Advocacy and Strategic Action

This webpage is about doing politic action or advocacy. There are two main sections:

– Easy Advocacy (for beginners) and

– Total Advocacy  (for people who want to do serious, strategic advocacy on one or more issues.)


Easy Advocacy

“Advocacy” in politics usually means supporting a certain position on an issue or a bill. Advocacy for citizens means letting your officials know what you want them to do. In the next section, Total Advocacy, you can learn many different ways to create and use political power. Here we will only present the five easiest and simplest things to do.

1.  Complete written surveys from your representatives. If you get a survey sent to you from one of your representatives or from a candidate, you should take the time to fill it out. They want to know what the electorate (you the voters) care about. This is your golden opportunity to tell them. If telephone or written surveys come from other sources, be careful. You may be giving information to the wrong people.

2.  Send emails or letters to your representatives. Emails are best when a vote is getting close. But letters from individuals generally carry more weight because you took the time and effort to write and mail it. Allow 8-10 days for postal mail, since letter need to be processed and screened. In either case, there are some important rules to follow:

a.  Include your mailing address and zip code at the top or bottom, so that they know you are their constituent (in other words, you are in their voting area.) If you’re not in an official’s voting area, your email or letter would carry little if any weight. Their concern is their district.

b.  Be polite and respectful. You may be angry at their stand, or you may really dislike almost everything about them, but no one responds well to being attacked. We’re not saying that you need to hide your feelings. Just communicate them respectfully.

c.  Be brief. The aides of these officials must process thousands of emails a day. (Congress received 182 million emails and 18 million letters in 2004.) Unless you have critical information to offer, aim for no more than eight sentences. Come to the point quickly.

d.  Be personal. Include something about how this personally affects you.  This is where you can share your feelings and concerns. Putting the personal or unique information at the start increases the impact of your communication.

e.  Whenever possible include a specific Bill number and name of the legislation. Again, this speeds up the process. They usually want to know if you favor or oppose a certain piece of upcoming legislation. Or, if you are thanking them for their vote, again be specific.

f. If you want to know where they stand on the issue, ask them to reply. Often you will get a vague, wishy-washy reply in which they don’t take a stand, but promise to consider your concerns. You can receive a two-page letter in which they essentially dodge the issue. Write back, and demand that they take a stand! Tell them you are angry with a long letter that wasted your time!
You can easily find legislative information:

All Active House and Senate Legislation:

Active Senate legislation only:

The Library of Congress also has an up-to-date free service on Congress and other government activities.

For recent votes in Congress, go here to do a search:

For bills that have become law:

How to Regularly Receive Action Updates on issues you care about

1.  To regularly get advocacy updates on issues of concern to you, just do a search with three words:  “advocacy”  “organization”  and the appropriate keyword (such as “healthcare” or “fiscal responsibility” or “environment.”)  If you sign up with statewide or local advocacy groups, you can get action alerts at the state and local levels, as well, by adding the name of the state or city to the search.

2.  Review several organizations and pick the one(s) that seems to have the best approach and plan to causing change. Read carefully, since any organizations have deceptive names and strategies. For instance, some anti-environmental groups have “green” sounding names, or names that celebrate some other virtue or value. Also, some groups may be well-known, but not really have an effective plan for turning things around. It’s one thing to be against something bad; it’s another thing to have a realistic plan to change the situation. Sometimes it helps to find out what a group has already done.

3.  Once you’ve studied some groups and picked the best, look for a place where you can sign up for free action alerts or legislative updates.

4.  If you later want to stop receiving the updates, they almost always come with a link at the bottom telling you how to unsubscribe.


f.  If emailing, don’t include attachments and don’t cc.

g.  Don’t write every day about every issue. Busy people will resent this.

h.  Proofread your writing. Multiple misteaks and confusing prose make poor impression. (!)

3.  Ask your friends to write. If you really care about an issue, ask your friends to email, write a letter or make a call, too. Make it easy for them to act. Paste and cut the essential background information on the bill into your email. If they’ve never written an advocacy letter before, include your email as an example.

4.  Signing a petition. If someone asks you to sign a petition and you decide to do it, follow the directions carefully. Usually you need to include your address and zip code, and sometimes even a signature. In cases where a candidate is trying to get onto the ballot, your signing may be worthless if you do not furnish all the required information.

5.  Make a donation to a candidate or advocacy group. The current reality in politics is that money makes a huge difference in politics. This needs to be changed, but for now it’s important to be realistic. Campaigns and professional advocacy efforts cost money.


Exercise: Write an Email or Letter to Congress!

1.  If you’ve never written an advocacy letter se one of the first two links to locate an issue of interest to you. Look for a bill that you would like to write about. If the bill begins with “S.” then you will want to write your senators. If it’s “H.” or “H.Res.” then you will want to write your Congressman (your Representative.) Go to and put in your state to find your officials email or postal addresses.

Here’s a model letter:

The Honorable Senator Joe Smith
US Senate
Washington, DC  20510

Dear Senator Smith:

Like most parents I worry about my children’s future. But unlike all the previous generations of parents, I have a new worry: I worry that the Earth will turn against my children. We see unprecedented changes everywhere: peak oil, global warming, species extinction, and destruction of the rainforests. Global warming and climate change are particularly disturbing to me. I’d like you to support S. 1151, the Climate Change and Innovation Act. It uses a market-driven approach similar to a successful 1990 bill dealing with acid rain. It’s good to know that this might work. Please let me know if you will support this vital legislation. Thank you!


John Q. Citizen
559 Main St
Sunlight, FL 37101


Total Advocacy

The purpose of this part is not to turn you into a full-time political activist. The goal is to familiarize you with information that will increase the success of your advocacy. Even if you only put in two hours a month on advocacy, you will do it more easily and more successfully if you study this part of the course.

This section has six topics:

  • Getting a broader, more powerful understanding of advocacy
  • Key principles of advocacy
  • Seven questions to always ask before you take action
  • Methods of advocacy
  • Cautions  (Beware of…)
  • How to plan major advocacy

A Broader, More Powerful Understanding of Advocacy

Above, you learned some easy ways to do advocacy. The focus was on contacting your representatives. In that section, advocacy was defined simply as “supporting a certain position on an issue or bill” and “letting your representatives know what you want them to do.” In reality, advocacy is much broader. Advocacy is any effort to influence anyone to take action.

Mostly you are trying to influence the people who make decisions. There are many different decision-makers who affect your life. People who run corporations and businesses are decision makers.  You might write a letter asking them to be more environmental. People in the executive branch of government decide how to carry out the orders of the legislature. So you can write them about how they implement the new rules or laws. Your friends who vote are making a decision, so you can use advocacy methods to influence them. Also your neighbors make decisions about your community.  (Do they litter? Do they blast music?) — So advocacy can be thought of in very broad terms.

Key Principles of Advocacy

Know your place.  It’s not your responsibility to change the whole world. It’s your responsibility to speak your mind on something that, first, you feel strongly about and, second, you understand. You are often communicating with people who are devoting their whole lives to politics. They probably know a lot more than you. They may be more powerful than you. So unless you have great expertise or lots of power, it’s important to be respectful.– And unless politics is your passion, it’s important to set boundaries.

Define the Stakeholders, the Decision-Makers and the Influencers.  Stakeholders are the people and organizations who are affected by an issue or decision. Decision-makers have the authority to make the decisions. Influencers can have a large impact on the decision-makers. By defining who’s who, you are much more likely to choose the best goals and actions. If you think about it, there are usually many kinds of stakeholders.  Some will probably be in favor of your cause, and some will oppose it.

Be clear on the goals before you think about methods.  It’s quite common for people to quickly move to action before they thought about their goals. Think of poverty and hunger for example. If your goal is to end hunger, you may decide that government food stamps programs are enough. But doesn’t your goal really include helping people to help themselves? If you define your goal carefully, you are likely to go in a much different direction: for instance asking the government to create job training, or to do things that aid the creation of new businesses, or literacy and basic skills, etc.

Find out the relevant history.  Find out what has been tried before: What has been tried and has failed in your community, so that you have this problem? What has worked well in other places, that you can copy?

Speak in a way that will be heard. Be assertive without being aggressive.  You have to make your message clear and compelling. You also have to make sure that people will take you seriously. Sometimes this means attaching consequences to inaction. For instance, if you are writing a company about a defective product, you might say that you will email fifty of your friends if you do not get action.

Keep your promises.  In the above example, if you say you’re going to ask 50 friends not to buy a defective product–or to vote against someone in the next election, follow through and do it. If possible, make sure that someone learns that you followed through.

When possible, be creative or edgy.  This helps you to be heard by more people.  If you can be entertaining or funny without muddying your message or damaging your credibility, your message will have a greater impact.

Try for solutions that yield mutual benefit.  Try for win-win situations. Often this takes some new perspective or creativity. For example, there is the conflict between people who want to cut down forests for paper and people who want to preserve forests for the sake of the birds and other animals. A win-win solution might be to cut down patches of forest and immediately replant, so that the animals can more to the uncut portions.

Treat people, even enemies, with respect.  Most people are not evil. People who disagree with your politics are probably not evil.  Respect means not attacking, but respect also means that you seriously listen to and consider their point of view. If your enemy actually is malevolent, it still might be wise to treat them with respect: You don’t want them to retaliate.

Understand what structural change is.  Imagine you are in a boat that springs a leak. One way to stay afloat is to keep bailing water. Another way is to plug the leak. Bailing is not a structural change, but plugging the leak changes the structure of the boat. Structural changes are usually more permanent solutions, and so they are usually preferred. Programs that give people food are not structurally sound, but programs that give people jobs and skills, usually change the structure of the situation.

Understand that almost every action has multiple effects.  One of the most common and repeated mistakes that people make is to forget that an action usually has multiple effects. The legislation that you may think you want can have: positive or negative effects on jobs (on businesses and workers)–and this can affect the tax base; it can have positive or negative effects on the environment; it can create a political precedent; it could have a positive or negative impact on people’s health and mental health; it may make it harder for another problem to be paid for; it can have a positive or negative effect on the career of the politicians who support it; it can possibly be “paid” for by a compromise that costs too much; it can have a small impact on the culture, too. So in thinking about goals, you must consider all the possible impacts.

At the same time, your advocacy usually costs someone time and money:  If you get deeply involved, it will cost you time and money; it will add to the work load of the representatives. It may affect your family relationships, and how people perceive you. So again, there are multiple impacts. Good advocacy is when the positive impacts outweigh the negative impacts.

Be systematic. Plan
.  The first part of being systematic is to ask yourself the eight questions below. The questions will help you think systematically. And if you feel inspired to do some major action, you can use the planning worksheet at the end of this page.


Eight Questions to Always Ask Yourself Before You Take Action

1. Is this the best, most loving use of my time set aside for politics?

2. Is this the most important issue to work on now?

3. Is the goal that’s presented the best option? The goal is the thing that I want the decision-maker to enact. (And, by the way, is it realistic?)

4. Is this the best time to take action?

5. Can I invite anyone else to help define or design the action?

6. Have I chosen the best target for my communication? (For instance, maybe it would be better to target an influencer of the decision-maker rather than the decision-maker, if you know the influencer well.)

7. Have I chosen the best method to influence the target? 

8. Have I checked to make sure the message I want to communicate is clear?


One more key principle: Learn how to say “no” or “maybe” gracefully. Often friends will come to you to ask you to advocate a certain issue. It’s good to help others with their causes, since they then are more likely to help you with yours. But you shouldn’t say yes to someone just because they are your friend. That’s because people often choose ineffective actions or even counterproductive actions.

Instead of telling them yes right away, it may be better to tell them that you support their cause, but want to hear more about their methods and strategies before you will commit time. Then you might ask them some of the seven questions of this section, to make sure that they are choosing an effective approach.To do this gracefully, you can’t just say, “I support your cause, but I want to find out if your methods are going to be effective.” That’s too blunt. That way of saying it implies that you don’t think they will be effective. It’s better to sincerely empathize with them and their cause –to say why you support their cause, or believe in it, in detail. It helps to share your feelings, too. If the situation makes you angry or sad, say so. Then ask them about their methods, target, timing and so forth. If it makes sense, fine. If not, suggest ways to make their plan stronger. If the plan is wrong-headed or incomplete, you need to confront them, pointing out what you feel is lacking. (This is advocacy from you to them!)  But end by commending them on their commitment to action.



Methods of Advocacy

In the Easy Advocacy section only a few methods of advocacy were mentioned. In reality, there are a great variety of methods. Below is a list. The methods have been grouped according to the likely target, but in reality most methods can be used for any target. For example, maybe it hasn’t been done before, but you could organize a boycott of a nonprofit or advocacy organization. (Peace organizations have chained people to doors of military organizations or businesses, but imagine the publicity of chaining someone to the doors of a peace organization!)  So, no matter who your target is, you will want to look over the whole list.

For for where to find details on most of these methods, see the Advocacy Section on the Knowledge Resources page.

Friends   Emails or phone calls asking them to do some advocacy.

Businesses   Letters to decision-makers, boycotts, shareholder resolutions, create a web site about the business.  

Media   Letters to the editor, op-eds, emails asking for a certain kind of coverage (such as ad analysis) 

Other organizations    Speakers bureau, a meeting to present an issue

Advocacy groups
   Make a donation, get on their email alert list, suggest improvements, volunteer, suggest coalitions

Citizens and the public
   Signs, bumper stickers, slogans on T-shirts /  network to friends by email, PTTN chain reaction, webTV (like YouTube)

     Letters, emails, small contributions, vote, fill out questionnaires, visits to the legislator or official, help on a campaign, making a donation, forming a PAC to make large donations, getting on the PAC committee of an organization you belong to (such as a union or professional group.)

Other actions:
  Petition  /  Civil disobedience  / March  / Hunger strike / Symbolic actions / Become a candidate


Cautions  (Beware of…)

1.  All advocacy groups are not created equal. Some are well-organized and effective, and others are dedicated to the wrong approach, or they are merely taking actions to justify their salaries. Do your homework, and don’t sign on with an organization just because it was the first you heard about. Also, don’t form coalitions with just anybody.

2.  Now that you have the tools to do advocacy, don’t overuse them. You lose your impact if you overdo things. You will also annoy your friends if you keep asking them to do advocacy.

3.  Short campaigns or one-time “make-a-splash” actions that are unlikely to cause real change are often a waste of time.

4.  Don’t do things that damage your credibility.  Misguided actions, actions that are based on wrong information or wrong assumptions will do damage. Attacks and extremely violent, angry language will do damage to your reputation, too. Certain compromises are worthwhile, but don’t support compromises that erode your power, or that are unethical.

5. Some people will do anything to get their way. They may use dirty tricks, and also twist things around. For instance, they may quote something you said out of context, to try to discredit you. It may be worthwhile to have witnesses to corroborate your statements, or someone to videotape you, so that you have a record that you can use in your defense.

6.  Don’t jump into action without thinking things through. As mentioned, one action has multiple effects, and many advocacy actions have backfired.

7.  Beware of success that goes to your head. Power is seductive, and you could be drawn into some effort that isn’t really a good use of time.


How to Plan Major Advocacy

There are four steps:

– Assess the situation
– Set a goal for change
– Create a plan for change
– Launch the plan /monitor action/ and evaluate

1.  Assessment questions

What are all the major problems and issues?

Which one issue is … most urgent / causing the most harm / has the greatest power to affect other issues and change people’s lives?

(Now that things have been narrowed down to one issue…)

Who are the stakeholders?

Who are the decision-makers?

Who are the influencers?

What are the details of the issue? (How many people are affected? What is the cost of the problem in dollars, lives lost, sick days…?)

What is the history of the situation? Why did this become a problem? (There may be many different explanations, some of them wrong and some more likely to be close to the actual situation. It’s important to know all the most common interpretations of the source of the problem.)

2.  Goal setting questions

Who should be involved in creating a vision or brainstorming for a set of goals?  (Or a related question: Would it be better to get a group of stakeholders to develop a goal together so that they can motivate each other, or would it be better for one visionary to come up with a goal and then try to sell others on his vision?)


List several possible visions. (More than one vision ought to be imagined.  If you recall the poverty example, there are many possible visions:  a capitalist vision where everyone is a producer; a religious vision where the strong take care of the weak; a spiritual/psychological vision that emphasizes ridding the world of inner  poverty such as low self-esteem or fear, etc.)

Choose the vision that’s best. Best might be the one that most resonates with people, or the one that benefits the most people; or the one that harms the fewest people.

Based on the vision, create several possible goals. (Unlike a vision, a goal has a specific timeframe and specific amounts. For example, ending poverty is a vision, but having only 5% of Americans below the poverty line by the year 2020 is a goal.)  Brainstorm for many goals.

Rank the goals according to different criteria, such as: Is the goal feasible?  Is the goal inspiring?  Is the goal sellable? Is the timeframe optimal? Is the goal one that will promote long-term change or not?

Choose the goal that seems best.

(Now that you have chosen a goal, it’s time to plan the steps and actions that will result in achieving the goal.)

3.  Planning steps

Brainstorming: What are possible actions and methods to achieve the goal. (Some may involve advocacy and some might not. For the rest of this worksheet we will assume the actions involve advocacy.)

For each possible action, define the target, message, people who would likely do it, cost in time, money and resources, likelihood to provoke countermeasures, adaptability in case a situation changes, and likelihood of success in achieving the goal. (For details on most of these methods, see the Advocacy section on the Knowledge Resources page.)

Put the best actions together in a plan.

Insert checkpoints for monitoring and evaluation. Who will check to make sure the plan is working? How often? What measures will they use to know if the plan is on track?  (for instance: polls, number of letters sent, number of ads purchased, etc.)

If the plan will take a long time to execute and involves volunteers, insert activities to encourage and sustain the volunteers. For example: a recognition party,  progress-report emails, thank you notes, etc.

Should a contingency plan be created?  (If the goal is of extreme importance, or if the plan has a fair likelihood of failure, create one or more back-up plans.  Do this by starting at the beginning of this planning section.)

4.  Launch the plan / monitor / and evaluate.

As you monitor the plan, decide if changes need to be made in the plan.

At the end, celebrate success, effort and lessons learned.

Begin the planning cycle again, with another assessment of current issues and problems.




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