Legislative Advocacy vs Lobbying

By: Stephanie Woodward

Advocacy and Lobbying

Advocacy and lobbying are not the same. Lobbying is just one form of advocacy and nonprofits are allowed to participate in lobbying. Advocacy is the process of acting to gain support for a particular issue or cause. When participating in advocacy, it is important to understand the different types of advocacy and how you can develop a strategy to use them. Below are five different forms of advocacy. You can use them individual or use multiple forms of advocacy at the same time to advocate for your cause.


Legislative advocacy is influencing your elected officials and their staff to effect public policy. This can include phone calls, emails, office visits, social media and more. It’s important to recognize that there is a difference between legislative advocacy and lobbying. Lobbying involves activities that directly support or oppose a specific piece of legislation. Whereas, legislative advocacy doesn’t always include specific legislation. For example, if you do not have enough affordable housing in your area, you can just say that to your legislator. That’s not lobbying because you are not advocating for a specific bill. You are simply saying that that there are people in your community who don’t have a place to live because there are no affordable places to live.

Some organizations try to avoid talking to their elected officials completely because they think it’s lobbying, and that’s one of the worst things you could do because your elected official cannot do anything about an issue that your community is facing if they don’t know about it.

One form of legislative advocacy includes having a call in day to tell your government officials about an issue your community is facing. For example, if the police in your city have been violent towards your citizens, you can organize a call in day to your mayor’s office demanding that she hold the police accountable.

Another form of legislative advocacy includes letter writing. If there are limited educational opportunities for girls of color graduating in your school district, organize the female students to write letters to your legislators demanding that they take action to protect and promote educational opportunities for women and girls in your area.

You can follow the calls and letters up with visits to your elected officials’ offices to discuss these issues in person. Tell your elected officials how you are impacted, what the solution is, and what steps they need to take. If there is data to help support your cause, be sure to bring that too!


Administrative advocacy is influencing state agencies, organizations, and administrations through a variety of methods. This can often be accomplished through submitting comments on proposed laws or regulations or providing testimony at public hearings.

For example, when the Department of Justice (DOJ) is going to propose a law on something that will affect people with disabilities, the Disability Community will make sure that to submit comments on those proposed laws and how it will affect disabled people.

This is also important on a state level. If your state government plans to implement a law or regulation that will impact your community, you should be prepared to submit comments or serve as a community representative on the decision making committee if possible. You should also be prepared to work with your organization to identify advocates to testify at hearings on the matter. This can be really empowering not only for your advocates but it can be really empowering for the decision makers who may be hearing this perspective for the first time and learning that they can make a difference.


Legal is using existing law to create positive change. You can look to both federal law and state laws, such as the Civil Rights Act and your states Human Rights Law. You do not always have to pursue a lawsuit in order to effectively use legal advocacy. One way I like to use legal advocacy is to send businesses letters to inform them they are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The letter does not say “Our organization is going to sue you.” Instead, the letter says something along the lines of “the ADA exists, here’s what it requires, here’s how you’re violating it, here’s how you can fix it. Call us with within the next 10 days to tell us how you’re going to fix it or if you need help we’re happy to help you.”

This has led to a lot of businesses fixing ADA violations and allowing access within a matter of weeks as opposed to lawsuits that can last years. However, when a businesses is not willing to work amicably with the community, the organization can move forward with suing the businesses. For example, if a business receives a letter like this and simply refuses to comply with the ADA, then you have great evidence to show that you tried to work with that business and they refused, and now you have this letter as evidence that you can bring to the court case.

Of course, if you want to skip the friendly letter step, you can. If a business or entity is violating the law, you can move forward with a lawsuit without giving notice of the violation in most cases. Giving notice is simply one strategy that you may choose to use depending on your situation and goals.


Media advocacy is using the media or social media to educate the public about your issue. This is a critical form of advocacy because when the general public becomes passionate about your issues, elected officials and businesses have less ability to ignore you.

One example of media advocacy is putting out a press release about a protest at a restaurant that has discriminated against members of the LGBTQ+ community. The press release would include details about the discrimination and about the protest. This can result in news crews covering your protest, which will mean that your protest will be on the evening news and on social media, thus educating even more people in your community and putting the restaurant in a position where they will be more likely to apologize for their discrimination and work with you on a plan for reconciliation.

Another example is using social media to spread awareness about an issue. If you capture something unjust in a picture or video, you can use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media platforms to spread this information quickly. You can also create a hashtag to bring attention to your issue or use a popular hashtag that is related to your issue. For example, if you want to bring attention to testimony that someone at your organization recently gave about how female international students experience sexual harassment and assault, but are less likely to know where to go for help, you might spread the link to this testimony with the hashtags #metoo #internationalstudents #yesallwomen #whyididntreport

Direct Action

Direct action is always nonviolent. Direct action is a form of advocacy that can include street theater, marches, rallies, and protests. It’s really something demonstrative to bring about systems change.

You may have seen many marches in recent years, such as the Women’s March (women’s rights issues), March for Our Lives (ending gun violence), March for Science (for evidence based policy making). Other traditional forms of direct action include picketing, sit-ins, and rallies.

When deciding on what type of direct action your group wants to engage in, it is important to think about how many people you have, their current comfort level with direct action, and how you can keep the direct action engaging for your group.

One fun form of direct action is theater. If a restaurant has discriminated against a marginalized group, you might consider setting up “outside dining” right in front of their establishment. Bring a table and chairs, have members of the marginalized group dine there as another person acts as the waiter, going in the restaurant to pick up the food, just to bring it outside to serve it! You can bring flyers to give to passersby, send a press release to the media about your “new” nondiscriminatory restaurant that you’ve created, and engage patrons in conversation. This can be fun for your group and also serve to embarrass the restaurant.

Another fun form of direct action is by giving “awards” to bad actors. In November, your group could consider giving a Turkey Award. Has a government official been inhibiting your rights? Has a business been especially discriminatory? Have your group get together and decide how you will bestow a Turkey Award on them! Will you all make paper hand turkeys with personal messages to deliver? Will you purchase one of those large inflatable turkeys and put it outside their business with a sign detailing their crimes against your community and post it over social media? Let your group have fun with the planning and the presenting of this ridiculous award and let the recipient know that if they don’t want to be humiliated with the same award next year, then they will need to work with you and change their ways!

Using Different Types of Advocacy to Accomplish Your Goals

When considering how you would use these different forms of advocacy to reach your goals, you must first think about the issue you are facing and set realistic, tangible goals. After that, you pick decide on your strategies. Your strategies are different from your goals. Your goal is your desired outcome, whereas your strategy is your steps to get there. When working on your strategy, you will be able to decide which forms of advocacy you want to use, and in what order. Perhaps you’ll want to start with administrative advocacy mixed with media, and then escalate to direct action later if necessary. There is no right or wrong answer, as long as you know what your issue is and you are working to reach the specific goals you’ve set.


Supplemental Documents


Systems Advocacy Training

Community Organizing Book: Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky

Lobbying Rules by State


Stephanie Woodward

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