the agenda, providing a solution to that problem and building support for acting on both the problem and the solution”. Save the Children in their “Handbook for Planning Advocacy” define advocacy as “social change process affecting attitudes, social relationships, and power relations, which strengthens civil society and opens up democratic space”.


Looking at these definitions, some key processes necessary for effective advocacy begin to emerge. These are:

  1. Identification of the problem
  2. Putting that problem on the development agenda
  3. Providing a solution
  4. Acting on both the problem and the solution


While identifying a problem does not (usually) present challenges, putting the problem on the development agenda, providing a solution and taking action to implement the solution requires building support to affect/change attitudes, social and power relations.


Advocacy versus other development approaches

Advocacy is an approach to programme/project implementation and is suitable where the problem identified is best addressed through influencing social, political, legal and economic decisions. As advocacy is often confused with other approaches to development programming, it is necessary to highlight some of these other approaches. They include, among others:


  1. Humanitarian response/emergency relief (for example, if an area has been affected by a natural disaster or war and organisations come in to provide essential commodities and services so as to prevent loss of life);
  2. Service delivery (for example, a non-governmental organisation establishing and running school(s), hospitals, etc to provide education, medical services, veterinary services, etc to a certain population); and
  3. Community empowerment through trainings (for example, a non-governmental organisation educating mothers on why it is important to give birth in health facilities or to exclusively breast-feed their children for the first six months or educating farmers on need to adopt drought resistant crops)


While it is possible to have a combination of one or more approaches in a single development programme or project, a key distinguishing feature of advocacy is its longevity and sustainability. For example, it is not possible to provide humanitarian support or service delivery for extended periods of time since projects are time bound. However, advocacy outcomes last beyond the project period; for example, if a community is successful in its advocacy for the government to increase budget allocation to the health sector, the increase allocation will remain in place until such a time when a decision is made to review it



Advocacy in all its forms seeks to ensure that people, particularly those who are most vulnerable in society, are able to:

  • Have their voice heard on issues that are important to them
  • Defend and safeguard their rights
  • Have their views and wishes genuinely considered when decisions are being made about their lives

Leading a change towards greater social justice and equality

Advocacy planning/steps in the advocacy process

As with any project, the success of any advocacy programme/project is dependent on how well planned, resourced and implemented the advocacy project is. It is often said that failing to plan is planning to fail; this saying applies to advocacy projects as well. As such, it should not be assumed that social, political, legal or economic changes that development actors are pursuing will happen without deliberate planning, building alliances and careful implementation of this plan. To facilitate planning, advocacy specialists have developed a seven (7) step advocacy process;

  1. The most common way of defining the issue is through research. Carrying out research helps in building the evidence required to support an advocacy cause; it also helps in building the legitimacy of the organisation (or coalition of organisations) implementing the advocacy project. Carrying out research will also enable the organisation to identify which problems to prioritise addressing (for example, those which if addressed would unlock solutions to other problems)
  2. Once the problem has been identified, the next step is to identify and build consensus on the most appropriate solution. It is important that this is a participatory process so that the solution arrived at is owned by all stakeholder
  3. In identifying target audiences, the organisation is seeking to establish who is affected by the issue; for example, do they benefit from the prevailing conditions/circumstances (and hence would not like change to come about) or do they find the prevailing circumstances to be unjust and oppressive and hence would like the situation to change. Identifying stakeholders and target audiences is important as it helps the organisation to identify the most effective means of engaging them. One of the ways of identifying audiences is through stakeholders’ mapping
  4. Once the stakeholders and their interest have been identified, the next step is to build alliances i.e. those organisations or individuals who can help in influencing the target audiences. Alliances can be established with other civil society organisations, media personalities or other influential persons, religious leaders, relatives of decision-makers, etc
  5. Messages are the means of communicating to the decision-makers your proposals for addressing a problem. Key factors to consider in developing messages are
    1. The message should be compelling: what do you want the decision-maker to do; why is worth doing; what are the positive impacts of your proposal; increasingly, it is important to demonstrate how the decision-maker will benefit from supporting and/or acting on your proposal (for example, it may increase their popularity)
    2. Deliver message effectively: the message should be understandable, and factual or based on clear evidence (i.e. it is believable); also, the means of delivering the message should be accessible to the decision-maker
    3. Reinforce the message; delivering it once is usually not enough
  6. In selecting means of delivering the message, the organisation should bear in mind what means does the target audience (policy or decision maker) access easily. Some means of delivering messages include
    1. Face to face meetings (in addition to briefing the decision-maker, it is advisable to present to them a document which they can refer to, for example a brief report of situation and what you want them to do, a petition signed by people)
    2. Letters or emails
    3. Articles in the media (newspapers, radio, TV as well as social media which the decision-maker is known to access/use regularly)
  7. Identify and mobilise resource: during the stage, the organisation identifies what resources would be required to identify the issue, build consensus on solutions, develop and deliver messages to the target audience. Amongst the resources that would be required are staff/personnel; finances; networks/connections, etc
  8. Develop and implement the advocacy plan: this is the stage whereby the tasks are assigned to the team to carry out the advocacy, resources are available, timelines and milestones to be achieved are agreed upon. Amongst the activities that may be carried out include public demonstrations, meetings with decision-makers, media appearances, writing articles and public education so as to build support for the advocacy campaign


Key points to remember

1.     At every stage in the process, it is necessary to reflect/monitor so as to establish if the advocacy campaign is on course, if the anticipated results are being achieved and if it is necessary to change approach

2.     Advocacy campaigns are most effective and sustainable if those affected by the issue are part of the advocacy. This, therefore, makes it necessary for the organisation carrying out the advocacy to regularly mobilise and educate the public on why the issue is important – and why the public should support it. This not only build the legitimacy of the advocacy campaign, but it is worth remembering that political decision-makers are more likely to listen to the voting public as opposed to CSOs activists


1.     Deepika, N. (2000). “Working for Change in Education; A Handbook for Planning Advocacy”. Save the Children; London, UK

2.     Sharma, R (2005). “An Introduction to Advocacy; Training Guide”. Academy of Educational Development and Tulane University; Washington DC, USA