Community Advocacy Basics: What You Need to Know

Diverse group of people holding one another in solidarity.

Using Community Advocacy to Make the Change Your Community Deserves 

If you are thinking of working for a community advocacy group, here are some tips to get you started. As we have seen, both globally and locally, the best advocates for change are people who can tell a story that move people towards action — no matter their age or walk of life. The exciting thing about advocacy is that there are hundreds of worthy causes ready for you to join in on. Once you find what you feel most passionate about, you’ll be one step closer to taking these challenges on. 

Understand the Change You Want
Community advocacy can make real change and understanding that change is important. Is it getting more people to take public transportation? Preventing tobacco usage? Increasing the availability to fresh food in your neighborhood? No matter the issue, knowing what you would like to see changed and being able to articulate it is half the battle. Many people just can’t say what the problem is and how they would fix it in a succinct way. Try to do that in ten words or less. Then, try to time yourself. Can you explain what the problem is and what the solution is in two minutes? What about 30 seconds? It can be incredibly challenging but helpful in distilling key components as you develop a holistic advocacy campaign. 

Don't Wait
Assuming that someone else will take care of it is a common mistake. Waiting or stalling won’t help in the long run. One important note here is that odds are there are already like-minded people working on the same issue that you want to work on. Connect with those groups and consider joining their ranks! There is no need to duplicate efforts if you can instead join forces to form a powerful coalition. If there isn’t one in your hometown, consider reaching out to neighboring areas and start developing those relationships. 

As you make your way in this community advocacy effort, be aware of the responses you may receive. It turns out, people can tend to be quite averse to change. Think of the verbal and emotional barriers people create around change. You will hear folks say things like:

“That is a good idea, but we don't have the money to do that.” Financial hurdles are big, but money is available if people really want change. Your job is to make that case.

“Someone else is already working on that.” Are they really working on it or is that an excuse? Don’t take someone else’s word for it, do some research for yourself.

“We have always done it this way.” Yes, and this is why we still have a problem. Be respectful, but make the case for why this needs to happen a different way.

“That is inconvenient.” Yes, change is inconvenient. Car-pooling or taking the bus is harder than driving alone, but if we don't change our behavior now, our planet will continue to pay for it. Many times, these community changes will bring benefits as well. You will need to highlight any and all benefits to your proposal in order to increase the chance people buy-in. 

“We are already doing that.” Someone may be doing something, but it may not be the way you want to do it (and it may not be the best way to do it). Find out why the problem still exists and keep pushing for the real change you need.

Be Genuine
Use language that connects with your audience. Think about who the real messengers are for the issue, and why their story would resonate with people. Keep it real, honest, and to the point. 

Be Creative
Poster contests, social media, video essays and letters can all be effective ways to capture people’s attention. There is no limit to what you can imagine, and sometimes the more unique material gets noticed. Also remember to keep headlines and posts brief so people are more likely to engage with your material. You can always link to further resources for people who really want to get more involved. 

Don’t Take No for an Answer
Community advocacy is not easy. People will say no because something is inconvenient, or different, but don't let that discourage you. This is the normal process of creating change. Anything worth doing comes with its set of challenges and setbacks. 

Invest for the Long Haul
A tactic for many elected officials is to wait people out and hope they will go away. If you ask for a 4-way stop sign, authorities may ask you for petitions from the community to show broad support. When you show up with 50 signed petitions, they may ask you for 50 more petitions, hoping that you will give up and stop bugging them. If you keep at it, sooner or later you will likely get your way. It won’t be instant, but you have to stick with it. Real change is not easy.

Build a Coalition
Find other folks who feel the way you do and want the change you want. To build the coalition, you may have to explain to people why this change will be good for them. You may find allies in otherwise surprising partners!

Use Social Pressure
Explain to folks how others have done similar things in the past to effect change, or how great things happened elsewhere when they employed a similar strategy. The geographically closer a success story is to your hometown, the more memorable that example will be. You could even encourage your supporters to involve their friends and family.

Hold People Accountable
A big part of advocacy is accountability. Just because someone says they will do something does not mean they will do it or do it the way you want.  Hold people accountable until the change you want is ma
de in the way you want. You may have to compromise a little, but the battle isn’t over when you get a “yes” from someone, it’s only over when change is made. Remember to get timelines whenever possible, which can help mitigate the “dragging feet” effect. This can be  difficult to receive, especially given budget concerns, but try your best. 

So, let’s recap:

Community Advocacy Do’s:
•    Know your community
•    Understand the change you want
•    Be genuine
•    Be creative
•    Invest for the long haul
•    Build a coalition
•    Use social pressure
•    Hold people accountable

Community Advocacy Don’ts:
•    Don't take no for answer
•    Don't take yes for an answer either!
•    Don’t wait
•    Don’t give up!

Knowing the advocacy basics is an important place to start for community advocacy. You can make the world and your life better by taking action. Have questions? Drop us a note!