Careers series: How do I become an Advocate?



When it comes to jobs aimed at making a positive difference in the world, it’s hard to go past the field of advocacy. One of 2010’s Nobel Peace Prize nominees was human rights advocate Dr Sima Samar – head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission – who attracted attention for her work promoting women’s health and education. So advocacy is clearly recognised as vital on a global scale. At the same time, this is a job that requires dedication to one’s role at a local level.

What is advocacy?

Elizabeth J. Clark, executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Social Workers, defines advocacy as “representing, defending, supporting or intervening on behalf of an individual, group, or community.”

“You can advocate for both people and issues,” Clark explains, adding that the goals of advocacy are fairness and social justice.

Clark says careers in advocacy are diverse and can take place on many levels. One example is individual advocacy, which she says means speaking or intervening on behalf of an individual who has unmet needs that affect their quality of life. Then there is issue advocacy, which Clark says can range from lobbying for legislative change to directing organisational communications or organising grassroots community action.

UK organisation Action for Advocacy offers a similarly broad definition, describing advocacy as “taking action to help people say what they want, secure their rights, represent their interests and obtain services they need.” According to Action for Advocacy, the path to a job in the field isn’t completely clear-cut. That said, there are some qualities all good advocates have in common.

What skills does a good advocate need?

“Regardless of type or setting, advocacy professionals seek these positions because they want to make contributions within their chosen field,” says Elizabeth Clark. “An effective advocate will employ a number of skills and strong job candidates possess a mix of qualifications including appropriate academic degrees, relevant prior experience and demonstrated accomplishments within their chosen field.”

Jamison Green, who works in a role that involves advocacy at the University of California, has a similar take on what it means to be a good advocate. As the primary care protocols manager at the University’s Centre of Excellence for Transgender Health, Green works with physicians to develop transgender primary care protocols to increase access to basic and transgender-specific medical care for transgender people. He sees passion, communication skills, strategic thinking capabilities, and cooperative instincts as essential to effective advocacy.

“[Advocacy] involves caring about a cause or a people, thoroughly comprehending the difficulty of the need that is to be addressed, and the ability to develop effective plans, coalitions, and programs to address (and, ideally, eliminate) that need,” Green says, adding that the best advocates know that their own voice matters less than the problem-solving result of their efforts.

Green also has some advice on how advocates should work day-to-day to ensure their efforts aren’t wasted. “It’s important that people who want to become advocates understand that they are not alone,” he argues. “There is nearly always someone else (possibly in isolation) working on the same issue, and while it is possible to achieve limited success in isolated instances, the most effective advocates take the time to learn about what others have done before them, or are doing currently, to ensure that their efforts do not needlessly conflict with or contradict the work of others.”

What kind of jobs are out there?

Once your begin your search for an advocacy role, you’re bound to notice a recurring theme: along with “pure” advocacy jobs, there are many others out there that combine advocacy with another set of responsibilities. Some advocacy roles are tied into jobs in communications, while others are paired with research or even fundraising work. In many of these job listings, employers say they are looking for strong communication skills – both written and verbal – along with some kind of experience in the field the job covers.

There are a number of education courses that deal specifically with advocacy, such as the Human Rights Education Association’s distance learning course on human rights advocacy, Victoria University’s Bachelor of Arts in Advocacy and Mediation, and the training courses provided by UK organisations Action for Advocacy and Advocacy Training. Completing a course like this could boost your chances of landing an advocacy role, but at the same time it seems many employers are focused on those key words – “relevant experience” – rather than any one certification in particular.

Elizabeth Clark has an optimistic take on the advocacy jobs market, stating that the demand for professional advocates is strong and the number of job openings seems to grow continuously. She says skilled professional advocates can look forward to a “robust employment marketplace” throughout their careers, but does caution that “competition for good positions with respected advocacy organisations is usually quite high.”

Jamison Green confirms that advocates can find work in any number of fields, from environmental work to legal issues, health issues, civil rights, animal rights, food supply, in fact “virtually anything where inequities contribute to disadvantage someone or something.”

“The most rewarding thing about doing advocacy work is knowing that you are helping others and/or (hopefully) making the world a better place,” Green concludes. “Getting paid to do that, even in the non-profit sector where salaries are not high, is like a gift, if one is motivated.”