Understanding groups that lobby for justice

Success depends on strategy

– Anna Visser 


Thirty-eight per cent of non-profit organisations in Ireland engage in social-justice advocacy. Social-justice advocacy by community and voluntary sector organisations like Amnesty International, the St Vincent de Paul and the Irish Cancer Society seeks to make real the principles of justice, equality, human rights, human dignity and social inclusion. Advocacy involves planned, organised and sustained actions to promote, or resist, the development or implementation of law and policy. It can be anything from backroom lobbying to public demonstrations.

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There appears to be a broader popular acceptance of the democratic function of this advocacy than we often assume. 72% of the public believe it is important for charities to campaign and lobby government. While only 15% think charities and non-profits have an influence on law and policy, 46% think they should be influential. It is the only sector that the public would like to have more (rather than less) influence on government (compared with trade unions, business, farmers, and religious bodies/churches).

A forthcoming report from the Advocacy Initiative on the perceptions of policy-makers will show they may not always view the work of social-justice advocates positively, but they generally don’t dispute the democratic purpose of such activity. Despite this broad popular support there is significant evidence that both social-justice advocates and policy-makers need to re-imagine social-justice advocacy and their relationship with each other. Four common messages are emerging from our work – the four As of advocacy.

84% of organisations carrying out advocacy believe it is difficult to get policy-makers to focus on the causes of social problems

Aim: Develop a clear advocacy plan and focus. A consistent factor in success has been the ability to make choices and stay focused on a specific, justified demand. An Advocacy Initiative study found that only half of social-justice advocates plan this work, and even fewer have systems in place to evaluate their success. Policy-makers consistently raise focus and making clear choices as critical to success.

Arm: Empower those affected by the advocacy and make sure they are at the heart of any campaign. The sector has a unique contribution to make to evidence-based policy-making, but this needs to be rooted in the realities of those experiencing poverty. We know that this is our strength, but sometimes we struggle to realise the value of participation. Policy-makers see empowerment as not only a unique selling point, but also as fundamental to credibility.

Associate: Collaborate within the community and voluntary sector and beyond it and demonstrate how problems are systemic and significant. “More collaboration” was the most frequently named response to the challenges facing social-justice advocacy identified in an Advocacy Initiative study.  95% of organisations do work with others, and over two-thirds rate this experience as positive. Policy-makers, while not always positive about the diversity of organisations in the sector, identify particular value in strong collaboration.

Animate: Be innovative and vibrant. When asked to name effective advocacy strategies or campaigns, people within the sector and beyond identify those with the capacity to be consistently energetic, and always to address an issue creatively. Policy-makers emphasise the importance of being engaging and fresh, and avoiding a feeling of stagnation or staleness.

It is possible to do strategic, participative, collaborative and imaginative advocacy and still not effect social change. Social-justice advocates do not rate the political system highly. 84% of organisations carrying out advocacy believe it is difficult to get policy-makers to focus on the causes of social problems. Only 53% agreed that policy decisions are underpinned by hard evidence.

Questions remain about how social-justice advocacy will develop in the future. How will this activity be regulated? How does state funding affect independence? Does advocacy negatively affect state funding? Can we develop better, stronger capacity within the sector? How will we measure the impact of advocacy? Can we build new relationships with policy-makers and other stakeholders including trade unions and the media? Are we operating in a changing political culture and how will this affect our advocacy? The Advocacy Initiative will address these questions over the next year.


Anna Visser is Director of The Advocacy Initiative, a three-year community and voluntary sector project that promotes understanding and awareness