Community Advocacy: The Complete Guide to Mobilize Change

ByGrassroots Unwired

Community Advocacy: The Complete Guide to Mobilize Change

Advocacy happens at all levels, and while the news might report primarily on movements happening at the national level, much of the most important advocacy work begins at the grassroots level in individual communities. Through community advocacy campaigns, grassroots groups and other advocacy organizations can leverage their communities to tackle issues that strike close to home and make a tangible difference. 

Organizations looking to start their first advocacy campaign should always start with their own community. These campaigns are far more than a stepping stone to something greater. Rather, community advocacy campaigns are valuable in their own right, focusing on what matters to individual communities and building a homegrown grassroots movement. 

Discover how to get started with community advocacy with Grassroots Unwired.

Of course, while community advocacy movements operate on a small scale when compared to state-wide or national campaigns, they can still get quite complex. To help your organization understand the ins and outs of community advocacy and start getting prepared to launch your own campaign, this article will explore key topics, such as:

  • What is Community Advocacy and Why Does it Matter?
  • Who Should be a Community Advocate and What Do They Do?
  • How to Start a Community Advocacy Campaign: 7 Steps

At Grassroots Unwired, we know how important gaining and leveraging local support is, and we also know that even small organizations can take their advocacy to the next level by going digital. The strategies in this guide will go into the depths about the fundamentals of community advocacy and spotlight places where a high-tech approach can make a big difference. Let’s get started. 

What is community advocacy and why does it matter?

What is Community Advocacy and Why Does it Matter?

Advocacy is the act of attempting to influence change on behalf of another group, usually those who are directly affected by whatever issue their advocate is arguing for on their behalf. Community advocacy is when a group, in this case your organization, represents their local community for the purposes of affecting change.

Essentially, community advocacy is when you advocate for your community to policymakers. But why should your organization take up a community advocacy campaign? 

Advocacy at the local level and on behalf of a specific community can result in several significant benefits, including:

  • Create an impact at a local level. Sometimes when considering a large-scale issue, making an impact can feel impossible. However, community advocacy can make a difference by targeting meaningful local issues, solving problems in your city, town, or neighborhood.
  • Forge connections in your community. Community advocacy is at its strongest when the entire community truly is behind a campaign, and running an advocacy campaign can subsequently rally your community together. For advocacy organizations looking to establish themselves, a well-run community advocacy campaign can be a strong first step to forging connections in their communities that will help their next campaign be even more impactful. 
  • Help organize your community to advocate for itself in the future. Laying the groundwork for a grassroots movement is often the most difficult part of a community advocacy campaign. However, after the initial work has been done, your community will be better positioned to continue advocating for itself on future issues. 

In many ways, community advocacy is about creating a bridge between your community members and their local government. Your organization’s efforts can bring to light key issues and help convey them to policymakers, empowering your community and making it a better place. 

Who Should be a Community Advocate and What Do They Do?

Who Should be a Community Advocate and What Do They Do?

Community advocacy requires the support of a wide range of people, from government officials to individual citizens. Of course, by putting your organization in the role of a community advocate, you will have quite a bit more responsibility than the average supporter.

While anyone can become a community advocate, keep in mind that there are specific skills and resources your organization’s staff should possess before you can confidently launch your campaign. 

For example, leading a campaign requires strong listening, leadership, and communication skills, as you’ll need to be able to emphasize with individuals impacted by the issues you’re advocating for and convey their concerns in a persuasive manner to an elected official. 

This also means that before starting a campaign, you should ensure that your organization has a strong grasp on the issues you should be advocating for in the first place. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to learn this information and put it to effective use. 

How to Start a Community Advocacy Campaign: 7 Steps

How to Start a Community Advocacy Campaign: 7 Steps

Community advocacy campaigns require a focused strategy, the right tools, and a dedicated team. With these campaigns often several lasting months, if not longer, it can be difficult to know where to start. 

While every campaign is different, your community advocacy efforts will likely take you through these seven steps:

Start your community advocacy campaign by surveying your community.

1. Survey your community.

What issues does your community want to be addressed? If you’re thinking of launching a community-focused advocacy campaign, you likely already have a few assumptions about what could be improved in your community. However, before acting on these issues, you should survey and assess your community to confirm that there will be widespread support for your campaign.

Surveying your community will help your organization gain a deeper understanding of your community’s core values, beliefs, and day-to-day dilemmas. Often, community issues are complex, and gaining multiple perspectives will provide insight that can help shape your campaign’s direction.

To discover what issues your community cares about, a canvassing initiative can be useful. Canvassing allows your organization to physically cover ground in your town or city, collecting insight into what different people from different parts of your community feel about ongoing local issues.

You can improve your canvassing campaign’s effectiveness and efficiency by going digital. Rather than arming volunteers with clipboards, try using tablets with canvassing software to help your entire organization stay connected throughout your campaign. Or, if going door-to-door isn’t practical in your community, virtual canvassing allows your volunteers to set up video calls with interested community members, allowing you to gather the same information you would through in-person meetings. 

Identify and categorize needs for your community advocacy.

2. Identify and categorize needs.

After speaking with members of your community, you will likely have a wide range of opinions and feedback to sort through. To help make sense of the varying comments and thoughts, take the time to identify and categorize the information that was shared with you.

When assessing a community’s needs, the concerns expressed can usually be sorted into four categories:

  • Perceived needs. A perceived need is what an individual feels their needs are. Generally, these are considered to be opinions and concerns, though it is important not to dismiss them out of hand. For instance, an individual might perceive their central need to be safety in their community, but they may have yet to think through the causes of those safety concerns and how they could be resolved. Does their community need more school funding? A neighborhood watch program? More homeless center services?
  • Expressed needs. If an individual has voiced a need prior to your assessment, it is known as an expressed need. For example, if someone puts in a complaint to the city about potholes and poor street conditions, there will be a record of that need existing that can be helpful for your campaign later on. 
  • Absolute needs. Absolute needs are essentials necessary for basic survival such as food, shelter, and clean water. Given their importance, if you find your community has an absolute need, it should likely become your campaign’s priority. 
  • Relative needs. There are some needs that are not technically necessary for survival but are still considered essential. For instance, your community may be able to function without a library, but a lack of one can cause significant problems for community members who rely on its free resources for educational and professional purposes. 

While it is worthwhile to consider the needs of each community member you spoke to, you will likely also realize that there are some issues your organization will be better equipped to address than others. 

Assess and determine what needs you can organize a community advocacy campaign around.

3. Assess your organization’s capacity to address needs. 

Your community may have many needs, but as you have limited resources, you will need to pick and choose which to focus on. Additionally, while there may be needs that are important to address, your organization may not currently be able to adequately solve them through a community advocacy campaign at this time. 

Consider your organization’s current resources and connections, as well as what type of solution each issue requires. Specifically, most needs can be resolved through one of three solutions:

There are three main types of solutions community advocacy can pursue.

  • Policy change. Policy changes are laws that dictate community members’ behavior. Seeking a policy change will require your organization to influence legislators to change a law or implement a new one, depending on your issue. 
  • Systems change. A systems change is a more thorough rearrangement of your community that fundamentally changes the current status quo. For example, today it is the status quo to not litter, whereas several decades ago this was not the case. System changes can often be brought about by a policy change. 
  • Environmental change. Environmental changes are often the most complex as they involve changing physical, social, or economic factors in your community. A physical change often involves creating or removing a physical structure, social changes target current patterns of behavior, and economic changes create financial incentives to behave a certain way. 

Determining which of these solutions is the most plausible for your campaign to achieve will depend on the specific issue, your organization’s approach to it, and your current resources. For instance, spreading awareness to create a social environmental change will likely be more possible for an organization with a strong outreach strategy and connections to local media, whereas they may lack the political knowhow to seek a policy change.

Identify your community advocacy campaign's key stakeholders.

4. Identify key stakeholders. 

Advocacy can’t be done alone, especially when you are acting on behalf of an entire community. To collect data about your target issue, gather resources, and effect change, you’ll need to identify relevant stakeholders and create a strategy for how you will engage with them. 

Your key stakeholders will depend on the specifics of your campaign, but in most cases, you will at least need to engage with the following groups:

  • Impacted individuals. Who is most affected by your campaign’s core issue? Ensure you can clearly identify who these individuals are, both so you can partner with them to learn more about the issue to accurately represent their concerns and so you can explain who your campaign will impact when describing it to other stakeholders. 
  • Community leaders. Community leaders can include anyone who has significant influence over individuals who are relevant to your campaign. For example, these could be business owners, the head of your school’s PTA organization, or even the lead organizer of another advocacy group in your community. 
  • Local politicians and government officials. For most community advocacy campaigns, gaining an audience with and persuading local government officials will be essential for success, especially if you are seeking a policy change. 

Before approaching any of these stakeholders, be sure that you can describe the fundamental elements of your campaign, such as the issue you are targeting, why it matters, your proposed solution, and why your solution is the right one. Having clear answers to stakeholders’ questions will help your campaign come off as more professional and make your message more persuasive.

Create outreach materials for community advocacy.

5. Create your outreach materials.

An effective community advocacy campaign should get your whole community involved, which means you’ll need to spread the word. To start gaining support, consider how you can best reach out to potential supporters, whether it’s through posting on social media, sending direct mail, or hosting awareness events. 

The most effective outreach materials grab your target audience’s attention. The details will vary depending on your campaign, but many advocacy groups can benefit from crafting promotional materials by:

  • Creating a compelling message. Whether your issue only impacts a few people or is something your entire community experiences, your messages should work to get as many people invested in your cause as possible. You can do this by creating a message that is focused, clearly explained, and relevant. 
  • Providing accessible educational materials. Often, many people in your community may be aware of or even impacted by your issue, but don’t know the details behind it. Ensure that your organization has a variety of educational resources available that can provide information on what your issue is, why addressing it is important, and why your plan for addressing it is the best course of action. 
  • Presenting immediate next steps. After engaging with a message from your advocacy group, what action do you want community members to take? Whenever you create a message meant to rally support, include an actionable next step at the end. This can be to get in touch with an elected official, subscribe to your organization’s mailing list, or even just share a post on social media to raise awareness. 

As mentioned, consider what channels you will use to share your messages. To get in touch with people in your community, you might partner with local organizations or host in-person gatherings, or if you’re seeking wider support from outside your community, you may focus primarily on digital marketing and communication.

Community advocacy requires mobilizing as much of your community as possible.

6. Begin community mobilization efforts. 

Once you know your specific issue, have taken your community’s pulse on the subject, and started gathering initial support, you can begin launching your major campaign activities. The goal of your community mobilization efforts should be to draw more support and get the attention of key stakeholders, specifically relevant local government officials. 

Whether you’re planning a march, a protest, or a series of informational gatherings, make sure to constantly keep your supporters informed. After all, a community can only mobilize on an issue if they know where to go and what the campaign activity’s purpose is. 

While it can be difficult to measure whether a specific event was successful when you’re still in the lead up to actually presenting your issue to officials, set goals for each of your activities. These can be how many people attended, how many supporters took an action such as donating to your cause after the event, or if your campaign received any additional coverage or had anyone from your local government get in touch with your organization.

Prepare a briefing to present to elected officials to enact the policies you need to complete your community advocacy campaign.

7. Prepare briefings and meet with elected officials. 

By effectively bringing your community together and raising awareness about your core issue, you may be able to gain a face-to-face meeting with a local policymaker. If this happens, you will be able to present your campaign’s core problem and proposed solution to them directly through a policy brief. 

A policy brief is essentially an overview of a specific issue that attempts to explain its significance and persuade lawmakers to adopt the proposed policy recommendations. Your policy brief should include an executive summary describing the main issue you’re hoping to solve, background information about the problem, supporting graphs and images, and your specific and actionable recommendations for solving the issue.

A policy brief is essential for community advocacy.

In general, these are short documents, but you can make your point effectively in just a few words by:

  • Creating a sense of urgency. To serve their communities, elected officials have to address a wide range of issues and their petitions. In your policy brief, emphasize why your issue matters and why action needs to be taken immediately. Often, this can be done by emphasizing potential harms if the situation goes unaddressed or potential immediate benefits if your recommendations are implemented as soon as possible. 
  • Using terms officials will understand. If you are dealing with a complex, scientific, or technical issue, be sure that your policy brief is written strictly in layman’s terms or provides easy to understand definitions for any specific words or phrases that are necessary to use. For example, if you are discussing your community’s water quality, it may be tempting to discuss specific pollutants in depth, but doing so will likely be less persuasive than focusing on the outcomes of those pollutants and why your solution will effectively address them. 
  • Offering practical suggestions. The most optimal solution for an issue often requires more resources than your community’s local government likely has available to devote to any one problem. Before writing your policy brief, conduct research into your local government’s budget and available resources. Then, use that information to ensure that the solutions you propose will adequately address your issue while also being practical for your local government to actually implement. 

If this is your first time writing a policy brief, you can start your research process by looking up past successful examples. Doing so will help you determine how to best format your brief while also providing insight into what arguments and strategies are likely to be the most persuasive. 

Wrap Up

Change rarely happens overnight, but with the support of your community behind you, you can begin making a meaningful difference right at home. Community advocacy campaigns succeed when they accurately reflect the wants and needs of the community behind them, engage with passionate local leaders, and explain their cause well to elected officials. 

Community advocacy campaigns can’t be planned overnight, but there are a variety of resources organizations can leverage to make progress quickly when outlining the direction of their campaign. 

To help your organization understand and assess what tools are available, review these additional resources:

Start learning about and making changes in your community with Grassroots Unwired's canvassing software. Learn more.

Leave a Reply