Advocacy -- What Is Advocacy?

Advocacy is the term that professionals in the nonprofit sector use to describe their attempts to influence legislation and public policy on behalf of their cause. A nonprofit advocate is a lobbyist in the eyes of the law [see related article on the IRS], and the term applies to both paid and volunteer workers. (Yes, Virginia, some nonprofit causes do have paid advocates.) Most nonprofit professionals prefer to call themselves advocates rather than lobbyists, in part because it distinguishes them from private sector industry lobbyists with their controversial reputations for lavish spending, and in part because the term is slightly broader in meaning. It also connotes a public profession of one's beliefs and one's vision for the future of society.

If you are thinking of becoming an advocate, one of the most useful things you can do is begin by reflecting upon the history of our nation. In the late eighteenth century, when the idea of the United States was evolving in the minds of the colonies' intellectual leaders, the quickest means of land travel was by horseback. It would take days, even weeks in winter, to make one's way from Boston or Georgia to a Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Given the agriculture- and trade-based economy of the time, few colonists could leave cows unmilked or shops untended to attend anything beyond local political meetings. Rather, the colonists sent their best representatives to Philadelphia - lawyers, preachers, and plantation owners who were wealthier and more educated than the average man.

Men like Jefferson, Franklin and Adams, the crème de la crème of the delegates, were conversant with British history and with the great political philosophers of Europe. They understood that over the centuries, the idea of absolute monarchy in Britain had been weakened by the Magna Carta, the evolution of a body of common law, the creation of Parliament, and the Cromwellian political experiment. Yet these democratic developments had not sufficed to curb the abuses of monarchs. America's colonial leaders could not reconcile their own taxing political situation with Rousseau's vision of the individual's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of property. The nation's founders made the courageous, but eminently logical, choice to scrap the idea of inherited power and replace it with the ruling principle of 'consent of the governed.' A decade later they wrote a checks-and-balances system into the Constitution to guard against future abuses of power by executive, legislative or judicial leaders. And today their wisdom lives on not only here in the US, but also in the constitutions of a hundred nations on earth.

Now contrast this lofty picture of our nation's birth with what you read and hear in the daily news. We are no longer a nation on horseback; rather, we are part of a planet that is wired for instantaneous communications. We are no longer a people dependent on the leadership of a handful of college-educated white landowners; now, over 60% of our populace has at least some college after high school. Yet we have stuck with the republican (representative) form of government, even though the reasons for choosing it over direct democracy - limited transportation, communications, and literacy - no longer apply. And it is obvious that our checks-and-balances system, although certainly better than none, is flawed in its ability to prevent abuse of power.

If you ask a hundred nonprofit advocates to list what's right and wrong with our government today, you'll get a hundred different lists in reply, and the items on the first list might diametrically oppose those on the second. That is as it should be. Advocacy is not a matter of spewing some party line decided on by anonymous leaders, nor is it a matter of demanding that other advocates pass a series of litmus tests to ensure that you agree on every issue before you work together on one of mutual concern. Rather, advocacy is about each and every one of us teaching ourselves to look critically at society. It's about our summoning the internal strength not to despair or sink into cynicism once we grasp how much injustice there is. It's about our choosing the handful of issues about which we feel passionately, bringing them to the table in meetings with others, and shaping a shared vision, not of utopia, but of an improved society we would not be ashamed to leave to our children.

If you have made the decision to do literacy advocacy, this website should bring you up to speed on critical issues at the state and national level. However, when you make your personal list of what needs fixing in our government, you may find that "ensuring stable funding and reasonable policies for adult education programs" is only one item on your list - and it may not be number one. You may think campaign finance reform is more critical - or daycare, or affordable housing, or ending sexual violence, or a thousand other worthy causes. You may even decide that the worst wrong in today's government is that you're not running it. [If so, we wish you luck with your campaign and note that IRS regulations prevent us as a group from endorsing you.] What matters is that you set your personal advocacy agenda and that you make yourself an expert on the few issues you care most about. If you approach your work with knowledge and passion, you will succeed as an advocate.