Advocacy | A Rundown of the Basics With Real-World Examples

Craig Grella
July 23, 2021

Advocacy campaigns are the driving force of progress. They call attention to issues or problems, identify solutions, coordinate efforts of the masses, and work to bring about changes that will make our world a better place. The civil rights movement, environmental protection regulations, and modern workplace safety practices all started with advocacy campaigns.

This article provides the best practices and practical experience you need to plan and implement a successful advocacy campaign that will help you affect change in your community. Throughout this guide, you’ll also find links to relevant blog posts and additional resources that expand on topics introduced here. Let’s get started.

Table of Contents

Salsa recently published the Complete Guide to Digital Nonprofit Advocacy which includes many of the best practices you’ll see here. It features dozens of advocacy tactics to try, and the worksheets and checklists you can use to plan and implement your next advocacy campaign.

Complete Guide to Digital Nonprofit Advocacy Guide Download CTA

What Is An Advocacy Campaign?

An advocacy campaign is an individual marketing effort that uses one or more advocacy tactics to get the word out to your supporters with an appeal for them to take a specific action in support of a larger goal.

An example of an advocacy campaign might be an organized effort to pass a new state law requiring schools to offer universal pre-K. Another example might be to stop a local business from using styrofoam containers for their take-out orders. In either case, the process of an advocacy campaign would be to define the problem, identify a solution, get its message out to supporters, and work to bring about its intended solution.

Usually, a larger voice supporting the advocacy campaign will mean a higher chance of success. If 50,000 supporters send a letter in support of a bill it likely has a better chance of passing than a campaign that generates only 5 letters of support. Developing specific campaign metrics and goals is discussed later in the section titled Steps for Planning an Advocacy Campaign.

Successful advocacy campaigns are typically modeled around the following 5 characteristics that we will discuss throughout this article:

  1. A final goal.

  2. An intended target of the advocacy.

  3. A core team of supporters and influencers.

  4. A well-defined message.

  5. A specific timeline for implementation.

With a basic understanding of what advocacy campaigns are and what the typical process is, you can effectively design your own campaign that affects change within your own community.

What Are The Types of Advocacy?

There are many different types of advocacy and groups that are trying to affect some type of change in our world.

Some groups are focused only on legislative efforts, changing laws, creating new laws, and so on. This is typically called “lobbying.” More on that later in this section.

Individuals and nonprofits that work to change laws and affect policy fall under the general category of activism. Activism is rallying supporters around a cause, educating them on a specific issue, and asking them to take action in support of that cause. It could be writing a letter, signing a petition, sending social messages, making phone calls, or donating.

Similar to lobbying, activism can be pointed at legislative efforts like approving or supporting a law that would outlaw smoking on beaches, or more broadly like asking Congress to approve funding for cancer research. Activism can be ever broader still, like simply asking supporters to sign a petition showing that they value clean air and water.

Nonprofits advocate for the causes they serve, which are outlined in their mission. Nonprofits can lobby as well, but the amount they can lobby is regulated by federal tax law and usually very limited.

Within the IRS’s definition of tax-exempt organizations, there are several designations that can work to affect political change: 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), and 527.

527 Organizations

These organizations are tax-exempt and run with the specific purpose of influencing elections, either advocating for or against certain candidates. 527’s typically come in two forms, PACs and super PACs, but they can also operate as individual companies and groups.

PACs and Super PACs

Political action committees (PACs) gather funding from members and donate

to campaigns to help either elect a candidate or keep a candidate out of office. There are typically caps on how much money a PAC can contribute, though there are some states that do not cap political contributions.

The much more recently legalized super PACs can raise unlimited funds in order to advocate for or against certain candidates. They cannot, however, directly coordinate with or donate funds to a candidate. That means they must operate independently of the candidate and not communicate with that candidate during their advocacy.

What Activities Comprise Advocacy Work?

Advocacy activities (also called tactics) are the individual methods of communication you use and the actions you ask your supporters to take in your advocacy campaigns.

Here are a few popular tactics that are often implemented in successful advocacy campaigns:

  1. Targeted Messages— Targeted messages encourage your supporters to send messages to policymakers through the webforms on your site. You can target individual legislators or simultaneously target multiple legislators at the same time. This allows all your supporters to take the same action with a consistent theme and message.
  2. Online Petitions — A petition is a special type of advocacy that includes a statement or belief on a topic or issue and a form where your supporters express their agreement. When the form is filled, you get the signer’s contact information so that you can market opportunities to them later.
  3. Social Advocacy — This involves using social media to spread awareness for your advocacy campaign through text, links, videos, graphics, GIFs, and more.
  4. Click to Call — This is a tool on your website or advocacy campaign pages that supporters click to automatically connect with their elected representatives. You provide a script and actions you want the supporter to take, and they can follow those directions when on the phone with their legislator.
  5. Legislator Lookups — This tool enables supporters to type in their addresses. Then, they’re given contact information for the elected officials who represent their districts. This is the first step in helping supporters select the right advocacy target before they send the messages you want them to send.
  6. Action Alerts — These are emails that get sent to your supporters with important updates. The intention here is to inspire them to take a specific action.
  7. Event Registration — Creating events in support of your advocacy efforts is a great way to bring new supporters into the fold and to educate them on the actions you want them to take for your advocacy campaign. This can be training, in-person or online events, conference calls or webinars, and so on.
  8. Online Fundraising — Use fundraising forms on your website where supporters and advocates can donate to the cause, directly furthering your advocacy efforts.
  9. Texting — Use text messaging, SMS, and MMS to get the word out, send links to supporters, and even fundraise via special shortcodes and online forms.
  10. Facebook Lead Ads — This is a special type of ad used in Facebook feeds that, when clicked on, allows visitors to submit their information. The information is then downloadable or synced to your CRM automatically.

Each of these tactics can be performed using advocacy software like Salsa Engage, which can automate the advocacy campaign process and help you communicate directly with the targets of your campaign.

For more information on each of these advocacy tactics, download Salsa’s Complete Guide to Digital Nonprofit Advocacy, which includes examples of how these tactics are used in successful campaigns, and worksheets you can use to plan the tactics for your next advocacy campaign.

Digital Advocacy Guide

What is Lobbying and How Does It Work?

Lobby firms spend significant amounts of time performing research, conducting studies, meeting with members of Congress and other legislators, and advocating for very specific bills.

Lobbyists try to influence congress because the legislation they support or oppose typically has a financial benefit for their organization. Because of this, lobbyists are required to register their activities, usually with the federal government and the state in which their company does business.

Each state has its own definition of what it means to be a “lobbyist” and you can find more information on that using this list of advocacy definitions.

Why Is Advocacy Important?

Advocacy work is often the catalyst for change in important policies at the federal, state, and local levels.

Advocating for a specific problem (or its solution) also helps to raise awareness of your cause and will bring more potential supporters to your doorstep.

A new idea or a new way of doing things can inspire your supporters to take action and to get involved with your organization. Advocating for a change in how things are done is a great way to build your email list, motivate your supporters, and increase your fundraising income.

Steps for Planning an Advocacy Campaign

With an advocacy campaign, setting and executing a plan can be intimidating. Advocacy is about enacting change, often on a grand scale. Some advocacy campaigns, especially those that require changing laws, take years to complete. Others have better-defined timelines with a much closer finish line. Whatever your end game is, you can’t get to the finish line without a plan. That’s why we plan ahead.

There are five steps to planning a successful advocacy campaign.

Step 1. Set a Goal.

You can’t succeed unless you define what success means to your advocacy campaign. To create an achievable and aspirational objective, you’ll want to follow the renowned SMART framework.

A SMART goal is:

  1. Specific - Be specific about what you want to accomplish with your advocacy campaign. That typically includes narrowing down the specific action that needs to be taken as well as who’s responsible for doing so.
  2. Measurable - Ensure you quantify your goal, making it much easier to track progress and know when you’ve reached the finish line.
  3. Attainable- While you want to shoot for the stars with your advocacy campaign, you’ll also want to make sure your goal is within reach.
  4. Relevant - There should be a real benefit attached to your objective, meaning you should evaluate why the goal matters to your organization.
  5. Time-bound - Set a deadline for your goal, making it easy to set milestones along the way.

Here are a few examples of goals that are NOT SMART:

  • Get a lot of signatures on our petition
  • Pass the climate action bill
  • Win our campaign

Do you see why they’re not SMART? They’re not specific enough and don’t lend themselves to any type of measurement to determine whether we have succeeded or fallen short.

Here are a few examples of how we could turn the previously stated goals into SMART goals:

  • Get 500 signatures on the climate action petition by June of this year.
  • Get 3 Congress members to sign onto the climate action plan before the end of the year.
  • Get the climate action bill signed into law before the end of the next congressional session.

In comparison, “Get 500 signatures on the climate action petition by June of this year” is actionable. It’s specific to the number of signatures. It sets a timeline, is specific, and can be measured. Whether or not it is realistic will depend on whether you believe it can be achieved. If your organization only has 5 supporters, getting 500 signatures may be out of reach. If you have 20,000 supporters, getting 500 signatures may be a simple task.

All in all, determine your goal by making sure it’s defined with SMART characteristics.

Step 2. Identify the Target.

Before you can affect change, you need to identify the people who are in a position to make that change. The target of your advocacy campaign will be the person or people who are most likely able to bring about the change defined in your campaign goal.

This could be a body of people, like getting the majority of state senators to pass a bill through the state senate. It could be an individual, like getting the manager of a local business to stop using styrofoam containers for take-out orders.

When you’ve found the person or people to target, you want to create a target profile to better understand who they are, how they make decisions and the people who influence those decisions.

To do this, you ask questions like:

  • Who are they, and where do they live?
  • What do they believe in? What is their worldview or general philosophy?
  • How old are they, and who are their friends?
  • What policies have they supported/opposed?

It might not be helpful to know what type of gum the person likes to chew, their blood type, or what color suit they wear on Wednesdays if that information really has nothing to do with advancing your campaign. But if your advocacy campaign goal is to pass a climate action bill, you might want to know whether your target has supported or opposed previous climate bills. You might also want to know which companies donate to your campaign target and whether they have an interest in or against climate action.

The best way to create your target profiles is to map your advocacy campaign. This process is detailed in a separate blog post on the Salsa Blog.

Mapping Advocacy Campaign - Blog Image

Understanding this information helps you create the advocacy campaign messaging that will be most effective and most likely to spur your supporters to action.

Step 3. Build Your Team.

Your advocacy campaign team is going to be composed of the people who will have the most influence on your intended target. They’re also going to help you create the messaging that will spur the most supporters to action.

Each advocacy campaign team should have the following team members:

  • Campaign Admin - This is someone who is responsible for making sure the rest of the team is performing their duties on schedule and who can serve as the main point of contact for questions.
  • Campaign Marketer - This individual creates the messaging with input from other team members. They might also create graphics, videos, place ads, and website pages. They’ll also likely work with the advocacy software.
  • Volunteer Coordinator - This person interacts with the campaign supporters and volunteers, helps train them on the actions they need to perform, makes sure they understand the campaign messaging, and encourages them to share the campaign messaging with friends and family.

Of course, every advocacy campaign will need supporters in the form of members of the public, petition signers, action-takers, callers, and so on. You might also supplement your campaign team with additional people who can influence your target. This might include other elected officials, concerned parents, and local experts on the subject matter of your advocacy campaign.

There is no limit to the number of team members for your individual campaigns. However, it helps to keep group dynamics in mind here. The team should be nimble enough to make decisions quickly and get the message out to your intended audience.

Step 4. Define Your Message.

Once your advocacy campaign team is in place, you can begin working on the messages that will be used to engage your supporters and ultimately reach the campaign target.

This is the time to be a storyteller. Go beyond just the facts and work in a dramatic narrative to engage as many people as possible. The more your audience can relate to your message the more likely they are to take action.

A complete campaign message has two parts — a defined problem and a proposed solution.

Define the Problem

Start by defining the problem or calling attention to the issue. Put a name to the change you seek. This is basically just your goal written out in a narrative form. Describe the problem in detail and, more importantly, why people should care. Your task is to make it personal.

Tobacco-Free Kids speaks directly to their younger audience with their Youth Initiatives program and their most recent initiative to prohibit menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. See how they use key statistics to motivate a specific audience to take action:

Half of all kids who ever try smoking start with menthol cigarettes. And because of the tobacco industry’s targeted marketing, 85% of Black smokers now smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to less than 10% in the 1950s. Menthol cigarettes are a major reason why Black Americans have a harder time quitting smoking and are more likely to die from tobacco-related diseases like lung cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Describe the Solution

After you define the problem, describe the solution and what the world would look like if your solution is achieved. Implicit messages aren’t enough; you need to make the benefits explicit and explain to your audience why the solution is necessary and just how good it will be when that solution is achieved.

Here’s an example of how you can make explicit the desired action and the path to your recommended solution:

If we get 500 signatures on our climate action petition, your local commissioners will vote on our climate action resolution which will cause local businesses to cease using styrofoam containers for take-out food orders. Trash on our streets will be reduced by 25%, and stormwater backups due to clogging will be reduced by 10%.

With the defined problem and a proposed solution, you can map out a timeline and determine the tactics that will make the most impact.

Step 5. Map Out A Timeline.

Like your SMART goals, your overall advocacy campaign will also have its own timeline during which you expect it to reach completion.

You also need to be mindful of the time it takes your team to create the required messaging to move people to action. You can’t launch and complete your advocacy campaign in 30 days if it’s going to take 90 days to create the video that explains how your campaign works.

Bring together details from all of the previous planning steps and discuss with your team the most appropriate timeline. Leave room for changes, edits, discussions, and questions from supporters.

You can use the worksheets found in our advocacy campaign guide to help you plan your tactics and your campaign timeline.


Best Advocacy Campaign Examples

Examples of advocacy campaigns that display the best practices listed in this article can be seen across all types of nonprofits and issue organizations. Here are three successful advocacy campaigns that recently brought about major changes and completed their intended goals.

Best Advocacy Campaign Examples - Save the Children Action Network — High Five for Kids Campaign

Save the Children Action Network — High Five for Kids Campaign

Across the nation, Save the Children Action Network contacted more than 270,000 voters via text message and handwritten postcards and was extremely effective in their use of Salsa’s advocacy tools to change our world for the better.

SCAN advocates engaged more than 37,000 Colorado voters and made history for Colorado kids with the passage of a statewide ballot measure to secure funding for universal preschool.

For the first time ever in Colorado, every four-year-old will have the chance to attend preschool and Colorado will become one of only five states in the U.S. to offer universal preschool.


Best Advocacy Campaign Examples - FARE

Food Allergy Research and Education (F.A.R.E.) — Sesame Campaign

Sesame is the ninth most common food allergy among children and adults in the U.S., and the FDA does not currently require it to be present on food labels. But that’s changing because of the advocacy done by FARE who uses Salsa to power their growing nationwide grassroots support network.

FARE advocated for several years for the FDA to require food products that contain Sesame to be labeled. They used several effective advocacy techniques including Hill days and in-person visits with members of Congress, coalition building, online education, and more. They used Salsa’s advocacy tools to get the word out via email, to engage with existing subscribers and donors, and patch-through phone calling to local legislators to generate grassroots volunteer activity that had a positive impact on the success of this important effort.

In early 2021, their bill passed Congress and is in the implementation process now.


Best Advocacy Campaign Examples - CAGV

CT Against Gun Violence — Connecticut Initiative to Prevent Community Gun Violence

CAGV uses Salsa Engage’s targeted actions to engage its supporters, encourage contact with local and statewide legislators, and support its programs and initiatives. CT Against Gun Violence (CAGV) has pursued a multi-dimensional strategy to reduce gun homicide that disproportionately victimizes communities of color.

CAGV's proposed “Connecticut Initiative to Prevent Community Gun Violence” was recently given a boost by the state governor who announced spending an additional $3 million on community gun violence prevention programs, funded by the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress earlier this year.

Complete Guide to Digital Nonprofit Advocacy Guide Download CTA

How Advocacy Software Will Power Your Campaigns

When planning the advocacy tactics that you will use, it’s important that your organization stays organized. That way, your audience knows exactly what you are asking them to do and how they need to do it. Using the right piece of advocacy software, you can even give your supporters the exact tools and resources they need to get the job done.

Advocacy software can help amplify your voice by rallying your base around the issues that you care about and giving them tools and direction to affect change. Whether it’s social justice, legislative change, or regulatory compliance, understanding what they’re interested in and presenting relevant content is the key to personalizing your communication and interactions.

You can use advocacy software to create a movement, send updates on policy issues, use email and social publishing to coordinate protests, marches, or other events, and use event registration tools to drive participation and commitment.

Winning the campaigns of the future will require a campaign structure that features strategic, centralized leadership combined with an autonomous and empowered grassroots base, all backed by technology that supports multi-channel advocacy tactics. Exceptional advocacy software will include all the advocacy tactics discussed in this article and provide additional best practices for building a multi-channel grassroots advocacy campaign.

Salsa Online Advocacy Demo


Throughout modern history, our world has changed for the better when activists called attention to issues and worked to provide smart solutions. Now it’s your turn to create the change you know will make our world a better place.

Understand the type of advocacy under which your nonprofit will organize. Plan your campaign with influencers in your industry who can create relevant messaging that will compel your audience to action. Put advocacy software in place to help you track important nonprofit key performance indicators. Most of all — never give up!

Good luck!


You might also be interested in the following articles and resource downloads:

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