Advocacy vs Lobbying: A Closer Look

Disclosure: As a participant in affiliate prograrms, we earn from qualifying purchases made on our website. If you make a purchase through links from this website, we may get a small share of the sale from these affiliate programs. You can read our complete disclaimer for more details.

DISCLAIMER: This website does not provide legal advice. This post and website are for informational purposes only. See our legal disclaimer for more.

Understanding the difference between advocacy and lobbying is important as these terms are legally distinct from one another in the United States. A simple way of understanding these two terms may go something like this:

Advocacy is support for an issue or policy in the form of public education, media engagement, community dialogue, and/or other awareness-building activities. Lobbying is one such advocacy activity that seeks to influence politicians or officials on specific policies or legislation.

These terms can have subtle but distinct differences; many nonprofit managers get nervous around the term ‘lobbying’ as there are certain restrictions on how nonprofit organizations are allowed to lobby. However, with a better understanding of these terms, managers can be more confident about their activities Below is a closer look at these terms and key examples of each.

Advocacy vs Lobbying: Examples for Dealing with Congress

Advocacy  Lobbying
Educating a member of Congress (or their staff) about the impacts of policies or community needs.Asking members of Congress to vote in favor or against, amend, introduce, or co-sponsor legislation.
Working with members of Congress (or their staff) to set up briefings for policymakers by independent experts.Urging supporters or constituents to contact their members of Congress to vote for or against, amend, introduce, or co-sponsor legislation
Inviting members of Congress (or their staff) to visit local communities or witness impacts of policies first-hand.Producing and distributing materials that ask members of Congress to vote for or against, amend, introduce, or co-sponsor legislation.

What Exactly Does a Lobbyist Do?

People sometimes have a hard time picturing the day-to-day activities of a lobbyist. Here’s a snapshot of the work.

Lobbyists try to influence legislation or government policies. They can carry out this work through face-to-face meetings with policymakers and/or by asking the public to contact their members of congress. During meetings, lobbyists build an argument and make their ‘ask’ (request/recommendation). 

I have personally done hundreds of lobbying meetings (primarily on international affairs) and I find that when telling people about my work many people find the term ‘lobbying’ a bit mysterious; some people even have a negative association with the term.

However, the act of lobbying is nothing mysterious or inherently diabolical. Virtually anyone can lobby (you don’t need to be paid by a powerful corporation).

To demystify things a bit here’s a quick play-by-play of a typical lobby meeting:

  1. Lobbyist contacts the congressional office to set up a meeting.
  2. Lobbyist goes to the congressional office for the meeting.
  3. Lobbyist introduces themselves and their organization.
  4. Lobbyist and staff or the member of Congress exchange business cards (if they don’t already know each other).
  5. Lobbyist gives a brief overview of the policy issue (including relevant updates or current events).
  6. Lobbyist identifies the problem in existing policies.
  7. Lobbyist gives their organizational view on how to fix the policies.
  8. Lobbyist makes specific recommendations (called “asks”).
    • Recommendations can include asking offices to vote a certain way, introduce a bill that the lobbyist drafted, or amend an existing law.
  9. Member of Congress and/or staffer gives initial feedback and indicates the next steps in considering the lobbyist’s recommendation (e.g. “we’ll think about it,” or “send us more information on X”).
  10. The meeting concludes, follow up is conducted (if needed), and lobbyist waits to hear the office’s determination.

Lobbying meetings are typically very quick and can take place in 15 minutes or less (though, sometimes, they can go much longer). In touring Capitol Hill, the public can witness lobbying meetings taking place in the halls, elevators, cafeterias, cars of the Capitol subway system, and virtually every nook and cranny of congressional office buildings and the Capitol building.

What’s interesting to note about lobbying meetings is that it’s the lobbyists that does most of the talking and gives an overview of an issue. Good members of Congress and congressional staff will see the lobbyist as the expert (whether they agree with the lobbyist or not).

In fact, often it’s necessary to educate members of Congress and their staff about specific bills. Due to the high number of bills introduced every congressional term, members of Congress and their staff will not likely be aware of all the bills that have been introduced on any given topic. So, it’s up to the lobbyists and advocates to stay informed and share what they know about the issue.

This should not be a surprise. Members of Congress and their staff have to keep track of many, many issues and bills going from local concerns to global challenges. So, good policymaking usually requires strong critical thinking skills, the ability to digest large amounts of data quickly, and a knack for connecting social issues with effective policies. Good policymaking is NOT necessarily about having an encyclopedia-like knowledge of every issue.

What does that mean for lobbyists? It means that the lobbyists need to have a solid understanding of the arguments for and against their recommendations as well as how to boil everything down to a few core talking points.

How Does Lobbying Benefit the Government?

As stated above, people can sometimes have a negative view of lobbying as they associate the activity with large special interest organizations. But, lobbying is an important part of the democratic process and has several important benefits.

Lobbying can benefit the government by allowing citizens and organizations to express their views on social issues. These activities can form the basis of important community dialogue and, often, policymakers can be alerted to issues that were previously unknown to them. 

Of course, lobbying is a bit of a double-edged sword. Some lobbyists can steer government regulations in a harmful direction, but others can help put into place policies with positive impacts on their communities. 

Citizens all too often dismiss their power over their elected officials, but individuals can make big changes through effective, committed lobbying and advocacy. While many Americans lament big lobbying firms (with good reason), those in the U.S. often take for granted the remarkable opportunities that lobbying provides individuals in shaping their communities. A personal anecdote illustrates this point well.

Once when I was volunteering to lobby for a nonprofit association, I was accompanied by a foreign ambassador who joined us to speak firsthand about the impacts of U.S. foreign policy in his country. We met with many congressional offices in one long day of back-to-back meetings. At the end of the day, he turned to me and said, 

“It’s amazing that you have access to your policymakers like this. In my home country, policymakers wouldn’t even meet with me much less a normal citizen.”

I was surprised to hear him say this. After all, he was his country’s ambassador to the U.S. – a very important role for most countries – and even he couldn’t get meetings with government officials in his home country. 

Conversely, in the U.S., most citizens (if they are respectful, succinct, and have important points to share) can get access to public officials. With time and patience, advocates and lobbyists can become trusted sources of information for policymakers and have long term impacts that would simply not be possible in many countries. 

How Does Grassroots Lobbying Differ From Direct Lobbying

Lobbying can be further broken down into, at least, two distinct forms – grassroots lobbying and direct lobbying.

Grassroots lobbying is encouraging the general public to contact legislators with recommendations on how/if they should vote, amend, introduce, or co-sponsor legislation. Direct lobbying is done through direct communication between lobbyists and policymakers.

If you’ve ever taken an action online in which you contacted a member of Congress with a specific recommendation on legislation, you’re a grassroots lobbyist! If you’re wondering if this action had an impact, the answer is – quite possibly!

Typically, grassroots and direct lobbying are done in tandem with one another. Good lobbyists will then do their best to leverage the support of grassroots efforts in their meetings with legislators. Citing a high number of “action takers” is an effective way to show public support and get the attention of elected officials. Every action really does count, but leveraging those actions can take some planning.

If you’re looking for more information on lobbying and advocacy, I’d suggest starting with the book The Lobbying and Advocacy Handbook for Nonprofit Organizations, Second Edition: Shaping Public Policy at the State and Local Level. The book can be a good starting point for national campaigns as well as local efforts.

Starting a political or issue campaign? Check out our recommended resources for getting started online.

Dan Jasper

Dan Jasper is the founder and primary author of Street Civics. He specializes in advocacy and international affairs.

Recent Posts