For advocacy to work, there needs to be buy-in.
Advocacy groups can come in various shapes and forms, they can be small local clubs, and groups to larger non governmental organisations (NGO) and associations. Here I am defining advocacy groups to be any group, club, association or organisation that works towards a cause or represents a group of people.
Successful advocacy does not exist within a vacuum and various stakeholders are needed in order to create the changes groups aim to achieve. ‘Buy-in’ from stakeholders is necessary at all levels, as without this, groups are unlikely to generate traction and will lose any support they have.
Below I’ve used a simple high school club example to illustrate the value of ‘buy-in’ by stakeholders and give tips for how advocacy groups, big and small, can achieve buy-in and successfully work to creating change around their cause.
You are an 11th grade high school student in Jamaica and have a keen interest in recycling plastic bottles. You notice at your school most persons buy beverages in plastic bottles and discard them when they’re finished drinking. You get an idea to have your school start recycling plastic bottles.
You speak to a few of your fellow students who you think would be interested in this initiative, some in your grade, some are student councillors and prefects and some are those who have done similar projects. You create a core team that is focused on bringing this plan to action.
Your team creates an action plan that includes all the things you need from getting the bins, to getting the bottles to the recycling centres. You approach your school administration and get the go ahead for the project. You engage the leading plastic bottle manufacturer in your country and they donate collection bins to the school.
During this time, after getting the go ahead from administration, your team has been sharing with the school population the importance of recycling plastic bottles, there are posters and reminders all over the school. Your small team now has hundreds of student support with many of their parents now volunteering to do drop offs of these bottles to the collection centres.
Your team now has everything in place to begin, recycling bins are placed all over the school campus, especially where traffic is heaviest and close to where many of the students eat lunch. Every garbage bin has a recycling bin beside it. Eventually recycling plastic bottles at your school becomes second nature.
Eventually, you go on to start an environmental club at the school that educates members on environmental issues and create projects that allow your school to help save the environment.
Find your cause
Advocacy generally falls under broad categories which can be further broken down into specific themes/causes. Knowing what aspect you want to tackle helps with creating the overall strategy or project. In the example above, the student found a problem and created a solution then created a broad stroke advocacy group- however it can also go the opposite way. The student could have easily been a member of an environmental group who saw an opportunity for recycling plastic bottles and implemented a successful project.
In both examples a gap was found and filled.
Regardless of where you’re starting, it is important to identify the problem first before you can offer any part of the solution. Groups can have multiple but related gaps that they are attempting to fill, but try not to take off more than you can chew, especially if they’re only loosely or barely related. A Youth focused NGO can work in many areas related to youth, such as unemployment, education and access to comprehensive sexuality education, but it might be confusing or derailing to see them all of a sudden taking on animal rights or something else that doesn’t seem to align with their core topic… even though the topic might be relevant and necessary at the time.
Define the community you’re serving
Finding out what gaps exist is much easier when you know the community you’re serving. Not only does it help with gaps, but it helps with creating strategies and finding people as well. Are you a women’s rights group? Animal rights group? Or do you want to improve nutrition amongst children? When you know who you’re serving, identifying persons who will support your cause is easier. This support can take many forms, monetary, donation, services or simply being members or ambassadors.
What are the issues now? Media, traditional and social, give advocacy groups a unique opportunity to increase their presence and achieve buy-in. Imagine positioning yourself as a women’s rights groups but being silent when conversations around abortion or violence against women and girls are happening in your country. This causes you to miss an opportunity to have others be aware of your group, aware of your cause and offer support to both. If you’re expected to be a voice on these issues, being silent can hurt you in the long run, causing you to lose supporters and being unable to engage other stakeholders because of loss of credibility and a blow to your reputation.
When you position yourself as an advocate or representative for a subset of people, you are expected to lend your voice when these issues arise. The silence can be deafening.
I think that groups should be visible and position themselves even if the issues fall under their general topic but aren’t necessarily specific to the groups mandate and it doesn’t have to be the creation of a project or anything big, simply lending support to a related but different organisation plays a big role in achieving buy-in.
Say you are an animal rights group but focus exclusively on dogs, an issue in the media comes up about the treatment of another group of animals- say cats. While your specific work is on dogs, lending support and standing in solidarity with another animal rights group who’s focus is on cats does wonders for both groups and their individual advocacy as well as the general umbrella topic their groups fall under.
You must remember though, that you cannot compromise your advocacy groups values in an effort to stay relevant- as that might cause more harm than good.
Engage those with power
Having persons who support your cause, spread your message and help with the ground work is good. However, there will always be a need to get someone who has the ability to open doors and create change to be on your side. In the example above, the student would not have been able to do anything without the go ahead from the school administration.
Engaging stakeholders is an important part of advocacy, whether it’s through meetings, petitions, policy reforms or otherwise. In each step of your strategy there will be persons in power who will be able to move your cause forward.
Make it easy and Make it obvious
This is easier said than done. But if you want people to be apart of change, the less of an inconvenience it is to them, the easier it is to get them to do it. While this general statement won’t work for everything and everyone… the less steps between the person and change desired makes it more likely to happen. In the above example, each recycling bin is already beside a regular bin, so it takes little to no extra effort to recycle plastic bottles.
Other changes might not be so straight forward and clear cut… just remember the simpler the better.
When people believe that you are what you say you are and see you representing the values of your group/ cause at all times, it builds confidence in the advocacy group. This helps with persons lending their support, but also the community you’re serving will feel much more comfortable reaching out for help.
This is especially true for representational bodies. If your role is to represent the best interest of the environment at your school, and your fellow school mates see you also recycling, also saving water, it increases buy-in- but if you say one thing and do another you won’t gain any new support and will likely lose current supporters.
While this article is in the context of a “group” I want us all to remember that even as individuals we can act as strong advocates and utilise many of these same strategies.
Comment below any other tips on achieving buy-in for advocacy groups.
If you’ve reached this far remember to stay safe, wear your mask, sanitise and social distance, and always protect health care workers!
Samantha C. Johnson