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Advocacy by Human Service Organizations. Marcela Sarmiento Mellinger, MSW , Ph.D. University of Maryland at Baltimore County School of Social Work. Should human service leaders be involved in advocacy?. Nonprofits. Advocacy. Action taken on behalf of a group Goal is broad level change

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Advocacy by human service organizations

Advocacy by Human Service Organizations

Marcela Sarmiento Mellinger, MSW, Ph.D.

University of Maryland at Baltimore County

School of Social Work

Should human service leaders be involved in advocacy

Should human service leaders be involved in advocacy?





  • Action taken on behalf of a group

  • Goal is broad level change

  • Through advocacy, human service nonprofit organizations (NPO) have:

    • Identified social problems

    • Protected basic human rights

    • Provided a voice to social, political, cultural, and community affairs

    • Acted as critics and guardians to bring about change

Review of the literature

Review of the Literature

  • No agreement on one definition of advocacy

    • Emphasis on different aspects of advocacy depending on context

  • Points of agreement:

    • Advocacy: intervention on behalf of others

    • Macro or cause advocacy: action taken on behalf of a group of people

    • Micro or individual advocacy: action taken on behalf of one person or family

    • Advocacy: active not passive

  • Advocacy as a political activity is the most commonly used definition

Review of the literature1

Review of the Literature

  • Most research includes only legislative advocacy

    • Is intervention at other levels advocacy?

  • Scope of advocacy participation

    • Studies yield conflicting findings

    • Organizations are believed to participate in advocacy but intensity of participation is unclear

    • Activities utilized seen as peripheral

Review of the literature2

Review of the Literature

  • Structure of advocacy among organizations

    • Conceptually important, but there is a lack of systematic research

  • Advocacy Targets

    • Advocacy is a broad concept that includes legislative advocacy but also advocacy at other levels (Ezell, 2001)

      • Administrative

      • Legal

      • Community

Review of the literature3

Review of the Literature

Purpose of study

Purpose of Study

  • Explore institutional factors that influence advocacy behavior of human service nonprofit organizations

  • Where?

    • Northeast Georgia region

  • Regarding:

    • Overall advocacy participation

    • Structure of advocacy

    • Targets of advocacy

Conceptual framework

Conceptual Framework





  • Availability or convenience sample

  • Northeast Georgia Region

  • Sample size = 72 organizations

  • Sampling criteria:

    • 501(c)3 NPOs

    • Provide assistance to promote individual, social, economic, and psychological well being

    • Excluded: strictly medical and educational organizations



  • Self administered electronic survey

    • One time administration

  • Survey construction based on literature and practice wisdom

Descriptive statistics sample characteristics

Descriptive statistics – Sample Characteristics

Results predictor variables

Results: Predictor Variables

Results outcome variables

Results: Outcome variables





What was predicted overall advocacy participation

What Was Predicted?Overall Advocacy Participation

  • Knowledge of the lobbying law predicted advocacy participation

  • Relationship between variables was negative

What was predicted structure of advocacy

What Was Predicted?Structure of Advocacy

  • Formalization predicted structure of advocacy

  • Relationship between variables was positive

What was predicted targets of advocacy

What Was Predicted?Targets of Advocacy

  • Knowledge of lobbying law predicted all targets except legal (courts)

    • Relationship between variables was positive

  • Restricted funding only predicted legislative advocacy at the state level

  • None of the predictor variables predicted legal advocacy



  • Advocacy definition was given to participants

  • Non-random sample

  • Lack of instruments to measure advocacy targets. Scales used were new

  • Low response rate (72 cases out of 435)

  • Topic—potential fear of addressing an area that may be perceived as a threat to survival

  • Length of survey may have decreased participation

Implications practice

Implications - Practice

  • Increased visibility for NPOs within community

  • Increased legitimacy for NPOs within community

  • A seat at decision making table and a voice when decisions are made

    • At public policy level and beyond

  • Administration issues:

    • Staffing

    • Training (staff and board)

    • Resources

Implications policy

Implications - Policy

  • Increased visibility of NPOs where policies are implemented

  • A voice to the disadvantaged that should not be silenced - ability to inform public policy

  • Relationships with those in positions of authority

  • Exploration of advocacy beyond the legislative level

How much lobbying can we do

How Much (lobbying) Can We Do?

  • It depends! Are you advocating or lobbying?

    • At what level, federal, state, or local?

    • Which target, legislative, agency, legal, or community?

  • Federal level has regulations for lobbying

    • The “substantial rule”

    • The “H elector” rule or “expenditure test”

      • Limits on expenditures are based on a formula

    • IRS form 5768

A bit about lobbying

A bit about lobbying

  • The substantial rule is not specific (in the law since 1934)

  • The law does not say that NPOs cannot speak out regarding public policy, but it does say they cannot lobby “substantially”

  • In reality, legislators need to and should interact with NPO leaders

  • Communication for educational purposes is not considered lobbying

  • Testifying or offering advice is not considered lobbying

  • This only applies to the legislative branch of government

    • Going to the executive branch or judicial branch is not covered by the law

H electors

H electors

  • If an H elector, the NPO is no longer governed by the “substantial rule”

  • Part of the Tax Reform Act of 1976

  • Two sliding scale formulas

    • Direct lobbying of legislators

      • NPOs with budgets of up to $500,000 can spend 20% of all their expenditures on direct lobbying

      • NPOs with budgets $1.5-$17 million, can spend $225,000 + 5% of the budget over $1.5 million

    • Grass-roots lobbying

      • Allows NPOs to spend up to one fourth of the total allowable lobbying expenditures

What to do

What to do

  • Partisan political action violates the law

    • No endorsement of candidates for public office

    • Do not use government funds to lobby congress

  • It is alright to:

    • Focus your efforts on policy and regulation changes

    • Focus on clarifying or seeking change of governmental roles and responsibilities

    • Bring awareness of public interest issues

    • Educate legislators, administrators, judges, and community leaders

    • Develop relationships



  • Boris, E. T., & Mosher-Williams, R. (1998). Nonprofit advocacy organizations: Assessing the definitions, classifications, and data. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 27, 488-506.

  • Donaldson, L. P. (2008). Developing a progressive advocacy program within a human services agency. Administration in Social Work, 32, 25-48.

  • Ezell, M. (2001). Advocacy in the human services. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

  • Frumkin, P., & Galaskiewicz, J. (2004). Institutional isomorphism and public sector organizations. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 14, 283-307



  • Gibelman, M., & Kraft, S. (1996). Advocacy as a core agency program: Planning considerations for voluntary human service agencies. Administration in Social Work, 20, 43-59

  • Kramer, R. M. (1981). Voluntary agencies in the welfare state. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  • Leiter, J. (2005). Structural isomorphism in Australian nonprofit organizations. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 16, 1-31

  • Mosley, J. E. (2006). The policy advocacy of human service nonprofits: How institutional and environmental conditions shape advocacy involvement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Los Angeles.



  • Ruef, M. M., & Scott, W. R. (1998). A multidimensional model of organizational legitimacy: Hospital survival in changing institutional environments. Administrative Science Quarterly, 43, 877-904.

  • Salamon, L. M. (2002). The state of nonprofit America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

  • Schneider, R. L., & Netting, F. E. (1999). Influencing social policy in a time of devolution: Upholding social work's great tradition. Social Work, 44, 349-357.

  • Scott, W. R. (2001). Institutions and organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

  • Taylor, E. D. (1987). From issue to action: An advocacy program model. Lancaster, PA: Family Service.

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