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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


  • 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

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


  • 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

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


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  • 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


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