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From service providers to activist groups, the aim of many civil society organisations is to build influence and advocate for change on behalf of and alongside people and communities. So, what does it mean to effectively create change?  

Working with civil society organisations and leaders during the pandemic in 2021, the Sydney Policy Lab identified effective advocacy and influence as a key capability to support or enable strong communities and a strong civil society in driving systemic change.  

What is advocacy and influence? 

Advocacy encompasses a wide range of activities, from direct lobbying, conducting research, monitoring policy implementation, to knocking on people’s doors. The nature of advocacy has changed over time, with the emergence of social media as a major platform for advocacy that was used during the pandemic. 

Reflecting upon the role of advocacy and influence in civil society, Kirsty Albion from the Centre for Australian Progress said, 

“The important work advocates do to prevent overreach and injustice is just as important as the proactive advocacy that makes society fairer and more sustainable.”  

How can civil society improve its ability to advocate more effectively?  

For the research report, ‘Nurturing Links Across Civil Society: Lessons from Australia’s For-Purpose Sector’s Response to COVID-19′, the Sydney Policy Lab conducted interviews and focus groups with over 100 Australian civil society leaders. We surfaced barriers for organisations trying to advocate effectively, as well as insights and stories from how Australian civil society organisations respondence to the pandemic.  

When it comes to advocacy and influence, we identified three key focal points that can improve people and organisations’ ability to advocate and exert influence more effectively.

1. Focus on impact

The more an advocacy strategy is grounded in and focused on a specific community and their needs, the better. Building constructive relationships with decisions makers (such as government) is challenging but important. Successful civil society organisations and movements use strategic planning tools such as theories of change and logic models, and power mapping, to evaluate and plan their impact.  

  1. Put people and communities first  

Putting the needs of people and communities at the forefront of advocacy may seem like an easy and obvious endeavour but there are many pitfalls to be wary of. Photos and images of people along with their stories create compelling content, but it is important for advocates to ensure people’s experiences are not being exploited for the gains of others. Putting people and communities first means ensuring those being advocated for are involved in developing and ideally leading advocacy strategies.  

  1. Be prepared to act quickly to achieve change

Preparation is vital for successful advocacy and influence. Quickly evolving circumstances mean that policy

 changes that were impossible one day are inevitable the next. We don’t need to look too far back to remember that the rate of unemployment benefits was doubled to counteract the impacts of the economic crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Successful advocacy often draws on strong existing networks, which can mobilise and spring into action when the conditions are ripe for change. 

To read more about what we learned about advocacy and other areas of civil society capability, you can download the full report here, or just the advocacy and influence section here. 

The Sydney Policy Lab’s Strengthening Australian Civil Society project is a strategic partnership with the Paul Ramsay Foundation. It aims to build a stronger and reenergised Australian civil society, by creating opportunities for civil society leaders to reflect on their practice, and then sharing these insights and stories with others. 

Three ways you can engage with our work on advocacy and other areas of civil society capability: 

  1. Invite us to come and chat to your team or group about how these ideas relate to what you’re trying to do.  
  2. Get in touch with us via email and let us know what you think.
  3. Share this page or the report with people you think might be interested. 
Amy Tong

Amy Tong

Amy is a research assistant at the Sydney Policy Lab.