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September 1, 2013

Seven steps to effective advocacy

SVA Consulting’s seven-step process will help non-profit leaders develop a strategy to advocate for change.

To be effective, many non-profit organisations need to change the political, legal or economic system within which they operate. However, there are few resources providing guidance on how to do this well. Many of the non-profit organisations that Social Ventures Australia (SVA) supports through its venture portfolio and consulting services need guidance on how to advocate.

SVA Consulting has developed a simple framework (see Figure 1) with some guiding principles that draw together the collective lessons from over two dozen Australian organisations that have successfully advocated for change. The organisations range from public campaigners (such as GetUp, and, to non-profit organisations (such as One Laptop Per Child, Mission Australia, GenerationOne, and Teach For Australia), and expert lobbyists (such as Parker & Partners and the Brotherhood of St. Laurence).

SVA Consulting’s advocacy strategy

Figure 1: SVA Consulting’s framework for developing an advocacy strategy

Part A: Identify your target

All advocacy must have a target: a decision-maker (or decision-makers) who needs to change what they do. One of the classic traps of advocacy is to pursue activities that create noise, but are not focused on the right decision-maker in the right way.

1. Understand the system and its decision-makers.

Non-profit organisations typically operate within complex systems. As a result, there are often many potential targets (key decision-makers) across government, business, and social sector bodies – and loosely defined relationships between these bodies. To identify the right target, you need to know what organisations there are, who plays what role, who influences who, and who makes which decisions.

California’s Violence Prevention Initiative (VPI) was advocating during the early 90s for gun safety legislation to be strengthened. Initially, most of its efforts were focused on the state government, however a legal research scholar for VPI uncovered that local governments have significant latitude to regulate guns. As a result, the target of its advocacy shifted from state to local policy. It identified a supportive small city to pass a gun safety ordinance, and then provided legal support when the State challenged city law. When the ordinance was upheld, over 100 other communities followed.[i]

Once you have identified who the decision-makers are, you need to understand what matters to them. Do they have a vested professional and/or personal interest? What influences their decision-making? In 2006, GetUp campaigned against the Coalition Government’s proposed mandatory detention policy for refugees. Public pressure was hard to mobilise because the electorate did not see the issue as important. So, GetUp worked to understand and use factors that would influence the politicians’ decisions.

…effective advocates are able to influence key decision-makers by moving them from a position of understanding and empathy to taking action.

The Government only had a majority of one in the Senate. GetUp’s campaign focused on inspiring MPs to cross the floor and encouraged former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to issue a statement. Fraser was sympathetic to the cause and, as a former Coalition leader, held sway with many MPs. One senator informed the then Prime Minister John Howard that he would not support the bill, and the vote was cancelled.

2. Describe the change you seek.

Often non-profit organisations start by building the understanding and awareness that a problem exists within their system. This is an important advocacy tactic – because without accepting there is a problem, a decision-maker is unlikely to make a change.

However, the most effective advocates are able to influence key decision-makers by moving them from a position of understanding and empathy to taking action.  In short, effective advocates make it as easy as possible for decision-makers to understand what they need to do and then hold them accountable for doing it.

This is done by describing the change you want: providing a solution, not just a problem. Food rescue organisation SecondBite wanted to expand into Tasmania and the Northern Territory, however neither had a ‘Good Samaritan Act’ which provided indemnity to donors for charitable causes. Without this protection, SecondBite would struggle to attract food donors concerned about the risk in their surplus food being distributed.

Having built a strong relationship with one Tasmanian minister, and seeing an opportunity to provide a ‘good news story’ to a newly elected premier, SecondBite lawyers drafted what a new Tasmanian bill could look like based on other states’ acts. In the end, the bill took just 12 weeks to pass making it one of the fastest bills ever introduced. The following year, SecondBite easily applied the same process and succeeded in changing the legislation in the Northern Territory.

Part B: Define activities

There are three main areas of activities required for a successful advocacy plan: building a base of credibility, influencing through established relationships, and mobilising external pressure. The extent to which each is used will depend on the nature of the change you seek. Strong relationships are always important. However, the extent to which credibility and pressure are required is based particularly on two key dimensions:

  • How innovative is the change?
  • How strong is the decision-maker’s vested interest in maintaining the status quo?
Figure 2: Matrix for deciding which activities are most important for your advocacy success

3. Build a base of credibility.

One of the most common reasons why a decision-maker will not support a change is that they do not believe the change is worthwhile, or that the solution will be effective. In order to overcome this, you must establish that the change is credible. There are three ways that this is typically done.

  • Establish an evidence base that demonstrates efficacy: Consider whether you can invest first in pilot programs or collect data from your programs to demonstrate the impact. This may mean that you need to wait before you can advocate for the systemic changes, or funding, that you are seeking.
  • Articulate the theory that underlies your solution: If your solution is fairly new and untested, it will require a well-thought out (and, ideally, research-based) theory of change to build its credibility. Consider commissioning a research report or a forecast Social Return on Investment (SROI) study to capture how the solution will work.
  • Attract credible supporters: Many decision-makers won’t have the time to fully explore the evidence or theory that underlies a solution or they may not personally be capable of assessing it. They will have to trust a credible ‘other’.

Indigenous advocate GenerationOne (GenOne) was frustrated with the way the Federal Government was funding employment pathways for Indigenous Australians. The existing model identified and trained jobseekers without considering whether there was actually a job available!

So, you must create and take opportunities to make yourself known to decision-makers.

GenOne believed the approach needed to be reversed; create jobs first, then fund the requisite training – and so developed a model called Vocational Training and Employment Centres (VTEC). VTEC identifies a willing employer with a job, then finds an Indigenous jobseeker and trains that person to meet the needs of the job. However, to get funding for this new approach required evidence. GenOne invested in producing detailed case studies of this model in action to supplement its policy paper. In June 2011, the Federal opposition leader endorsed the policy and committed $10m in funding to four VTEC trial sites if it was elected. In January 2012, Julie Collins, Minister in the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, acknowledged the value of the VTEC insights and policy, and committed to discussing adoption of the model more broadly.

4. Influence through established relationships.

Decision-makers are more likely to listen to people they know and be persuaded by those whom they trust. So, you must create and take opportunities to make yourself known to decision-makers. This is particularly true in Australia. Most advocacy experts interviewed consider that ‘who you know’ is particularly important.

Establish the necessary relationships: Build connections between who you know, and who you need to know. Become known to decision-makers, building trust and rapport where possible. The Beacon Foundation (Beacon) is a non-profit organisation that works with students, schools, businesses and the community through a range of school based programs to ensure young Australians increase their educational engagement and successfully transition to employment, further education or training. It wanted a ‘seat at the table’ in the conversations about the Australian education agenda and saw government funding as a way to get on the ‘playing field’ and be noticed.

Beacon’s chairperson Bill Lawson had built a strong and trusting relationship with Independent MP, Andrew Wilkie. Beacon showed Wilkie evidence for its school-based ‘No Dole’ program (through an SROI report), and also regularly demonstrated the program’s activities, and introduced him to participants. Through Wilkie, Beacon’s CEO Scott Harris secured an hour with the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, where he was able to push Beacon’s agenda. A few months after the meeting, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations changed its funding framework to include Beacon’s program.

Since then, Beacon has been included more often in conversations about the education system. When establishing the relationships, target both decision-makers and champions. Champions can provide the necessary influence and open doors, when it would otherwise be hard. Former politicians are often particularly useful champions as they have both a public presence and useful connections.

Influence through these relationships: Draw on each of the three forms of persuasion: logos (logic and reason), pathos (emotional appeal), and ethos (personal credibility) – rather than relying on just one. In particular, take opportunities to tell powerful stories.

Hearing his story appealed to their emotions.

Victoria’s Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) wanted to include special provisions in Infringement Law for the homeless and drug/alcohol dependent. These people often accumulated public fines for quasi-criminal offences making it difficult for them to access affordable housing. PILCH spent years cultivating a strong relationship with the Victorian Attorney General – meeting regularly to share with him current pressures on the Victorian legal system, and other relevant issues. He appreciated being informed about things ‘on the ground’, especially if there were media sensitive issues and PILCH believed that through these briefings, it had earned his trust.

Also in meetings with state government officials, PILCH involved a homeless man who had difficulty in accessing housing because of accumulated fines. Hearing his story appealed to their emotions. After two years, a new infringements act was approved incorporating provisions for homelessness and mental illness based on the provisions that PILCH (in collaboration with other services) had drafted.

5. Mobilise external pressure when required.

For the decision-maker, the status quo may be in their best interests; it may be the most logical, the easiest, the least damaging, or the most profitable option. Through pressure, you can ‘change that reality’ so that what you are advocating for becomes in their best interests.

Apply public pressure when appropriate: Public pressure campaigning is most appropriate when these four criteria are met:

  • CASE – the theory of change (how the action will lead to change) is credible and easy to communicate
  • CARE – the general public care about the issue
  • CLARITY – there is moral clarity on the stance (consensus that the identified problem is wrong)
  • CATALYST – there is a catalyst that currently heightens awareness of the issue.

In 2011 the New Zealand Government was unwilling to renew its funding for HELP, New Zealand’s only 24-hour sexual abuse clinic. The clinic’s initial campaign focused on job losses. However, the newly elected Prime Minister John Key wanting to make a good first impression created a window of opportunity. HELP reframed its message to focus on the consequences of sexual assault and hence the need for the clinic to remain open.

This message met the four criteria above, and so HELP was well-placed to mobilise public pressure. It was easy to communicate why this campaign was important (CASE), that there was high public interest in sexual abuse (CARE), that the need for funding appeared self-evident (CLARITY), and that the centre was about to run out of funding (CATALYST). After a few weeks of campaigning, the Government agreed to renew its funding for the centre.

When public pressure is not possible, you can also use external influencers.

Seek pressure from external influencers: When public pressure is not possible, you can also use external influencers. A few years ago, the Victorian Government announced a decision to cut $30m from community and social housing. PILCH tried to influence the Government directly through its relationships, but was met by Ministers saying that “the decision had been made”. PILCH contacted the United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari, who then wrote to the Victorian and Australian governments expressing concern. This contributed to the cuts being revoked.

Part C: Establish capacity

Advocacy is complex, and requires multiple capabilities.  Many organisations won’t have these capabilities in-house or the workload of it may just be too much for the team’s current capacity. There are two options: (1) either build your own internal capacity or (2) acquire them externally, through coalition or through professional support.

6. Build internal capacity

For each of the five previous steps in developing your advocacy strategy, consider what you need. For example, to build a base of credibility you may need to invest in data collection or research. To mobilise external pressure you may need capabilities in media engagement and strategic messaging. To describe the change you seek, you may need lawyers who can draft legislation – as with SecondBite.

Common mistake: Not investing enough in relationships

Strong relationships are critical for successful advocacy. Where possible build rapport with decision-makers directly. At other times connect with champions, who can influence them. Additionally, invest in relationships with external influencers – such as journalists and notable figures – to apply external pressure.

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts in relationship building: investing in relationships must be an ongoing activity. Regularly send thank you cards. Ensure that key relationships receive your newsletter. Consider how to create regular opportunities to meet with key decision-makers. This will require time and staff that are adept at relationship building.

As advocacy becomes a growing part of your agenda, consider dedicating one staff member to manage relationships and partnerships.

7. Consider collaboration.

By collaborating, organisations can pool resources – such as research capabilities, policy experts, or key relationships to influence through. This is particularly important in the non-profit sector, where there are many smaller organisations competing for money and talent, and where direct service non-profit organisations spend most of their resources delivering core programs.

Form a coalition with other organisations: Who else has an interest in the change you are pursuing? Who else has the capabilities you need but don’t have? Coalitions also create a louder voice as a result of the unity. This can be particularly true with ‘unlikely allies’; a coalition of people that don’t have much in common except for the desire to see this change.

Seek professional support:Are some capabilities more appropriate to outsource rather than build internally? For mobilising public pressure, consider using campaign strategy experts. For example, National Disability Services outsourced the public ‘Every Australian Counts’ campaign for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

In building a base of credibility, consider using research partnerships. As Inspire advocated for the funding of online methods for improving youth mental health, it formally partnered with universities to conduct research projects. Having well recognised academic partners helped it secure meetings with government and researchers lent credibility to its work, acting as third-party endorsers.


Following these seven steps will help non-profit leaders advocate for change in the system within which they operate. However, success depends on investing enough in building relationships and in the organisation’s capacity to advocate.

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[i] Wallack, Winett, Lee; Successful Public Policy Change in California: Firearms and Youth Resources; Journal of Public Health Policy, Vol. 26, No. 2 (2005)

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