Social work tips for creating grassroots advocacy

Underground water source 'Advocate' gushing up to the surface.'Grassroots advocacy often begins with a single individual who is passionate about a cause and feels compelled to act.

These advocates, in turn, rally supporters, then contact legislators and other government officials at either the local, state or federal level to raise awareness regarding their cause.

Grassroots advocacy is one of the most common forms of lobbying in the U.S. — and one of the most effective. In doing this work, individuals can have as much — or even more — of an influence on changing public policy, regulations and public perception as professional lobbyists.

Social workers considering starting a grassroots advocacy effort can feel pulled in several directions, experts say.

They’ve identified an important cause —yet there are already so many other initiatives well on their way that are also worthy of their attention. Is it better to support coalitions that already have gained some momentum versus starting something new?

Another challenge is time: For most social workers, there isn’t enough time to accomplish everything they want to do. Then, there is the fact that much advocacy work happens outside the scope of regular job requirements.

Create Change

Despite these challenges, many social workers choose to take on grassroots advocacy work. That includes leaders in the field like Michel Coconis, MSW, Ph.D., a visiting professor of social work at the University of Toledo. For more than 27 years, she has been working in advocacy and leading initiatives such as death penalty mitigation and abolition.

“Many things that now are mainstream were at one time on the outside. They came about organically, from a need, of someone having a vision and their willingness to step out and say, ‘This is an idea, and I hope you will come along,’” she explains. “Grassroots advocacy is one of the best ways to create change, and social workers have the ability to mobilize the masses when important issues arise.”

Grassroots Advocacy Leaders

Deborah Weinstein, MSW, has advocated for low-income and vulnerable people at the state and federal levels for more than 35 years. Currently, she serves as executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs. Prior to her role at CHN, she served as director of the Family Income division of the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., and before that, as executive director of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition.

Weinstein believes social workers have the skills to not only lead, but succeed, in moving grassroots advocacy efforts forward.

“Social workers are adept at finding resources, and this is very important to the success of a coalition campaign,” Weinstein says. “Most are also rooted in their communities and can strategize about what and who needs to come together to make something happen.”

Despite these strengths, she says, more social workers — including those who are providing direct services — could get involved and advocate for changes in law or government funding.

To help raise awareness, NASW has recruited policy practitioners to talk to schools of social work about the advocacy process.

“Social workers, including service providers and clinicians, can play an appropriate and valuable role advocating for changes in law and public funding,” says Weinstein. “They can do this by speaking for themselves, encouraging the agencies they work for to take a stand, and by helping the low-income people they work with to advocate on their own behalf.”

Coconis gives another insight into why social workers are well-positioned to lead grassroots advocacy efforts.

“We should keep in mind the word ‘social’ in our title. It implies the primary importance of relationships — this applies to clients, colleagues, neighbors and even our elected and appointed officials,” she says. “Relationship building, then, is the main skill necessary to engage in any grassroots advocacy.”

Tips for Organizing a Grassroots Advocacy Campaign

Social worker-led grassroots advocacy efforts can be highly effective when they are well organized. Here are some tips that can help you as you plan, reach out to supporters and contact your legislators.

Find Support

  • Pursue a cause you know about. You will have a greater chance of success if the cause you are advocating for is one you know intimately and have experience in.
  • Be up to date on the legislation and issues that affect your cause. What challenges can you expect? Also, do you know who your opponents are and their arguments?
  • Educate yourself on the political landscape. Will you be advocating on the local level? State? National? Take the time to learn about the current political landscape that affects your cause, as well as your legislators and their staff.
  • Be able to communicate clearly and concisely about your cause. Can you sum up your mission in a single statement?
  • Determine what type of support you have. Do you have an organization backing you, or are you an individual who is compelled to run a campaign? Take an inventory of your resources and network.
  • Write down your goals. It’s important not to just focus on the end goal, but immediate and short-term goals, too. What do you want to have happen in the next week, month or year?
  • Compile a list of supporters. Who is in your network? Who will gladly support you, and who will be hesitant? Are there untraditional allies who might help you, such as local businesses?

Contact Supporters

  • Describe your cause concisely. Your overall message may be important, but if it is too long, it will be harder to gain support.
  • Say why it is important to act now. Is there a looming deadline? Will a bill fail if they don’t act quickly? If there isn’t a sense of urgency, fewer will take action.
  • Explain what you would like your supporters to do. Request simple actions, especially at first, such as making a phone call, sending an email or signing a petition. “Although these actions only take a few minutes, they can generate positive results when legislators and policymakers are presented information about your cause,” Coconis says.
  • Describe what improvement will happen in the future. Convey a brief story, if possible, that describes an improved scenario. Also, maintain a library of stories you can use in the future.
  • Choose your delivery method. Consider all communication channels, from snail mail to radio, not the easiest or most obvious, like social media. What will likely generate the best response? Do you need to use more than one method?
  • Let them see into the future. Help them understand the result of what will happen if they act, even if it seems obvious.
  • Say thank you. By thanking them in advance, you are building a relationship with them and will feel comfortable reaching out to them again if you need help.

Contact Legislators

  • Know who supports and who opposes your cause. Make sure to identify the person who is voting, as well as someone who can contact the legislator and get them to support your cause.
  • Reach out to your own legislators when issues arise. Relate issues to the home district or state of the legislator.
  • Don’t ask too much at once. Clearly state your position and your “ask” of the legislator. Make sure your request is straightforward and includes no more than one to three items.
  • Relate personal stories. “Bringing clients to the legislature can be highly effective,” says Weinstein. “They can tell their own stories and at the same time are empowering themselves.”
  • Use concrete evidence. Back up personal stories with facts and figures whenever possible. Look for evidence from a research study or tracking data. You may not have hard-nose data, but use whatever you can to help make your case.
  • Thank your legislators when they do something you like. Some effective ways to do this include writing letters to the editor; sending a thank you note to a legislator and staff, as well as committee members or minority/majority leadership; nominating the legislator for an award, or presenting them with a certificate they can publicly display.

Resources and More Information

If you are looking for a more detailed approach to organizing your grassroots advocacy effort, Midwest Academy, a highly regarded organizing institution that supports groups and individuals in their advocacy efforts, has developed many resources that can help you get started.

NASW also offers an Advocacy Network Listserv. When you join, you will receive periodic updates and action alerts, geared specifically to the areas in which you indicate an interest, via email from NASW’s government relations staff.

Go to Engage, then go to “Subscribe to our mailing list.”

The Advocacy Resource page on the NASW website also offers tools you can use in your grassroots advocacy efforts. Topics covered include:

  • Calling Your Member of Congress
  • Lobbying “Do’s” and “Don’ts”
  • Writing a Letter to Your Member of Congress
  • Meeting with A Member of Congress
  • Legislative Office Visit Follow-Up Report Form
  • Legislative Glossary

In addition, NASW’s offers an online tool “Engage” that assists you in preparing and sending emails or letters on key federal issues to your Members of Congress.

Learn more about NASW’s broader advocacy efforts.

NASW is currently working in a number of coalitions to pass legislation such as the Coalition on Human Needs, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Leadership Council of Aging Organizations, National Alliance of Specialized Instructional Support Personnel and the Mental Health Liaison Group.