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Abstract and Keywords

Social work advocacy is “the exclusive and mutual representation of a client(s) or a cause in a forum, attempting to systematically influence decision-making in an unjust or unresponsive system(s).” Advocacy was identified as a professional role as far back as 1887, and social workers consider client advocacy an ethical responsibility. Social workers are increasing the use of electronic advocacy to influence client issues and policy development. As client and societal needs evolve, universities should emphasize advocacy in their curricula, and the National Association of Social Workers should promote electoral and legislative initiatives that reflect an emphasis on social and economic injustices.

Keywords: advocacy, influence, policy practice, social action, representation, social justice, online advocacy

Social work is the one profession that has acknowledged, decade after decade, a healthy tension between individual needs and the policies of the larger society (Schneider & Netting, 1999). This recognition often results in “advocacy.”

Definition of Advocacy

Litzelfelner and Petr (1997) stated unequivocally, “The social work profession considers client advocacy an ethical responsibility and a primary function of social work practice” (p. 393). However, some scholars (Blakely, 1991; Kutchins & Kutchins, 1978; Schneider & Lester, 2001) believe that advocacy, while long associated with exciting changes that benefit vulnerable groups, refers to all kinds of social action without any distinguishing or specific characteristics of its own. Sosin and Caulum (2003) noted that “the role of advocate seems to be practically synonymous with about all social work roles, and it is presented in such broad strokes that it cannot be systematically studied, described, taught, or practiced [authors'emphasis]” (p. 12). Haynes and Mickelson (2006) stated, “Advocacy requires no additional skills other than the ability to aggregate data or mobilize clients” (p. 84). Bateman (personal communication, October 4, 2001) stated, “Advocacy was assumed to be something one just knew how to do.”

Schneider and Lester (2001) contributed to the evolution of the term by analyzing over 90 definitions of advocacy in the social work literature. Differing emphases in individual definitions ranged from “pleading on behalf of someone” to “securing social justice” to “identifying with the client” to “promoting change” to “accessing rights and benefits” to “demonstrating influence and political skills.” Since the term advocacy possesses multiple meanings, it has become a futile term because practitioners and researchers do not have a common understanding of the word. By failing to limit the term, the profession has neglected to sharpen practice efficacy, that is, how does one advocate well and what is effective. This failure may lead social workers to continue to believe that advocacy is defined primarily by working actively to meet client needs by arranging services, and not by partisan intervention when it is needed (Herbert & Mould, 1992)

Schneider and Lester (2001) developed a new definition of social work advocacy that appears to advance the ongoing struggle for specific conceptual clarity. Their definition of advocacy is clear, measurable, action oriented, and focuses on what one does as an advocate, and not just on outcomes. The definition is comprehensive because it can be applied to the myriad practice settings where social workers find themselves, such as working one-on-one with clients, working for community causes, in legislative arenas, and in agencies.

Definition: Social work advocacy is the exclusive and mutual representation of a client(s) or a cause in a forum, attempting to systematically influence decision-making in an unjust or unresponsive system(s) (Schneider & Lester, 2001, pp. 64–68). Let us examine the key words in the definition:

Exclusive: The relationship between the client and the advocate is singular, unique, prioritized solely on the client, primarily responsible to the client, and centered on client needs.

Mutual: The relationship between the client and the advocate is reciprocal, interdependent, joint, and equal; they exchange ideas and plans together, proceeding in an agreed-upon direction. Included in the term, mutual, is also the notion of empowerment that not only enables the clients to carry out an activity, but also motivates them and teaches them skills required to interact with the environment.

Representation: The advocate uses the activities of speaking, writing, or acting on behalf of another, communicating or expressing the concerns of a client, standing up for another person or group, and serving as an agent or proxy for another.

Client(s): The client(s) may be an individual person, small or large groups, a community association, an ethnic population, individuals with common concerns, or other loosely or tightly knit organizations. The “client(s)” is not restricted a priori to certain sizes or numbers.

Cause: A cause is usually a condition or problem affecting a group or class of people with similar concerns. Circumstances of an individual may be the basis for a larger group needing the same remedy. An example may be advocating for the rights for all domestic abuse victims, not just one client.

Forum: A forum is any assembly designated to discuss issues, regulations, rules, public matters, laws, or differing opinions, or to settle disputes. Examples are public hearings, legislative committees, agency board meetings, and supervisory sessions. Two features are usually present: (a) a set of specific procedures to guide the conduct of the participants, and (b) a decision-making mechanism (Kutchins & Kutchins, 1987).

Systematically: The advocate applies knowledge and skills in a planned, orderly manner, analyzing the circumstances and conditions before deciding how to proceed.

Influence: An advocate attempts to modify, change, affect, act on, or alter decisions by another person or group with the authority or power over resources or policies that impinge upon a client(s). Some “influential” activities consist of organizing client groups, forming coalitions, educating the public, contacting public officials and legislators, giving testimony, and appealing to review boards (Hepworth, Rooney, Dewberry-Rooney, Strom-Gottfried, & Larsen, 2006). The following are the principles of influence used to take action:

  1. 1. Identify the issues and set goals

  2. 2. Get the facts

  3. 3. Plan strategies and tactics

  4. 4. Supply leadership

  5. 5. Get to know decision makers and their staff

  6. 6. Broaden the base of support

  7. 7. Be persistent

  8. 8. Evaluate your advocacy effort (Schneider & Lester, 2001, pp. 116–147)

Decision-making: This refers to the conclusions, judgments, or actions of those who are authorized to allocate resources, define benefits, and determine eligibility and access to services, adjudicate grievances, establish appeals, or make policy for a government or an agency.

Unjust: Advocates believe that an action, stance, institution, regulation, procedure, or decision is not in accord with the law or the principles of justice. “Unjust” indicates that fairness, equity, lawfulness, justice, and righteousness are absent to some degree.

Unresponsive: Advocates identify persons or institutions that fail to reply, acknowledge, correspond, or answer inquiries, requests, petitions, demands, questions, letters, communiqués, or requests for appointments in a timely fashion if at all.

System(s): This refers to organized agencies designed and authorized to provide services to eligible persons, enforce laws and judgments, and be responsible for key areas of a society's allocation of resources. Examples are the criminal justice system, the mental health system, the legislative system, the welfare system, the health care system, and the transportation system.

This definition provides a coherent and distinguishing set of characteristics for the term advocacy, and offers a systematic foundation for implementing future advocacy practice, education, and research.

History of Social Work Advocacy

Organized social work emerged in the 1870s. The term advocacy was first evidenced in the Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (1917), where it was referred to as a social work role as far back as 1887. At that time, social workers targeted social legislation for children, prisons, immigration, the courts, and working conditions of the poor. During the Progressive years, the late 1800s until 1914, social work advocates fought for basic human rights and social justice for oppressed, vulnerable, and displaced populations, including immigrants, women, children, and minorities. Settlement houses such as the famous Hull House in Chicago promoted equality and social justice. Among the notable social workers of this era were Jane Addams, Edward T. Devine, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Lillian Wald, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Julia Lathrop, Mary Richmond, Florence Kelley, Simon Patten, and Samuel M. Lindsay (Schneider & Lester, 2001; Trattner, 1999).

World War I and the postwar years presented numerous challenges, and many social workers focused their efforts on humanitarianism and international peace. Two social work advocates subsequently received the Nobel Peace Prize—Jane Addams in 1931 and Emily Greene Balch in 1946 (Bicha, 1986). However, the development and inclusion of psychology in social casework techniques had an adverse effect on advocacy. The individual and the person's inadequacies became the focus of attention, blame for poverty and hardship was attributed to the individual rather than the larger forces of society (Kurzman, 1974).

Following the stock market crash in October 1929, advocacy reemerged during the Great Depression. Social workers advocated for economic relief legislation and measures such as the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Harry Hopkins led FERA and Frances Perkins was appointed Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration, the first woman in a president's cabinet. Both were social workers.

After World War II, the word advocacy disappeared from the literature, replaced by the term social action. This term included other concepts such as “citizen participation,” “social change,” and “community organization.” In the 1960s, civil rights, poverty, and inner city life took center stage. Important programs of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society such as the Job Corps, the Youth Corps, Head Start, VISTA, family planning services, neighborhood legal services, and community health centers were developed (Ehrenreich, 1985), renewing interest in advocacy practice for vulnerable and oppressed populations.

Grosser (1965) provided the first contemporary outline of a social work advocate's role, as “co-opted from the field of law.” He believed that an advocate should not be an “enabler, broker, expert, consultant, guide, or social therapist” but should be “a partisan in a social conflict” (p. 18). In 1969, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) appointed an Ad Hoc Committee on Advocacy to define the term advocacy. One element of its definition reflected the lawyer-advocate role as “one who pleads the cause of another” and another element proposed advocacy practice in the political environment as “one who argues for, defends, maintains, or recommends a cause or proposal” (Ad Hoc Committee on Advocacy, 1969, p. 17).

During the 1970s, under President Richard Nixon, an era of benign neglect for social problems began and opposition to social reform gained strength. Social workers experienced obstacles in practicing advocacy because strict limitations were placed on programs funded through federal grants, diminishing social work's efficacy with their targeted populations. The 1980s were also a particular challenge to professional social work advocates, as President Ronald Reagan revealed his political agenda to include (a) reducing the federal deficit and balancing the nation's budget, (b) increasing emphasis on the military and national security, and (c) significantly reducing or eliminating “burdensome” social programs.

Under the Clinton administration in the 1990s, entitlement programs for the vulnerable and at-risk populations were devolved to the states, reducing the federal budget and transferring decision-making authority for social welfare programs to the states. “Welfare reform” was passed in 1996 under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, imposing tighter access to programs for the poor. During the George W. Bush administration, 2000–2008, the issues of the war in Iraq, terrorism, budget deficits, managed care, increased devolution of policy-making to the states, and faith-based initiatives posed a constant challenge to social work advocates in the public sector. At the turn of the 21st century, the Internet and advanced technology emerged as fundamental features in all sectors of society. Hick and McNutt (2002) stated, “just as the early social workers emerged and defined their practice within the Industrial Revolution, today's social workers must reinvent their practice to work within the Information Revolution” (p. 15) (see Electronic Advocacy).

Obligation to Be a Social Work Advocate

Are all social workers obliged to be advocates? Do licensed private practitioners have such an obligation? The ethical responsibility to be an advocate flows directly from the NASW Code of Ethics adopted in 1996 and revised in 1999. The word, advocacy, is found explicitly six times and implied in several other phrasings.

In the Preamble, the Code states, “[A]n historic and defining feature of social work is the profession's focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society. Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients … these activities may be in the form of direct practice, community organizing, consultation, administration, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation.”

Under Purpose of the Code, it is affirmed that “the Code is relevant to all social workers … regardless of their professional functions, the settings in which they work, or the populations they serve.” It also states that “social workers should consider the NASW Code as their primary source” of information about ethical thinking.

Under Ethical Principles, the Code also states that “social workers challenge social injustice” and “pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people.” Further, “[s]ocial workers seek to enhance clients' capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs. Social workers are cognizant of their dual responsibility to clients and to the broader society.”

Under the Code [Section 3.07(a)], Social Workers' Ethical Responsibility in Practice Settings, it is stated that “social work administrators should advocate within and outside their agencies for adequate resources to meet clients' needs,” and in Section 3.07(b), “social workers should advocate for resource allocation procedures that are open and fair.” Sections 3.09(c) and (d) state that social workers “ensure that employers are aware of social workers' ethical obligations as set forth in the NASW Code and the implications of these obligations for social work practice” and “[s]ocial workers should not allow … organization's policies, procedures, regulations … to interfere with their ethical practice of social work.”

Code section 6.01 of the Social Worker's Ethical Responsibilities to the Broader Society/Social Welfare, states that “social workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments. Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, cultural values, and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice.” Section [6.04(a)] states that “[s]ocial workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.” Section [6.04(c)] states that “[s]ocial workers … should advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence, and promote policies that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and social justice for all people.”

Regardless of employment setting, social workers' commitment to practice advocacy flows directly from our Code of Ethics. It is not an option; it is an obligation.

Barriers to Practicing Social Work Advocacy

Despite a clearly defined professional obligation for all social workers to practice advocacy, numerous barriers and attitudes often inhibit them from pursuing it.

Advocacy takes too much time, energy, and personal finances (Ezell, 2001; Hoefer, 2006; Schneider & Lester, 2001). When social workers want to change local, state, or national policies and laws, they often do it “off the clock,” using personal leave, and pay for travel and other out-of-pocket costs themselves.

Sheafor and Horejsi 2003, state that advocacy is misunderstood and often perceived by social workers as “confrontation” between professionals, agencies, and decision makers; it is also perceived as risking important and necessary collaborative relationships, or even losing one's job.

Clinical social workers do not prioritize the interrelationship of clients' needs and laws. Client efficacy often requires advocacy at the individual and the system levels.

Social work agencies and their staff often devote most of their energies to direct service programs (O'Connell, 1978). Although job descriptions may include an advocacy component, social workers may not be encouraged to take time away from service delivery.

Some social work practice is dictated de facto by managerial, not professional considerations. Efficiency is valued over effectiveness (Reisch, 1986).

Neither universities nor professional organizations provide sufficient education or training on how to actually do advocacy (Blakely, 1991). Agencies do not provide sufficient resources to promote or engage in advocacy practice (Ezell, 2001).

Some social workers stand in awe of politicians and are not comfortable with one-on-one lobbying (Ezell, 2001).

In one study, social work students substantively disagreed with the statement “advocacy is the main thrust of social work,” suggesting an imprecise view of the profession (Csikai & Rozensky, 1997).

This list is not all-inclusive. In order to overcome such barriers and attitudes, professional and educational social work leaders must promote a renewed emphasis on the professional obligation to advocate, role model, and communicate core social work values, and provide efficacious education, training, and supervision on advocacy practice.

Electronic Advocacy

In the 21st century, social workers are engaging in electronic advocacy using new tools to address ongoing client issues and policy outcomes (McNutt, 2006). Electronic advocacy, often called online advocacy or cyber activism, refers to the use of e-mail lists, Web sites, message boards, petitions, blogs, social networking, cell phone text messaging, mapping, video and animation, really simple syndication, and other Internet communication tools to advocate, organize, and mobilize support for community causes, “get out the vote” campaigns, and coalition actions (, 2005). The Internet allows advocates to easily include participants on an equal basis, regardless of age, race, gender, or disability (Delany, 2006).

Queiro-Tajallil, Campbell, & McNutt (2003) identify four key processes characteristic of electronic advocacy:

Issue research: The Internet provides quick and efficient access to information, research findings, policy problems and issues, and knowledge about oppositional stances.

Information dissemination and awareness: Through e-mail and Web sites, advocates can contact supporters and the public to inform them about social problems or issues. Advocates can learn about issues, research, and strategies all on the same day.

Coordination and organizing: Although time-consuming, an electronic advocacy campaign to organize supporters is one of the most critical tasks. The lower costs of multiple transactions and communications are highly advantageous. Tracking events, raising funds, monitoring decision makers, conducting conference-call meetings, and coordinating personnel and volunteers are all features available through advanced technology.

Influence: Applying pressure on decision makers through electronic advocacy tools remains one of its outstanding features. Politics and policy issues at the federal, state, and local levels can be shared among advocates who can devise strategies and tactics for influencing elected and appointed officials (pp. 154–156) (see also Johnson, 2006).

As this technology-based advocacy expands among social work advocates, professional practice will still require the traditional commitment to addressing injustices and seeking equitable access to services for vulnerable populations.

Future Implications for Social Work Advocacy

Advocacy is an activity requiring patience, tenacity, compromise, long-term commitment, energy, broad bases of support, research, political skills, knowledge of government, and capacity to analyze (Schneider & Lester, 2001). Fortunately, the centrality of advocacy to the professional social work mission continues to evolve. The two major professional organizations, NASW and the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) are vital partners in promoting increased integration of advocacy into social work practice and education.

Three areas are highlighted for continued support and future resources:

The CSWE, through its Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (CSWE, 2001), requires that more emphasis be placed on policy advocacy practice in undergraduate and graduate curricula. Educational programs must build upon this standard and promote faculty and student involvement in advocacy practice and research. Innovative field internships in advocacy arenas such as local, state, and federal legislatures or agencies using electronic advocacy tools can be developed.

NASW has made significant investments in electoral and legislative domains at the national and state levels. This allows the profession to increase its influence and voice in the election of local, state, and federal officials. Chapters of NASW have also developed legislative campaigns to influence the evolving role of states in welfare policies that have an effect on traditional clientele populations. Continued expansion of such activities is necessary in order to permit members to use their expertise and creativity in informing lawmakers about laws that will actually meet client needs.

As of 2008, there were two U.S. Senators and eight U.S. Representatives in Congress who were social workers and over 60 social workers elected to state legislatures across the United States. Supporting and encouraging social workers to run for elective offices at local, state, and federal levels should be an urgent goal because these individuals will be the actual decision makers on policies affecting vulnerable populations served by social workers. This traditional, but often neglected, role can reinvigorate the profession in a most meaningful way.


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                                                      Further Reading

                                                      Bateman, N. (1995). Advocacy skills: A handbook for human service professionals. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate.Find this resource:

                                                        Briar, S. (1977). In summary. Social Work, 22, 415–416, 444.Find this resource:

                                                          Jansson, B. (2007). Becoming an effective policy advocate: from policy practice to social justice (5th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.Find this resource:

                                                            Schneider, R. L., & Lester, L. (2001). Social work advocacy: a new framework for action. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.Find this resource:

                                                              Shaefor, B. W., & Horejsi, C. R. (2003). Techniques and guidelines for social work practice (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.Find this resource:

                                                                Wolk, J. L. (1981). Are social workers politically active? Social Work, 26, 283–288.Find this resource: