Nonprofit Advocacy

Advocacy is an important function of most nonprofit organizations and describes a wide range of actions and activities that seek to influence outcomes affecting the lives of the people served by the organizations. Few nonprofit functions are more critical than advocacy - persuasively representing alternative perspectives to public and private decision makers.


Advocacy means to speak up, to plead the case of another, or to fight for a cause. Derived from the Latin word advocare, which means "coming to the aid of someone," advocacy is an important function of most nonprofit organizations. It describes a wide range of expressions, actions and activities that seek to influence outcomes directly affecting the lives of the people served by the organization. All nonprofits advocate to varying degrees. For some, advocacy is the focus of their work, while other organizations may use advocacy to respond to issues pertaining to their mission.

Advocacy should not be confused with lobbying. Lobbying, as defined by the Internal Revenue Service, involves attempts to influence legislation at the local, state or federal level. Lobbying always involves advocacy, though advocacy does not always involve lobbying.

Historic Roots

In the United States, civic participation is the essence of democracy, and nonprofit organizations have become one of the most effective vehicles for encouraging people to engage in the democratic process. Nonprofit organizations find their reason for being in the shortcomings of American public life and are devoted to making improvements for the common good.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution makes provision for the freedoms of speech and association. These are the foundations upon which nonprofit organizations are built. Although people can advocate in other countries, the ability of American citizens to form voluntary associations for the purpose of advocating for the common good is unique in history.

In his famous work describing early America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:

As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world, they look out for mutual assistance; and as soon as they have found one another out, they combine. From that moment they are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example and whose language is listened to… Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America… If men are to remain civilized or to become more so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased. (1835)

The successes of the major social movements throughout the last two hundred years have been the result of dedicated advocates and effective advocacy organizations. Advocacy for a specific cause or group usually starts at a basic level and proceeds to address larger or more complex issues after basic victories are met. Most social change started out as an advocacy activity but ended with major lobbying efforts to change or enact laws for the common good.

An example of this progression in advocacy activities has been the battle for educational opportunities waged by African-Americans. During the days of slavery, access to schools was denied to African-Americans. Following the emancipation, the need for basic education was met by allowing African-Americans to attend schools that were "separate but equal." When it became apparent that segregation could never produce equality, advocacy activities by groups like the NAACP led to legal battles and to the end of segregation. Today, the battle for equality in education continues as advocacy groups, such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options, fight for school choice as a means of further equalizing the educational opportunities of African-Americans.


In his work on funding of nonprofit advocacy, Lester Salamon wrote, "of all the functions of the nonprofit sector, few are more critical than that of advocacy, of representing alternative perspectives and pressing them on public and private decision makers" (Reid 2000, 68).

Nonprofit advocacy takes many forms. Community advocacy involves changing the ideas and attitudes of the public. This is typically accomplished through education programs that may include direct mail, publications, group presentations, and a Web site. Many nonprofits make effective use of the media to reach the public and promote an issue using newspaper coverage, TV, radio, feature articles, editorials, letters to the editor, news releases, and press conferences.

Some nonprofits find legal advocacy (using lawsuits in the courts to protect or create rights, improve services, or raise public consciousness about an issue) an effective method of accomplishing needed reforms. The advantage of legal advocacy is that courts are open and complainants (those who make a complaint in a legal action) must be heard if the complaint is presented in the proper terms.

Nonprofits pursue legislative advocacy when the target for change is a federal, state or local law, school board policy, or budget allocation. Nonprofit advocacy to influence legislation may involve legislative monitoring, committee testifying, lobbying, writing position papers, organizing networks and coalitions, and a variety of other activities.

Reduced to its most basic level, effective nonprofit advocacy is about communication and relationships. Usually changes come about slowly, and advocates need to exercise persuasiveness, persistence and patience in representing an issue. Effective advocates are flexible and resourceful, willing to compromise, negotiate, collaborate, and prioritize to accomplish their goals.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

When we think of nonprofit charitable groups, most of us think of traditional charities like the United Way, the Salvation Army, or Meals-On-Wheels. But, in the United States, the role of nonprofit organizations is undergoing an enormous change. With the change in the lobby law in 1976, the definition of nonprofit now includes many organizations that are more political than charitable.

The explosive growth of nonprofit advocacy and public policy groups in the last thirty years has coincided with the expansion of government. There are currently more than 1000 nonprofit organizations classified by the IRS as working to change public opinion and public policy, and three-fourths of the 1,200 public policy research organizations were founded after 1970. As advocates for the public good, these organizations strive to educate and explain issues, oversee legislative and administrative decisions, monitor processes, calculate impacts and translate technical intricacies for the public and elected officials. They perform an invaluable role. That nonprofits operate with "non-distributional restraint" offers donors and the public confidence that their dollars support the activities they intend, rather than benefiting individuals.

Key Related Ideas

Nonprofit advocacy groups are often known as special interest groups, citizen organizations, mobilizing groups, multi-issue organizations, or social movement organizations. The activities in which they participate may be called grassroots action, civic voice, public action, organizing and empowerment.

Additional related ideas: the First Amendment, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and lobbying.

Important People Related to the Topic

In the history of nonprofit advocacy groups there is not a prominent leader that represents the advancement of the entire group, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. Yet, specific individuals are well-known in the nonprofit sector and beyond as pioneers who brought their particular cause to the public's attention and advanced research and social action related to it. A few examples of these groundbreaking leaders follow.

Gloria Steinem , journalist and feminist advocate, began Ms. Magazine with Dorothy Pitman Hughes in 1972. The magazine's founding began after Steinem and Hughes toured the country speaking out on issues effecting women's lives: equal pay, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and legalized abortion. Her strong support for "reproductive freedom" helped legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade. Though Ms. is a for-profit venture, Steinem has founded several nonprofit organizations that promote women's voices, including the National Women's Political Caucus (a nonpartisan organization that promotes pro choice women candidates) and the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

Ralph Nader is the most recognized and well-known advocate as demonstrated by his 2000 presidential bid. He is the prominent consumer advocate, lawyer, author, and founder of several nonprofit advocacy agencies including the Center for Study of Responsive Law and the Center for Auto Safety. Nader is considered responsible for a number of consumer protection laws (such as the Safe Drinking Water Act) and the launching of federal regulatory agencies (e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

Marian Wright Edelman is known both for her advocacy for children's rights and her passionate and inspirational writings (her books have been on the New York Times bestseller's lists). Edelman founded the Children's Defense Fund, the nonprofit advocacy organization whose mission is "to Leave No Child Behind® and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life with the support of caring families and communities" (Children's Defense Fund 2002). In 2000, Edelman was awarded the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her lifetime of activist achievement.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Alliance for Justice provides detailed information regarding lobbying laws and provides extensive guidelines for nonprofit organizations.

Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest , previously a project of INDEPENDENT SECTOR, an organization whose goal is educating charities about the important role lobbying can play in achieving their missions. They provide several excellent instructional publications that can be currently downloaded from the IS web site or, for more information, contact:
Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest
2040 S Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
202-387-5048 (or 5072)

INDEPENDENT SECTOR is a coalition of leading nonprofits, foundations, and corporations strengthening not-for-profit initiatives, philanthropy and citizen action. The web site provides links to many other valuable sites with information about the nonprofit sector.

The Urban Institute publishes studies, reports and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The Institute is currently involved in a research initiative on nonprofit advocacy.

Bibliography and Internet Resources

Adler, Betsy Buchalter. The Rules of the Road: A Guide to the Law of Charities in the United States, Washington, D.C.: Council on Foundations, 1999.

Brandt, Sanford F. Advocacy is Sometimes an Agency's Best Service: Opportunities and Limits Within Federal Law. Washington, D.C.: Independent Sector, 1984.

Bremner, Robert H. American Philanthropy. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1960. ISBN: 0-226-07325-4 (for 1988, 2nd ed).

The Children's Defense Fund. "Marian Wright Edelman's Public Life" [online]. Available: (4 May 2002).

Clotfelter, Charles T. and Thomas Ehrlich, eds. Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector in a Changing America. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999. ISBN: 0253335213.

Ezell, Mark. Advocacy in the Human Services. Belmont, California: Wadsworth/ Thomson Learning, 2001. ISBN: 0534348610.

The Glass Ceiling. "Gloria Steinem" [online]. Available: (3 May 2002).

Hammack, David C. Making the Nonprofit Sector in the United States. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0253214106.

INDEPENDENT SECTOR [online]. Available: (4 May 2002).

Lashbrooke, E. C. Jr. Tax Exempt Organizations. Westport, Connecticut: Quorum Books, 1985. ISBN: 0899300839.

The Nader Page. "Ralph Nader: Biographical Information: The Essential Nader" [online]. Available: (2 May 2002).

Pidgeon, Jr., Walter P. The Legislative Labyrinth: A Map for Not-for-Profits. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001. ISBN: 0471400696.

Reid, Elizabeth J. Structuring the Inquiry Into Advocacy. Washington, D.C. The Urban Institute, 2000. ISBN: 0929556003.

Smucker, Bob. The Nonprofit Lobbying Guide. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: Independent Sector, 1999. ISBN: 0929556003.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. "Of the Uses Which Americans Make of Public Associations in Civil Life." Democracy in America. 1835. New York: Signet Classic, 2001. ISBN: 0451528123.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.