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Why I'm an Advocate--and Why You Should Be One Too

Why I'm an Advocate--and Why You Should Be One Too

By Vignetta Charles, PhD | August 17, 2015
Chief Science Officer, ETR

At a recent meeting with others working in the nonprofit world, I was telling colleagues about an Action Alert I’d just received. It was sent out by one of the many advocacy listservs to which I subscribe. The people at my lunchtime table all reeled in horror.

“You can’t do that!” they exclaimed. “That’s lobbying. You’re federally funded.”

I’d heard this before. I responded with what I know to be true, but what my colleagues so often are unsure about. Namely, I can absolutely receive the Action Alert at work. However, I cannot take any action on it, such as lobbying, on my federally funded time.

That said, as a voting citizen of the United States, I can go home and, in my non-working hours, tell my elected officials how I, as their constituent, believe they should respond to the particular piece of legislation. Actually, I can also do this at work if I have private or unrestricted funds that allow me to take this action without violating any 501c3 regulations.

So why are my colleagues so uncertain, or even fearful, about being advocates?

Using Advocacy to Drive Change

We are all advocates at heart. We work to drive social justice and improve health behaviors. We got into the work because we hoped to “be the change we wanted to see in the world.”

Yet somehow a misunderstanding of the definition of advocacy and the nonprofit rules that surround it have struck fear in many of us. That fear has stopped us from acting on our hearts and minds with one of the most powerful tools in our toolbox—our expertise to inform and express our advocate’s voice. And we can use that voice while we simultaneously dedicate our days (and sometimes our evenings, and—let’s face it—far too many weekends) to helping others. 

Advocacy is a powerful and important catalyst for the change we want to see. We can work to improve the laws, policies and systems that affect the communities we serve. And we can conduct advocacy activities legally in our nonprofit work. In fact, we are often the most powerful advocates available to legislators because we are the ones conducting the research and doing the interventions. This gives us an opportunity to be some of the most persuasive and compelling messengers on the planet.

What’s the Difference Between Advocacy and Lobbying? 

There are resources to help us recognize when what we engage in is allowable within a 501c3 classification of our organizations. According to Bolder Advocacy, an initiative of the Alliance for Justice, “While all lobbying is advocacy, not all advocacy is lobbying. Advocacy is any action that speaks in favor of, recommends, argues for a cause, supports or defends, or pleads on behalf of others. It includes public education, regulatory work, litigation, and work before administrative bodies, lobbying, voter registration, voter education, and more. Lobbying is an attempt to influence specific legislation by communicating views to legislators or asking people to contact their legislators.” 

Nothing stops me from telling my decision makers that I generally support, for example, comprehensive sexuality education because of the rigorous evidence that indicates its benefits. I can even, and do, tell them about the amazing research and programs that are improving the lives of their constituents.

However, on any work time supported by funds that restrict lobbying, I could not communicate with and ask my congressperson to support specific legislation or specific funding amounts to promote comprehensive sexuality education. 

On the other hand, if that decision maker (or staff) were to reach out to me first, I can give that person my expert opinion about the impacts of proposed legislation or funding level changes.

If I Start Talking About My Intervention, Will It Compromise My Peer-Reviewed Publications?

I’ve also had colleagues ask, “What if I reveal too much about my results, and my publication, which happens to be under review, is compromised?”

As researchers, we are trained to be cautious about the “big reveals.” We need to ensure our scientific endeavors are first published in peer-reviewed journals. Those journals have specific criteria and restrictions on how much information we can release in advance of publication. 

We don’t want to compromise publication, but advocating doesn’t have to do that. There are many statements that can be made about our work in advance of publication. For example:

Dear Congressperson,

Did you know that X-hundred youth are being served in your community through Program XYZ? I am participating in research through which this program is being rigorously evaluated. We want to make sure that we are serving our youth with what works to make them healthier.

We are already finding promising preliminary results that this work is making a positive impact in the lives of young people. More details will be forthcoming, and I’d be happy to share the full results when they are ready for the public. Until then, please know that your continued support of evidence-based programming for young people is making a difference. You are helping us be a healthier and more productive community.


These statements do not compromise publication. They do raise awareness and support among decision makers about the interventions being conducted by and for their constituents. 

How Can I Be Sure What I’m Doing and Saying Is OK?

There are tools for your organization, and even Advocacy Coaches. These can help you make sure you’re not doing anything that would risk or violate your organization’s 501c3 status. Many other resources can help your organization engage in this vital part of our work, including confirmation from informed experts that you have the legal right to advocate to advance your nonprofit’s mission.

Don’t forget that you are first and foremost an individual constituent. On your own time, you have the right to amplify your own voice, express your views and share how you would like to be represented by your elected officials.

How Do I Even Start?

Start now! There are still 2 weeks left in August, and the month of August is a perfect time to begin. You can start with a legislative visit while the U.S. Congress is in recess and your delegation members are at home. They’re waiting to meet with concerned citizens, experts and advocates like you. There are even studies that show that in-person meetings with constituents carry the most weight when it comes to influencing policy decisions.

This step-by-step from 2013 is focused on the issue of HIV/AIDS in the United States, but the “ask” could be modified for any issue that you care about.

We do this work to improve peoples’ lives. Advocacy is another strategy that helps us do that. As individuals, and as nonprofit employees, we need to advance our mission with all the tools we have at our disposal.

Vignetta Charles, PhD, is Chief Science Officer at ETR. She is also a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. You can reach her at or find her on LinkedIn.

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