Advocacy is the act of arguing in favor of, or pleading for something.  Generally, advocacy refers to groups or individuals who attempt to influence decisions made by political parties, social systems, or agencies. Advocacy seeks to ensure that people who are disadvantaged, or vulnerable in society, are represented to decision-makers. To explore this concept, consider the following advocacy definition.

Definition of Advocacy


  1. The process or act of supporting a cause or proposal
  2. The act of pleading for, or recommending, a cause


1375-1425       Late Middle English  advocacye

What is Advocacy

Advocacy pertains to activities by groups or people undertaken to influence or change decisions in a specific area. These actions may be within political, social, or economic systems. When a person or group advocates for change, they do so through a range of outlets including the media. There are many forms of advocacy, each with a different goal for initiating changes. There are many forms of advocacy, all of which seek to ensure people have a voice in important social issues.

What is an Advocate

An advocate is a person who publicly supports a cause. The term advocate is also used to describe a legal professional who represents another person in legal proceedings. Advocates can either be trained professionals, or volunteers working to help people in certain situations, though only attorneys can represent people in court proceedings. Regardless of the cause, advocates of all types can receive training to help achieve their goals.

Example of Advocacy in Family Law

In questions of child custody, family services often employs an advocate who meets with the children to determine the state of their parenting, and with their parents, to advise them of their rights and responsibilities as parents. In this example of advocacy through the use of a court-appointed advocate, the advocate is usually expected to report back to the court the best course of action in awarding custody and visitation.

Child Advocacy

Child Advocacy is the act of speaking out on the best interests of children. Child advocacy take place through individuals, organizations, and professionals who aim at protecting the rights of children and ensuring their safety. Child advocates represent the groups or individuals and they represent children who have been abused or aim to prevent them from being harmed. Child advocates also try to ensure that services are available to children in order to benefit their lives. Child advocacy takes place on local, state, and federal levels. Some advocacy groups try to change policies pertaining to children by lobbying, filing lawsuits, and proposing new laws.

Child Advocacy Centers

Child advocacy encompasses a wide range of activities aimed at promoting the best interests of children. Child advocacy centers are established with the goals of reducing the number of child abuse victims, raising awareness, and ensuring children have access to needed programs. Child advocacy centers are child-friendly places where Child Protective Service workers and law enforcement professionals can interact with and interview children who are alleged victims of abuse.

In the United States, the National Children’s Alliance accredits child advocacy centers, provides training, and advocates for children and families. These centers also provide family support, crisis intervention, and even medical or mental health treatment for children in crisis.


Self-advocacy refers to a person’s ability to understand and identify his own strength, needs, goals, and legal rights, and to be able to communicate these effectively. In basic terms, self-advocacy is speaking up for oneself. Historically, this term has been used in relation to adults with disabilities. In modern times, however, it applies to children and teens as well.

Self-advocacy is an important part of everyone’s life, and it is especially important for people with disabilities to take control of their lives in every sense. While people with disabilities may rely on support from others, each capable person should have control of their resources, and the right to make life decisions without the influence of other people.

Example of Self-Advocacy

Jacob, a 16-year old teen with cognitive disabilities, receives special education and assistance through the local school system. Jacob attends meetings to help the staff determine the courses he will take, the goals he will try to meet, and the types of support he needs along the way. Jacob’s inclusion in the meetings hold him partially accountable for setting goals, and determining the best route to achieving them. This example of advocacy is part of a self-advocacy movement.

Patient Advocacy

Patient advocacy is a specialized concern in which advocates support the rights of patients as they navigate the healthcare system. Navigating the healthcare system is overwhelming to many people and, should something go wrong, it is important to have someone who can help. Patient advocates help patients understand all aspects of healthcare, and work to ensure patients receive the quality care they need and deserve.

Patient advocacy refers to both advocacy groups, and individuals providing such services. Many hospitals employ patient advocates, whose job is to tend to the needs of patients. Patient advocacy is also provided by a variety of organizations not affiliated with the hospital.

Example of Patient Advocacy

Mary has been diagnosed with cancer. When the doctor discusses the different treatment options available, Mary is confused, and unsure of which type of treatment to begin with. The hospital in which she will be treated assigns Mary a patient advocate, who discusses treatment options with her, and helps her decide on a plan of action. In this example of advocacy, the advocate sits in a meeting with Mary and her doctors to speak up for Mary in regard to the treatment plan she has chosen.

Advocacy Groups

Advocacy groups have played a large part in developing social and political systems in the United States, and around the world. Advocacy groups may form to support religious, moral, health, political, or public concerns. Advocacy groups, sometimes known as “lobby groups,” or “special interest groups,” use a variety of tactics to influence public policy or opinion. Such tactics often include media advertising, lobbying, polls, and research. Some even secure the support of large businesses or political groups to further their agendas.

Some of the most influential advocacy groups in the United States, having the power to wield significant influence, include:

  • Center for Auto Safety
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Greenpeace
  • The Human Rights Campaign
  • National Rifle Association
  • People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
  • Sierra Club

Advocacy Example

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a non-profit advocacy organization that focuses on civil rights. Founded in 1971 by Morris Dees and Joseph Levin Jr., the Southern Poverty Law Center (“SPLC”) began as law firm working on behalf of people who were victims of hate crimes. The group gained a reputation in its victories against white supremacy groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Over the years, as the advocacy organization expanded, it became involved in other civil rights cases, including those concerned with gender-based discrimination, mistreatment of immigrants, and segregation. The SPLC has worked closely with other organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, in its civil rights journey.

Since its inception, the SPLC has entered into many civil lawsuits to advocate for rights of victims. For instance, in 1987, the SPLC filed a civil lawsuit against the United Klans of America, after it lynched a black teenager in Alabama. The organization won the lawsuit, and the victim’s mother was awarded $7 million in damages. The group was forced to turn over the deed to its national headquarters to the victim’s mother, who sold it and used the money to buy her first home.

Another example of advocacy provided by the SPLC is found in its 1982 case of Pearson v. Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The case arose after members of the clan terrorized Bobby Person, a black prison guard, as well as his family. The threats and harassment continued even after the civil lawsuit had been filed, and the court ordered the group to stop.  In 1985, the court issued an order that prohibited the group from operating a para-military organization, holding parades in black neighborhoods, and threatening any black people, or white people who associated black people.

The court subsequently dismissed the plaintiff’s claims for damages. Within a year after the court’s judgment, the group simply changed its name and continued its harassment, violating the court’s order. The group’s leader, Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., was convicted of contempt and sentenced to six months in jail, and three years’ probation.

Since the SPLC advocacy group’s beginnings, many of its members, including the founders, have found themselves victims of threats and violence from various hate groups. For instance, in 1994, four men were indicted in court for their plans to blow up the SPLC headquarters.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Lobbying – The act of attempting to influence political or business leaders to act in a manner, or to create legislation, that benefits a particular group.

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