Advocacy & Changing Public Policy

Advocacy is “the act of speaking or of disseminating information intended to influence individual behaviour or opinion, corporate conduct or public policy and law.” It can be as simple as voicing an opinion to an acquaintance, or as elaborate as a national campaign designed to urge people to change.

Advocacy resources seem to agree that one of the most important factors in changing public policy is to know the issue. It is imperative for your organization’s credibility that you know specifically what change is needed, to be as consistent as possible and to be armed with facts. According to the Canadian Association of Senior Executives, “when building your case, be clear concise and emphasize well-defined key messages….and establish priorities in relation to your own needs as well as the government’s.” A position paper will help an organization research and provide background to the issue, as well as generate the key reasons or case studies for support. This is also a good opportunity to be pro-active by identifying areas of opposition and providing strong arguments to defend a position.

Secondly, to move an issue forward, an advocacy strategy or plan is recommended. Ensure a strategy or plan takes into consideration the legal issues that guide how a non-profit organization can use funds to advocate to government.

Using established networks or partnerships helps advocates spread their messages, unite more voices to support change and often help to enhance credibility. Some non-profit organizations encourage their boards to advocate for public policy change. According to Image Canada’s Advocacy on the Agenda, this helps board members see their role as more than a term, but as a longer-term commitment to the larger long-term role of public policy change.

Beyond identifying those with similar interests, it is also important to build relationships with government decision-makers and their staff. Learning how governments work and what is needed to garner support will help build solid plans. According to The Art of Advocacy authors, spend time to research your legislators and build a who’s who file. Experts also agree that advocates should never underestimate the influence of the rank and file. Decisions are often influenced by staff members who advise decision-makers and/or write their briefing notes.

Elected officials are more likely to listen to the concerns of those that vote them into office – their constituents. Many times, groups will intensify their advocacy efforts prior to an election. Election advocacy should be planned in advance and often includes an advocacy campaign that builds awareness and unites its supporters.

Effective advocacy campaigns get attention – they are designed to be confident and often dramatic. Be sure to show that the issue at the heart of a campaign has resonance with a greater public good. Tell the stories that demonstrate the benefits – put a human face on the issue or issues. According to the Canada Council’s Arts Advocacy: Making the case for arts and culture, “Elected representatives and government officials need to hear these stories – to know that public investments are meaningful.” Advocacy campaigns don’t have be to expensive. The Art of Advocacy notes that, “most elected officials will tell you that a well-written letter from a constituent is one of the most influential ways of communicating with them.” Letters, e-mails, phone calls are often a key part of advocacy efforts, as well as meetings with the decision-makers and government officials involved.

Working with the media can be important to advocacy efforts for your organizations. The Arts of Advocacy claims “the more you keep the media informed about your position, the louder the voice of your organization will be to those that count” in particular, the elected officials that rely on the media for their own agendas.

Lobbying is the more aggressive part of advocacy. According to the Canada Council of the Arts resources, “Lobbying aims to influence particular decisions, policies or legislation, whereas advocacy fosters awareness and understanding of the arts and cultural sector as a whole.” Lobbying consists of direct communication with a public office holder in an attempt to influence a legislative or administrative decision. This form of advocacy is especially important for very complex issues that require legislative change. Many lobbyists are paid positions that understand the process, have established roles and direct lines of contact with government officials.

Finally, whatever form of advocacy is practiced, the approach should be professional, non-threatening and considerate. A non-confrontational tone is recommended to maintain goodwill and future access. Offering solid, relevant advice may get advocates invited to the table when issues are discussed. Over time, the solutions identified by advocates could become central to a decision-maker’s platform and agenda, and find their way into legislation.

Other links:

Cultural Benefits Clearing House, SaskCulture Inc. 2019

Advocacy for Arts Organizations: A Toolkit for Engaging in the 2018 Provincial & Municipal Elections, Ontario Association of Art Galleries, 2018

Advocacy, National Trust Canada,

The Art of Advocacy, Canadian CED Network,

A Guide to Government Relations for directors of not-for-profit organizations by Huw Williams & Lour Ricccoboni, Toronto: Canadian society of Association Executives, 2004. Book $24.95

The Law Governing Advocacy by Charitable Organizations, by Richard Bridge, British Columbia, 2002

Advocacy on the Agenda: Preparing voluntary boards for public policy participation. Volunteer Canada, 2003,

Ten Ways to Convert Legislators into Arts Advocates, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies,

Forty Action Strategies, The NASAA Advocate: Strategies for Building Arts Support, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Volume V. Issue No. 4, 2000.

Engaging Citizens in the Public Policy Process, by Adrienne Batra. Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Advocating for the Arts: A Community ToolKit, Saskatchewan Arts Alliance, 2011.