Advocacy group

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Advocacy groups, also known as special interest groups, use various forms of advocacy in order to influence public opinion and ultimately policy. [1] They play an important role in the development of political and social systems.


Motives for action may be based on political, religious, moral, or commercial positions. Groups use varied methods to try to achieve their aims, including lobbying, media campaigns, awareness raising publicity stunts, polls, research, and policy briefings. Some groups are supported or backed by powerful business or political interests and exert considerable influence on the political process, while others have few or no such resources.

Some have developed into important social, political institutions or social movements. Some powerful advocacy groups have been accused of manipulating the democratic system for narrow commercial gain [2] and in some instances have been found guilty of corruption, fraud, bribery, and other serious crimes; [3] Some groups, generally ones with less financial resources, may use direct action and civil disobedience and in some cases are accused of being a threat to the social order or 'domestic extremists'. [4] Research is beginning to explore how advocacy groups use social media to facilitate civic engagement and collective action. [5] [6]


An advocacy group is a group or an organization which tries to influence the government but does not hold power in the government.



Satirical engraving of Wilkes by William Hogarth. On the table beside Wilkes lies two editions of The North Briton. William Hogarth - John Wilkes, Esq.png
Satirical engraving of Wilkes by William Hogarth. On the table beside Wilkes lies two editions of The North Briton .

The early growth of pressure groups was connected to broad economic and political changes in England in the mid-18th century, including political representation, market capitalization, and proletarianization. The first mass social movement catalyzed around the controversial political figure, John Wilkes. [7] As editor of the paper The North Briton , Wilkes vigorously attacked the new administration of Lord Bute and the peace terms that the new government accepted at the 1763 Treaty of Paris at the end of the Seven Years' War. Charged with seditious libel, Wilkes was arrested after the issue of a general warrant, a move that Wilkes denounced as unlawful – the Lord Chief Justice eventually ruled in Wilkes favour. As a result of this episode, Wilkes became a figurehead to the growing movement for popular sovereignty among the middle classes – people began chanting, "Wilkes and Liberty" in the streets.

After a later period of exile, brought about by further charges of libel and obscenity, Wilkes stood for the Parliamentary seat at Middlesex, where most of his support was located. [8] When Wilkes was imprisoned in the King's Bench Prison on 10 May 1768, a mass movement of support emerged, with large demonstrations in the streets under the slogan "No liberty, no King." [9] Stripped of the right to sit in Parliament, Wilkes became an Alderman of London in 1769, and an activist group called the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights began aggressively promoting his policies. [10] This was the first ever sustained social advocacy group;—it involved public meetings, demonstrations, the distribution of pamphlets on an unprecedented scale and the mass petition march. However, the movement was careful not to cross the line into open rebellion;—it tried to rectify the faults in governance through appeals to existing legal precedents and was conceived of as an extra-Parliamentary form of agitation to arrive at a consensual and constitutional arrangement. [11] The force and influence of this social advocacy movement on the streets of London compelled the authorities to concede to the movement's demands. Wilkes was returned to Parliament, general warrants were declared as unconstitutional and press freedom was extended to the coverage of Parliamentary debates.

Another important advocacy group that emerged in the late 18th century was the British abolitionist movement against slavery. Starting with an organised sugar boycott in 1791, it led the second great petition drive of 1806, which brought about the banning of the slave trade in 1807. In the opinion of Eugene Black (1963), "...association made possible the extension of the politically effective public. Modern extra parliamentary political organization is a product of the late eighteenth century [and] the history of the age of reform cannot be written without it. [12]

Growth and spread

The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848. Chartist meeting on Kennington Common by William Edward Kilburn 1848 - restoration1.jpg
The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848.

From 1815, Britain after victory in the Napoleonic Wars entered a period of social upheaval characterised by the growing maturity of the use of social movements and special-interest associations. Chartism was the first mass movement of the growing working-class in the world. [13] It campaigned for political reform between 1838 and 1848 with the People's Charter of 1838 as its manifesto – this called for universal suffrage and the implementation of the secret ballot, amongst other things. The term "social movements" was introduced in 1848 by the German Sociologist Lorenz von Stein in his book Socialist and Communist Movements since the Third French Revolution (1848) in which he introduced the term "social movement" into scholarly discussions [14] – actually depicting in this way political movements fighting for the social rights understood as welfare rights.

Martin Luther King Jr. led the American Civil Rights Movement, one of the most famous social movements of the 20th century. Martin Luther King - March on Washington.jpg
Martin Luther King Jr. led the American Civil Rights Movement, one of the most famous social movements of the 20th century.

The labor movement and socialist movement of the late 19th century are seen as the prototypical social movements, leading to the formation of communist and social democratic parties and organisations. These tendencies were seen in poorer countries as pressure for reform continued, for example in Russia with the Russian Revolution of 1905 and of 1917, resulting in the collapse of the Czarist regime around the end of the First World War.

In the post-war period, women's rights, gay rights, peace, civil rights, anti-nuclear and environmental movements emerged, often dubbed the New Social Movements, [15] some of which may be considered "general interest groups" as opposed to special interest groups. They led, among other things, to the formation of green parties and organisations influenced by the new left. Some find in the end of the 1990s the emergence of a new global social movement, the anti-globalization movement. Some social movement scholars posit that with the rapid pace of globalization, the potential for the emergence of new type of social movement is latent—they make the analogy to national movements of the past to describe what has been termed a global citizens movement.


Advocacy groups exist in a wide variety of genres based upon their most pronounced activities.


In most liberal democracies, advocacy groups tend to use the bureaucracy as the main channel of influence – because, in liberal democracies, this is where the decision-making power lies. The aim of advocacy groups here is to attempt to influence a member of the legislature to support their cause by voting a certain way in the legislature. Access to this channel is generally restricted to groups with insider status such as large corporations and trade unions – groups with outsider status are unlikely to be able to meet with ministers or other members of the bureaucracy to discuss policy. What must be understood about groups exerting influence in the bureaucracy is; "the crucial relationship here [in the bureaucracy] is usually that between the senior bureaucrats and leading business or industrial interests". [17] This supports the view that groups with greater financial resources at their disposal will generally be better able to influence the decision-making process of government. The advantages that large businesses have is mainly due to the fact that they are key producers within their countries economy and, therefore, their interests are important to the government as their contributions are important to the economy. According to George Monbiot, the influence of big business has been strengthened by "the greater ease with which corporations can relocate production and investment in a global economy". [18] This suggests that in the ever modernising world, big business has an increasing role in influencing the bureaucracy and in turn, the decision-making process of government.

Advocacy groups can also exert influence through the assembly by lobbying. Groups with greater economic resources at their disposal can employ professional lobbyists to try and exert influence in the assembly. An example of such a group is the environmentalist group Greenpeace; Greenpeace (an organisation with income upward of $50,000,000) use lobbying to gain political support for their campaigns. They raise issues about the environment with the aim of having their issues translated into policy such as the government encouraging alternative energy and recycling.

The judicial branch of government can also be used by advocacy groups to exert influence. In states where legislation cannot be challenged by the courts, like the UK, advocacy groups are limited in the amount of influence they have. In states that have codified constitutions, like the US, however, advocacy group influence is much more significant. For example, – in 1954 the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) lobbied against the Topeka Board of education, arguing that segregation of education based on race was unconstitutional. As a result of group pressure from the NAACP, the supreme court unanimously ruled that racial segregation in education was indeed unconstitutional and such practices were banned. This is a novel example of how advocacy groups can exert influence in the judicial branch of government.

Advocacy groups can also exert influence on political parties. The main way groups do this is through campaign finance. For instance; in the UK, the conservative parties campaigns are often funded by large corporations, as many of the conservative parties campaigns reflect the interests of businesses. For example, George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004 was the most expensive in American history and was financed mainly by large corporations and industrial interests that the Bush administration represented in government. Conversely, left-wing parties are often funded by organised labour – when the British Labour Party was formed, it was largely funded by trade unions. Often, political parties are actually formed as a result of group pressure, for example, the Labour Party in the UK was formed out of the new trade-union movement which lobbied for the rights of workers.

Advocacy groups also exert influence through channels that are separate from the government or the political structure such as the mass media and through public opinion campaigning. Advocacy groups will use methods such as protesting, petitioning and civil disobedience to attempt to exert influence in Liberal Democracies. Groups will generally use two distinct styles when attempting to manipulate the media – they will either put across their outsider status and use their inability to access the other channels of influence to gain sympathy or they may put across a more ideological agenda. Traditionally, a prime example of such a group were the trade-unions who were the so-called "industrial" muscle. Trade-unions would campaign in the forms of industrial action and marches for workers rights, these gained much media attention and sympathy for their cause. In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement gained much of its publicity through civil disobedience; African Americans would simply disobey the racist segregation laws to get the violent, racist reaction from the police and white Americans. This violence and racism was then broadcast all over the world, showing the world just how one sided the race 'war' in America actually was.

Advocacy group influence has also manifested itself in supranational bodies that have arisen through globalisation. Groups that already had a global structure such as Greenpeace were better able to adapt to globalisation. Greenpeace, for example, has offices in over 30 countries and has an income of $50 million annually. Groups such as these have secured the nature of their influence by gaining status as nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), many of which oversee the work of the UN and the EU from their permanent offices in America and Europe. Group pressure by supranational industries can be exerted in a number of ways: "through direct lobbying by large corporations, national trade bodies and 'peak' associations such as the European Round Table of Industrialists". [17]

Influential advocacy groups

There have been many significant advocacy groups throughout history, some of which could operated with dynamics that could better categorize them as social movements. Here are some notable advocacy groups operating in different parts of the world:

Adversarial groupings

On some controversial issues there are a number of competing advocacy groups, sometimes with very different resources available to them:

Benefits and incentives

Free rider problem

A general theory is that individuals must be enticed with some type of benefit to join an interest group. [42] However, the free rider problem addresses the difficulty of obtaining members of a particular interest group when the benefits are already reaped without membership. For instance, an interest group dedicated to improving farming standards will fight for the general goal of improving farming for every farmer, even those who are not members of that particular interest group. Thus, there is no real incentive to join an interest group and pay dues if the farmer will receive that benefit anyway. [43] :111–131 For another example, every individual in the world would benefit from a cleaner environment, but environmental protection interest groups do not receive monetary help from every individual in the world. [42]

This poses a problem for interest groups, which require dues from their members and contributions in order to accomplish the groups' agendas. [42]

Selective benefits

Selective benefits are material, rather than monetary benefits conferred on group members. For instance, an interest group could give members travel discounts, free meals at certain restaurants, or free subscriptions to magazines, newspapers, or journals. [43] :133–134 Many trade and professional interest groups tend to give these types of benefits to their members.

Solidarity incentives

A solidary incentive is a reward for participation that is socially derived and created out of the act of association. A selective solidary benefit offered to members or prospective members of an interest group might involve such incentives as "socializing congeniality, the sense of group membership and identification, the status resulting from membership, fun, conviviality, the maintenance of social distinctions, and so on. [44]

Expressive incentives

People who join an interest group because of expressive benefits likely joined to express an ideological or moral value that they believe in, such as free speech, civil rights, economic justice, or political equality. To obtain these types of benefits, members would simply pay dues, and donate their time or money to get a feeling of satisfaction from expressing a political value. Also, it would not matter if the interest group achieved their goal; these members would merely be able to say they helped out in the process of trying to obtain their goals, which is the expressive incentive that they got in the first place. [45] The types of interest groups that rely on expressive benefits or incentives are environmental groups and groups who claim to be lobbying for the public interest. [42]

Latent interests

Some public policy interests are not recognized or addressed by a group at all. These interests are labeled latent interests.[ citation needed ]

Theoretical perspectives

Much work has been undertaken by academics attempting to categorize how advocacy groups operate, particularly in relation to governmental policy creation. The field is dominated by numerous and diverse schools of thought:

However, this pluralist theory (formed primarily by American academics) reflects a more open and fragmented political system similar to that in countries such as the United States.

Social media use

A study published in early 2012 [5] suggests that advocacy groups of varying political and ideological orientations operating in the United States are using social media to interact with citizens every day. The study surveyed 53 groups, that were found to be using a variety of social media technologies to achieve organizational and political goals:

As noted in the study, "while some groups raised doubts about social media’s ability to overcome the limitations of weak ties and generational gaps, an overwhelming majority of groups see social media as essential to contemporary advocacy work and laud its democratizing function." [5]

See also

Related Research Articles

Non-governmental organization Organization independent of any government, usually created to aid those in need or similar

Organizations which are independent of government involvement are known as non-governmental organizations or non-government organizations, with NGO as an acronym. NGOs are a subgroup of organizations founded by citizens, which include clubs and associations that provide services to their members and others. NGOs are usually nonprofit organizations, and many of them are active in humanitarianism or the social sciences. Surveys indicate that NGOs have a high degree of public trust, which can make them a useful proxy for the concerns of society and stakeholders. However, NGOs can also be lobby groups for corporations, such as the World Economic Forum. According to, "[an NGO is] any non-profit, voluntary citizens' group which is organized on a local, national or international level ... Task-oriented and driven by people with a common interest, NGOs perform a variety of service and humanitarian functions, bring citizen concerns to Governments, advocate and monitor policies and encourage political participation through provision of information."

Lobbying Attempting to influence decisions of government officials

In politics, lobbying, persuasion, or interest representation is the act of lawfully attempting to influence the actions, policies, or decisions of government officials, most often legislators or members of regulatory agencies. Lobbying, which usually involves direct, face-to-face contact, is done by many types of people, associations and organized groups, including individuals in the private sector, corporations, fellow legislators or government officials, or advocacy groups. Lobbyists may be among a legislator's constituencies, meaning a voter or bloc of voters within their electoral district; they may engage in lobbying as a business. Professional lobbyists are people whose business is trying to influence legislation, regulation, or other government decisions, actions, or policies on behalf of a group or individual who hires them. Individuals and nonprofit organizations can also lobby as an act of volunteering or as a small part of their normal job. Governments often define and regulate organized group lobbying that has become influential.

Political movement Movement to obtain a political goal

A political movement is a collective attempt by a group of people to change government policy or social values. Political movements are usually in opposition to an element of the status quo and are often associated with a certain ideology. Some theories of political movements are the political opportunity theory which states that political movements stem from mere circumstances and the resource mobilization theory which states that political movements result from strategic organization and relevant resources. Political movements are also related to political parties in the sense that they both aim to make an impact on the government and that several political parties have emerged from initial political movements. While political parties are engaged with a multitude of issues, political movements tend to focus on only one major issue.

Advocacy is an activity by an individual or group that aims to influence decisions within political, economic, and social institutions. Advocacy includes activities and publications to influence public policy, laws and budgets by using facts, their relationships, the media, and messaging to educate government officials and the public. Advocacy can include many activities that a person or organization undertakes including media campaigns, public speaking, commissioning and publishing research. Lobbying is a form of advocacy where a direct approach is made to legislators on a specific issue or specific piece of legislation. Research has started to address how advocacy groups in the United States and Canada are using social media to facilitate civic engagement and collective action.

Social movement Loosely organized effort by a large group of people to achieve a particular goal

A social movement is a loosely organized effort by a large group of people to achieve a particular goal, typically a social or political one. This may be to carry out, resist or undo a social change. It is a type of group action and may involve individuals, organizations or both. Definitions of the term are slightly varied. Social movements have been described as "organizational structures and strategies that may empower oppressed populations to mount effective challenges and resist the more powerful and advantaged elites". They represent a method of social change from the bottom within nations.

The wise use movement in the United States is a loose-knit coalition of groups promoting the expansion of private property rights and reduction of government regulation of publicly held property. This includes advocacy of expanded use by commercial and public interests, seeking increased access to public lands, and often opposition to government intervention. Wise use proponents describe human use of the environment as "stewardship of the land, the water and the air" for the benefit of human beings. The wise use movement arose from opposition to the mainstream environmental movement, claiming it to be radical.

Trade justice

Trade justice is a campaign by non-governmental organisations, plus efforts by other actors, to change the rules and practices of world trade in order to promote fairness. These organizations include consumer groups, trade unions, faith groups, aid agencies and environmental groups.

Straight ally

An ally, straight ally, or heterosexual ally is a heterosexual and cisgender person who supports equal civil rights, gender equality, and LGBT social movements, challenging homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. Not everyone who meets this definition identifies as an "ally". An ally acknowledges that LGBT people face discrimination and thus are socially disadvantaged. They aim to use their position and privilege as heterosexual and cisgender individuals in a society focused on cisnormativity and heteronormativity to counter discrimination against LGBT people. Several LGBT organizations center the development of allies in working towards their social justice goals.

Non-state actors include organizations and individuals that are not affiliated with, directed by, or funded through the government.

An ethnic interest group or ethnic lobby, according to Thomas Ambrosio, is an advocacy group established along cultural, ethnic, religious or racial lines by an ethnic group for the purposes of directly or indirectly influencing the foreign policy of their resident country in support of the homeland and/or ethnic kin abroad with which they identify.

Anti-nuclear organizations may oppose uranium mining, nuclear power, and/or nuclear weapons. Anti-nuclear groups have undertaken public protests and acts of civil disobedience which have included occupations of nuclear plant sites. Some of the most influential groups in the anti-nuclear movement have had members who were elite scientists, including several Nobel Laureates and many nuclear physicists.

Phil Radford American environmentalist

Philip David Radford is an American activist who served as the executive director of Greenpeace USA. He is the founder and President of Progressive Power Lab, an organization that incubates companies and non-profits that build capacity for progressive organizations, including the Progressive Multiplier Fund and Membership Drive. Radford is a co-founder of the Democracy Initiative, was founder and executive director of Power Shift, and is a board member of the Mertz Gilmore Foundation. He has a background in grassroots organizing, corporate social responsibility, climate change, and clean energy.

A human rights group, or human rights organization, is a non-governmental organization which advocates for human rights through identification of their violation, collecting incident data, its analysis and publication, promotion of public awareness while conducting institutional advocacy, and lobbying to halt these violations.

Grassroots lobbying is lobbying with the intention of reaching the legislature and making a difference in the decision-making process. Grassroots lobbying is an approach that separates itself from direct lobbying through the act of asking the general public to contact legislators and government officials concerning the issue at hand, as opposed to conveying the message to the legislators directly. Companies, associations and citizens are increasingly partaking in grassroots lobbying as an attempt to influence a change in legislation.

A cause lawyer, also known as a public interest lawyer or social lawyer, is a lawyer dedicated to the usage of law for the promotion of social change to address a cause. Cause lawyering is commonly described as a practice of "lawyering for the good" or using law to empower members of the weaker layers of society. It may or may not be performed pro bono. Cause lawyering is frequently practiced by individual lawyers or lawyers employed by associations that aim to supply a public service to complement state-provided legal aid.

Activism Efforts to make change in society toward a perceived greater good

Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, direct, or intervene in social, political, economic, legal, or environmental reform with the desire to make changes in society toward a perceived greater good. Forms of activism range from mandate building in the community, petitioning elected officials, running or contributing to a political campaign, preferential patronage of businesses, and demonstrative forms of activism like rallies, street marches, strikes, sit-ins, or hunger strikes.

Direct action Method of activism distinct from elections, diplomacy and negotiation

Direct action originated as a political activist term for economic and political acts in which the actors use their power to directly reach certain goals of interest; in contrast to those actions that appeal to others ; by, for example, revealing an existing problem, using physical violence, highlighting an alternative, or demonstrating a possible solution.

An advocacy group is a group or an organization that tries to influence the government but does not hold power in the government. Advocacy groups are generally classified according to two broad typologies: their core aims, and their relationship to government.

The nature of the activities of advocacy groups is highly dependent on the scope and extent on group aims and objectives. Motives for advocacy group action may be based on a shared political, religious, moral, health or commercial position. Groups use varied methods to try to achieve their aims including lobbying, media campaigns, publicity stunts, polls, research, and policy briefings. Some groups are supported or backed by powerful business or political interests and exert considerable influence on the political process, while others have few or no such resources.


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Further reading