Translations of this page:

What is Advocacy

Linguistic Origin

The English word advocacy comes from Latin roots that mean “to call to.”1) The root meaning pictured in the word is this: calling people to stand by your side. There are several related words: the verb advocate, the noun advocate, and the noun advocacy.


  1. An active verbal support for a cause or position.
  2. The act of advocating, or speaking or writing, in support (of something).

-acy, -cy (Latin: state, quality, condition, or act of; a suffix that forms nouns).
ad- (Latin: to, a direction toward, addition to, near; at; used as a prefix). (one match)
-cy (singular). (one match)
voc-, voca-, vocab-, vocat-, -vocation, -vocative, -vocable, vok-, -voke (Latin: call, talk, speak, say, voice, word).
Robertson's Words for a Modern Age: A Dictionary of Latin and Greek Words used in Modern English Vocabulary;, Jan. 2007.

This linguistic origin – in the languages that are influenced by Latin – also means defense and, hence, people have associated it with having a lawyer standing next to a defendant. Because of this connotation, many people associate advocacy with law and the legal process. Quite often, people think of lawyers on the mention of the word advocacy.

Exercise ‎2

If you use another language than English, how is Advocacy translated in your own language? Please mention specific terms used.

If there is more than one translation – which is often the case - what are the connotations that come with each translation?

After going through Part I of this manual, revisit these translations and pick the one that is closest to the spirit of advocacy as you understood it from this part. Please mention why you selected this translation.

Advocacy has many meanings and connotations even among English speakers and, even more, among those who take advocacy as their main job. The following section reviews advocacy defining elements and characteristics, i.e., what distinguishes advocacy from other development approaches, before reviewing current advocacy definitions and concluding with a working definition of advocacy.

Defining Elements and Characteristics of Advocacy


The following quote shows the difficulty that non-English speaking groups are facing in translating the word and how this might make advocacy feel like a new skill to many groups although the practice itself is not new.

“We’re not certain whether we have a translation for ‘advocacy’ or whether we should just use the word ‘advocacy’ in English. Part of the confusion has to do with the way the concept was imported from the United States as if it were a new technology – as if we didn’t already know advocacy. Latin America’s history is full of examples of people facing power. How can we think that advocacy is new?”

Latin American activist, 2001

VeneKlasen, Lisa, and Miller, Valerie, 2002. A New Weave of Power, People, and Politics: An action guide for policy and citizen participation. P 17. World Neighbors, Oklahoma, USA.

What might help many groups in developing communities is to think of what actually makes up advocacy! In other words, before finding a proper translation for the work advocacy, groups need to think of the essential elements of advocacy and what distinguishes it from other approaches.

Advocacy is still a relatively new term that has recently been widely used. It is, however, not necessarily a new concept. Reaching a definition of advocacy that fits the context is critical for people to identify with. To formulate a contextually appropriate definition of your own advocacy, you first need to identify the defining elements and characteristics of advocacy. By the defining elements and characteristics we mean the characteristics that must exist in your efforts that are essential to advocacy. The assumption here is that if any of these elements does not exist, we will not be able to call it advocacy.

You should remember that many groups have different definitions and depictions of what advocacy should or should not include. The following part presents advocacy with the purpose of social justice and democracy building in mind and with a specific model in mind.

Before we review the elements that we deem essential for social justice and democracy building advocacy, we will ask you to do the following exercise with other colleagues and compare your discussion results to those mentioned below.

Exercise ‎2 2 (PART 1)

Think back of one of the experiences you either have witnessed, or participated in where a social justice issue was effectively addressed by working on formulating public decisions or policies that helped regulate or mainstream the processes. Please describe how this activity went (or have been going). What made it a success?

Write such elements in the following blank space, and discuss them with other colleagues to see if you all agree on these elements. Remember, we are asking you to identify the Defining elements and characteristics without which we cannot call it advocacy.

Please fill out the second part of this exercise after comparing the elements you identified as basic with the elements provided below.

Based on our long experience working with CSOs and advocacy groups all over the world, we found the following elements to be among the basic ones in advocacy activities.

  • People-Based3) and People-Driven Activity: Advocacy is about people. It helps people realize their power, and use it to participate effectively in making and shaping public decisions. Doing advocacy by only using elites to talk on behalf of the disadvantaged and marginalized, no matter how well intentioned these elites are, results in having the marginalized and disadvantaged feeling more disempowered and more dependent on others to claim their rights. Deep and strong involvement of ordinary citizens, especially disadvantaged and marginalized, serves the purpose that advocacy is a means to help people realize their power and give effective input in the decision making processes. In all of our advocacy work, we need to assess how much each activity and step can advance (or hinder) people’s sense of power and their ability to influence public policies!
  • Value-Based (i.e., for a Just Cause): to be involved in social justice advocacy, citizens’ groups should have a fair cause they are fighting for and struggling to address as a starting point or a platform to achieve social justice. David Cohen (2001)4) argues that those involved in doing social justice advocacy should be aware of their values as they determine the issues and advocacy strategies they use in doing advocacy.

From this reality of “what is,” social justice advocates around the world have created different visions of “what should be” in a just, decent society. It is a society which:

  • Respects and protects human rights. (A broad human rights framework is presented in Part III.)
  • Respects and preserves the dignity of all people, regardless of differences.
  • Eradicates cruelty by protecting people from abuse, violence, and humiliation caused by communities and institutions – including the government, IFIs, and multinational corporations.
  • Provides public space for people to challenge unjust behaviors.
  • Engages people in decision making processes that affect their lives. People’s participation should include:
    • Ratifying decisions, either formally or without protest, provided that opportunities for protest exist.
    • Visioning and planning solutions to issues that affect their lives in basic ways, such as building a road, cleaning a waterway, where to locate a large waste facility, repairing a school building, modernizing a hospital for birth deliveries.
    • Assessing and providing feedback on programs that are initiated, indicating which ones work and should be continued and replicated, and which ones do not and should be altered.
  • Protects people from risk and harassment when they participate and exercise their rights.
  • Fixes responsibility on society’s powerful institutions, both within and outside of government, to protect people from harm and help improve their lives.

To make a just, decent society a reality, social justice advocates must meet the on-going challenge of how to be heard so that those who hold power listen and respond. Otherwise, ideas and issues will not be addressed, necessary changes will not be created, society will not be transformed.” Cohen, David; de la Vega, Rosa, and Watson, 2001. Advocacy for Social Justice: A Global Action and Reflection Guide, P. 9. Kumarian Press, Inc., Connecticut, USA.

  • Reshaping Power Balance (Cohen, et al5), 2001; VeneKlasen & Miller; 20026)): Power is a very important – if not the most important – concept in social justice advocacy. Many people describe advocacy as a power game in which the powerless gain enough power to influence the power holders. When you do advocacy, you certainly need to analyze the power structure and design strategies that should allow citizens, especially the powerless disadvantaged and marginalized groups, to balance out the current power holders. Later on, this Sourcebook discusses the point of power in further details.


Technical Idea: Eman Mandour & Nader Tadros; Artistic Idea: Golo
  • Influencing/involving decision-makers and power holders (Cohen, et al, 20017)): as advocacy has to do with influencing policies or public decisions, those who do advocacy should always seek to influence the decision-makers be them official decision-makers, or unofficial power holders, or even public opinion leaders who can influence the attitudes of people toward an issue. Involving these decision makers and power holders, in addition to working with grassroots, ensures that issues are systemically addressed at both the macro as well micro levels.


Technical Idea: Eman Mandour & Nader Tadros; Artistic Idea: Golo
  • Has to do with politics: Based on the above two characteristics of advocacy, reshaping power balance, and influencing and involving decision makers, advocacy, almost by default, engages in politics in the sense of influencing the public decision-making processes. VeneKlasen & Miller (20028)) note that there is a tendency among many donor organizations and NGOs to avoid any seemingly political activities. In their assessment, promoting an apolitical advocacy empties social justice advocacy from a core element that CSOs and advocacy groups must not shy away from acknowledging.
  • Inclusive: social justice and democracy building advocacy efforts should seek to be inclusive of all who support a just advocacy cause. The more advocacy campaigns are open to diverse people to join, the more successful they will be in bringing about a lasting change and in helping people to realize their power.


Exercise ‎2 3 (Part 2)

Please examine the elements you have identified against these elements identified above.

What are the common elements?

What are the elements you have identified as basic that are not among the ones identified above and you want to add to these defining elements and characteristics. Please explain why you want to include these elements.

The review of the above defining elements and characteristics of advocacy, including the ones you have identified reveals one key finding. We have all been doing advocacy at different moments of our lives. In fact, people have been practicing advocacy since the dawn of history when they started reviewing rules and norms that cause injustice to some people at their family, tribe, school, or workplace; or at the local, national, regional and/or international levels. It is unfair to see Advocacy as an imported concept that was invented in the United States.

Advocacy has never been a strange concept to any society! We, like all the generations before us, have been practicing advocacy in the sense of defending our rights and the just rights of others around us. This Sourcebook helps you to just get our thoughts organized around advocacy.

This manual introduces a specific model of advocacy that PEOPLE’S ADVOCACY shares with a few other groups and organizations working in the area of social justice and democracy building. Following is a review of a few advocacy definitions concluding with PEOPLE’S ADVOCACY’s working definition of advocacy.

Defining Advocacy

Identifying advocacy defining elements and characteristics should help you critically review different definitions of advocacy before formulating your own definition. Following are examples of a few working definitions of advocacy with comments on the focus of each definition.

The concept of working definitions means that these are still developing definitions that we can tweak and modify as we go. This concept recognizes that these definitions are not engraved on stone. They should rather help us develop our own definitions.

…(Advocacy is) the process of managing information and knowledge strategically to change and/or influence policies and practices that affect the lives of people (particularly the disadvantaged).

The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), and builds on WaterAid’s Advocacy Source Book, 2003. Advocacy Sourcebook: A Guide to Advocacy forWSSCC Co-ordinators Working on the WASH Campaign.

Note: The goal here is to change or influence policies that affect disadvantaged people’s life. No mention of the role of those people in the advocacy process.

First and foremost, advocacy is a strategy that is used around the world by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), activists, and even policy makers themselves, to influence policies. Advocacy is about creation or reform of policies, but also about effective implementation and enforcement of policies. A policy is a plan, course of action, or set of regulations adopted by government, business or an institution, designed to influence and determine decisions or procedures. Advocacy is a means to an end, another way to address the problem that we aim to solve through other programming strategies.

From Advocacy Tools and Guidelines: Promoting Policy Change. Copyright © 2001; Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, Inc. Used by permission.

Note: In this definition, advocacy aims at solving a problem through reforming and implementing policies.

Advocacy is a series of actions designed to persuade and influence those who hold governmental, political, or economic power so that they will adopt and implement public policies in ways that benefit those with less political power and fewer economic resources.

Mansfield, Christian; MacLwod, Kurt; Greenleaf, Maron; & Alexander, Poppy; 2003. Advocacy Handbook: A practical Guide to Increasing Democracy in Cambodia. P. 2. Pact Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Note: This definition recognizes that advocacy is done towards power holders be them in powerful political, economic or government positions. Still, the disadvantaged people are still the beneficiaries and not necessarily the actors.

Advocacy is the pursuit of influencing outcomes – including public policy and resource allocation decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions – that directly affect people’s lives.

Advocacy consists of organized efforts and actions based on the reality of “what is.” These organized actions seek to highlight critical issues that have been ignored and submerged, to influence public attitudes, and to enact and implement laws and public policies so that visions of “what should be” in a just, decent society become a reality. Human rights – political, economic, and social – is an overreaching framework for these visions. Advocacy organizations draw their strength from and are accountable to people – their members, constituents, and/or members of affected groups.

Advocacy has purposeful results: to enable social justice advocates to gain access and voice in the decision making of relevant institutions; to change the power relationships between these institutions and the people affected by their decisions, thereby changing the institutions themselves; and to bring a clear improvement in people’s lives.

Cohen, David in: Cohen, David; de la Vega, Rosa, and Watson, 2001. Advocacy for Social Justice: A Global Action and Reflection Guide, P. 8. Kumarian Press, Inc., Connecticut, USA.

Note: This definition focuses on bringing about positive results that helps us achieve a better world. It recognizes that advocacy has to do with politics. According to this definition, advocacy is done by the advocates who are not necessarily the affected people with the aim of changing power relationships between institutions and citizens.

Citizen-centered advocacy is an organized political process that involves the coordinated efforts of people to change policies, practices, ideas, and values that perpetuate inequality, prejudice, and exclusion. It strengthens citizens’ capacity as decisionmakers and builds more accountable and equitable institutions of power.

VeneKlasen, Lisa, and Miller, Valerie, 2002. A New Weave of Power, People, and Politics: An action guide for policy and citizen participation. P 22. World Neighbors, Oklahoma, USA.

Note: This definition of advocacy clearly talks about advocacy as a political process that requires people’s involvement and efforts to ensure systemic justice and equity.

This Manual’s Working Definition of Advocacy

Advocacy is a people’s driven and organized political process through which ordinary citizens, especially the disadvantaged and marginalized, realize their rights and power and use them to effectively and equally participate in the decision making process at all levels with the purpose of institutionalizing systemic equity and justice and positively impacting people’s quality of life.


Miller (19979)) insightfully says that “Advocacy, we believe, is best defined contextually”,

In the light of the above quote by Miller, and having gone through the defining elements and characteristics of advocacy, and reviewed a few working definitions of advocacy, work with your circle of colleagues to discuss your own definition of advocacy that fits your context. Please write it below. Do not forget to share it with our team and with other groups.

1) King, Robert and Tadros, Nader, 1998. Introduction to Advocacy; Unpublished paper. America’s Development Foundation, Cairo, Egypt.
2) Tadros, Nader; 2006. Advocacy Concepts And Practices Handbook: A Practical Guide to Advocacy Groups. People’s Advocacy, Virginia, USA.
3) Cohen, David in: Cohen, David; de la Vega, Rosa, and Watson, 2001. Advocacy for Social Justice: A Global Action and Reflection Guide, P. 12. Kumarian Press, Inc., Connecticut, USA.
4) Ibid, P. 7.
5) Ibid P. 8.
6) VeneKlasen, Lisa, and Miller, Valerie, 2002. A New Weave of Power, People, and Politics: An action guide for policy and citizen participation. P. 39. World Neighbors, Oklahoma, USA.
7) Cohen, David in: Cohen, David; de la Vega, Rosa, and Watson, 2001. Advocacy for Social Justice: A Global Action and Reflection Guide, P. 19. Kumarian Press, Inc., Connecticut, USA.
8) VeneKlasen, Lisa, and Miller, Valerie, 2002. A New Weave of Power, People, and Politics: An action guide for policy and citizen participation. Chapter 1. World Neighbors, Oklahoma, USA.
9) Miller, Valerie; 1997. Advocacy Sourcebook: Frameworks for Planning, Action, and Reflection. P. 11. Institute for Development Research (IDR), Boston, USA.

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