The Democrats – Advocate Groups as Actors

It is difficult to pin down what we mean by “the public”, but we do need to consider the role of people, as opposed to government or corporations, in determining and deciding the fate of public issues. The emphasis in this chapter is on groups purporting to act in the public interest – we call them “advocacy groups”.

There are a multitude of groups and organizations. They range from major churches to evangelical congregations, bingo clubs to weight-watchers, unions to professional associations, political parties to small groups of ideologically committed people. Any or all of these groups can be actors, and many are, at least occasionally. Advocacy groups hold different opinions. Advocacy here does not refer to any particular stance that group might have to the exercise of power or social justice.

Advocacy groups can be important actors, but it will take detective work to find detailed information about most of them. Many groups and organizations expressly devoted to the public interest operate in a shadowland, with little in the way of an accessible record, other than their self-promoting brochures and websites. Individuals’ involvement is even more difficult to gauge.

In order to understand how each group or organization functions, the researcher needs to dig deeply into the character of each group. To aid in this task, we present some observations on the different types of advocacy groups you may encounter, and some features to consider when building a picture of the group, its activities, and its impact. We then provide a guide to conducting research in this challenging area: how to locate information, map the field, and which questions to ask and details to look for to gain an accurate and useful understanding of advocacy groups in your research.

1. Definitions

Advocacy groups Here we use the term “advocacy groups” to describe groups which are neither governmental nor corporate. Five types of advocacy group are defined below.
Issue group An issue group comes together only in reference to a particular public issue. Its members can hold different political perspectives, and have very different interests at stake.
Interest group Members of an interest group have shared financial or legal interests in decisions to be made.
Identity group An identity group is held together by acknowledgement of a characteristic of the members of the group as a whole. Those in the group will define themselves in terms of this common characteristic.
Belief group A belief group exists where participants subscribe to a common set of beliefs, and shape their advocacy accordingly.
Ideological group In an ideological group, participants share not only beliefs and values, but also an explanation for why the situation is what it is. They also subscribe to a plan of action and prescriptions for change, and sometimes even have mechanisms for ensuring that adherents are unwavering in their support.


2. Advocacy Groups: Background Information

A. Terminology

  • It’s hard to find a term to use to refer to advocacy groups that will work for all situations.
  • Other terms you may see include:
    • Non-governmental organizations
    • Civil society organizations
    • Popular organizations
    • Populism
    • Interest groups
    • Special interests
    • Stakeholders
    • User group
  • Each of these terms makes assumptions about the legitimacy of some groups relative to others. We use “advocacy group” as it avoids much of this ideological baggage.


I’ve seen several of the terms listed used seemingly indiscriminately. In particular “stakeholder” is a commonly used term in my field of research, and several groups refer to themselves as “stakeholders’ or “interest groups”. Isn’t it easier just to use the accepted terms?


It may be easier, and acceptable (so long as you define the terms). However, the term “interest groups” can imply that all groups involved in deliberation and/or decision-making have a vested interest, normally a financial interest. Those who have no financial interest either have no entitlement to participate in policy making or alternatively are only pursuing power and publicity. The term “stakeholders” can often extend the notion of interest to groups with no financial involvement (for example, environmental groups). But the implication of using “stakeholder” as a way to talk about advocacy and the public is that all interests, financial or otherwise, are seen as roughly equivalent to each other. All groups are stakeholders, including corporations! Using these terms can therefore make assumptions without researching the actual nature of the groups, or can elide differences between very different groups.

 Other terms can carry baggage about the role of groups. For instance, the use of the term “civil society organizations” could imply that groups operating outside of government can and should be better at governance than governments themselves, or that they represent the public but government does not. All terms can be problematic. Make sure that whichever word you’re using to describe a group does not contain unarticulated assumptions about the group’s nature, purpose, or legitimacy.


B. The Common Bond

  • All advocacy groups must be held together by some common bond.
  • The bond may be weak or strong, but group members see themselves as having something in common; individuals see the group as an extension of some aspect of themselves.
  • Remember that this bond is a matter of perception – and there will always be conflict within groups about how the common bond is understood.
  • Issue groups have little in common other than their interest in a particular public issue.
    • This bond may be weak, and issue groups come and go.
    • Spokespeople are needed to give voice to the group viewpoint, but may not always have strong relationships with group members.
  • Identity groups are based on a shared identity as, for example, women, people of African descent, or workers
    • These groups are amorphous, with few signs of formal organization.
    • The common bond is not necessarily agreed upon by those in whose name advocacy takes place.
    • The bond is weak, except insofar as it is successfully promoted by spokespeople.
  • Belief groups bring together people who share a common set of beliefs.
    • Their members profess agreement to a specific set of beliefs and values, and many are committed to taking particular actions with respect to them.
    • These groups may also be bonded by like-mindedness. The common bond is a general perspective (e.g. individuals seeming themselves as progressive or conservative).
    • Groups of like-mind exist mainly in the eyes of their supporters, and individuals may have little knowledge of each other or commitment to joint action.
  • Ideological groups share a common set of beliefs and values, but their commitment is more encompassing than in a belief-based group.
  • Interest groups are bonded by the benefits that derive from the group’s activities.
    • These groups attempt to deliver specific benefits to their members as well as to the wider community they usually say they represent.
  • Groups rarely have only one type of common bond.
    • A union is an interest group, but can also be an issue group on occasion, and for some members it is also a belief-based group. When it speaks in the name of all workers, including those who are not members, and those who may disagree with its stance, it can also be an identity group.
  • Be careful not to oversimplify your understanding of the common bond.
  • It is helpful to try to identify the common bond(s) in a group because it will indicate the character of the group, the activities it is likely to engage in, differences among various groups, and the strength of the ties binding the group.

C. Audience

  • Virtually all advocacy groups conceive of themselves as acting for the well-being of society.
  • They will speak in generalities about the public interest, and suggest that the decisions they propose will benefit everyone.
  • The audience is always said to be “the public”.
  • However, by necessity, each advocacy group chooses to address one or more specific audiences, and casts its arguments accordingly.
  • It is useful to identify the intended audience. Possibilities include:
    • Government officials empowered to make decisions.
    • The general public (i.e. the goal is to influence opinion) – as it is difficult to reach an audience of the general public, groups seeking to influence opinion will rely on well known spokespeople or the mass media.
    • Its own members.
    • Other groups with similar aims that differ in some particular respect.
  • Of course, other possible audiences exist, and a group may have more than one kind of audience in mind.
  • Each type of audience requires a different strategy and different modes of communication.
  • You can discern the intended audiences from the activities undertaken, publications produced, writing styles adopted and media used.


The groups I’m looking at rarely seem to declare their audience. What clues can I look for to work this out?


As stated, groups will tailor the kind of publications they produce, their writing style, and the media used to their intended audience. For example, if a group is focusing mainly on an audience of government decision-makers, it will write in a manner and style that such officials find familiar. The group will write lengthy reports with as much statistical and other data as it can muster, and provide a bullet-point executive summary, a list of people consulted, and recommendations. The report may use the political discourse of the day, perhaps speaking about “deficits and restraint”, the “undesirability of regulation”, or “cultural industries”.

If a group is focusing its attention on its own member, the spokespeople will likely assume that everyone already shares the same terminology, values and beliefs. Efforts will be put to explaining why the group is worthwhile and why it Is engaged in the right sort of activities. Newsletters, pamphlets, listserves, and websites are good indicators of an audience that is already supporters.

If a group is focused on other groups with similar aims, they may take pains to distinguish themselves, and direct attention to arguing points of difference in definitions, key concepts, strategies for action, etc.

D. Funding

  • Advocacy costs a lot of money. Groups must pay for staff, office space, newsletters, conferences, and all kinds of other resources and activities necessary for effective advocacy.
  • Interest-based groups often have access to large amounts of money and they survive well on membership fees, and can adjust fees to suit their budget if necessary.
  • Ideological groups also have a relatively easy time raising necessary funds, as many of them tithe their members and solicit donations.
  • Other groups can struggle to raise funds. They may be dependent on membership fees, but money must be spent to garner memberships. Fees will rarely cover all the costs.
  • Advocacy groups are often dependent on some combination of donations, grants, foundations, contract research, consultancy and government support.
  • Many groups (especially in the international arena) would not exist without the support of inter-governmental organizations.
  • All funding comes with strings.
    • Interest- or belief-based groups must ensure that their members are happy enough to pay the necessary fees or tithes, or to make large donations.
    • Other sources of funding establish relationships that otherwise might not be important. If groups are funded through taking on consultancies or preparing reports on contract, the terms of these contracts may cause them to redirect some of their efforts from advocacy.
    • Many advocacy groups acquire funds by performing services for governments, service organizations, or even corporations.
    • Corporations lend their support and make financial contributions to a wide range of groups. Advocacy groups relying on corporate funds may have to consider avoiding losing their corporate sponsors in their decision-making. 

E. Orientation

  • Advocacy groups have different attitudes towards expert panels arranged by government, participation in stakeholder negotiations and other activities.
  • Some groups are eager to participate in deliberations and decision-making, expecting they will have influence – we call these “pragmatic” groups.
  • Other groups find it more important to stand outside the decision-making process in order to make critical comments about the content and the process of decision-making – we call these “oppositional” groups.
  • Groups exist on a spectrum between oppositional and pragmatic.
  • Advocacy groups that are more oppositional are not likely to negotiate decision outcomes and might even be unwilling to engage in deliberations. There comments are often deeply rooted in beliefs or ideology.
  • Oppositional groups see their advocacy best served by making their points of view clear and are unlikely to be swayed by new information or arguments.
  • Pragmatic groups are likely to take every opportunity presented and adapt their strategy to the circumstances. They are usually attuned to new information, but are careful to ensure that the basis for their advocacy is not compromised.
  • Oppositional groups are unlikely to change their orientation, but may nevertheless participate in an inquiry in order to state their views in an open setting.

F. Organizational Features, Transparency, Accountability, and Democracy

  • Advocacy groups are often legally incorporated as non-profit organizations. If so, they will have a Board of Directors responsibly for ensuring that the obligation meets its obligations under its articles of incorporation, and for making major decisions.
  • The Board may play a greater or lesser role in running the organization, depending on the group in question.
  • Boards of advocacy groups are often composed of volunteers with limited time to spend on organizational details. Often they will act on recommendations from staff.
  • Members will often have limited involvement in the day-to-day activities of many advocacy groups.
  • Staff are likely to play the most prominent role in a group’s operations and activities, and will prepare information for the Board and members.
  • In effect, the staff members will often determine the nature and priorities of the advocacy group.
  • If there is significant conflict about the agenda, perspective, or activities of the group, the routine relationship between the staff, members, and the Board may break down. Members may become active and take their views to the media, and Boards can assume a more active role.


What does it mean to speak of democracy, accountability and transparency in the case of advocacy groups? How can these groups claim to represent the “public interest” if they are usually controlled by a small group of staff?


It always important to remember that the information produced by these groups is intended to persuade people to their cause – that is the point of an advocacy group. The research strategy outlined in this chapter will at least direct you towards the critical questions to ask about the work of a group, so that you can get a clearer understanding of its nature and impact and, importantly, who is really guiding the action.

That said, it can be very difficult to talk about democracy, accountability and transparency in this context. Transparency is easiest for the research to assess – notwithstanding the group’s publications, it is commonplace for very little of its inner working to be open to discussion. Accountability is taken care of by virtue of the Board’s responsibilities, the hiring of senior staff by the Board, and the involvement of members in the annual general meeting. It is hardest to examine the relationship between advocacy groups and democracy. This question has attracted extensive debate in the academic literature, and the researcher is left to read and must about possible answers.

G. Individuals as Advocates

  • We can speak of an attentive or inattentive public.
    • Not all attentive people are advocates, and unfortunately, not all advocates are attentive.
    • Attentive people pay attention to the public issues; they amass and assess information and form opinions on it. They more or less know of the deliberations and decisions of concern to themselves.
    • Inattentive people may read headlines, have a casual interest in the news, and exchange occasional remarks with others. They invest little time in amassing and assessing information.
    • While both attentive and inattentive people may have inaccurate information, inattentive people are lest likely to invest time or resources in establishing facts or distinguishing facts from falsehoods.
    • Often inattentive people are represented by or are members of advocacy groups.
  • Specific individuals can play an important role in advocacy. They have the vision to establish a group and cement a common bond, and often take on leadership roles in pursuing a group’s agenda.
  • Sometimes an individual spokesperson can come to stand as a symbol for the group as a whole.
  • It is possible, though less common, for individuals unconnected with a group to play a role in public decision-making.
  • Given that individuals (as opposed to groups) usually have little access to media and public influence, and given that they often lack demonstrable interests, it is likely that they are not very influential. Interviews will help to get a clear picture in this case.

3. Steps in Research

A. List Advocacy Groups and Organizations

  • Start by creating a list of groups and organizations that could be active regarding your public issue.
  • Conduct an internet search, look at volumes identifying non-profit organizations, scan business telephone listings for “organizations”, search the shelves at identified organizations for publications of other advocacy groups
  • Use your imagination and think like a detective – any group that could possibly be involved should be included at this stage.

B. Map the Landscape

  • Place all the organizations identified on a map (don’t worry too much about the order at this stage).
  • If you think a particular group might exist, but you haven’t been able to locate it, it can still be included on the map).
  • This map represents the possible landscape of advocacy on the issue of concern.

C. Identify Actively Involved Groups

  • Circle the groups on the map that are actively involved in your public issue.
  • You can check newspapers, hearings of government agencies, city council meetings, and conferences.
  • Later, you can draw lines to show connections between and among groups.

D. Focus on Relevant Groups

Now that you have identified the groups playing an active role, you can collect detailed information.

  • Most advocacy groups maintain websites: mine them for whatever data is available.
  • Some websites provide a vast array of information; others give only a statement of goals and contact information.
  • Many groups have publications, also of varying detail and quality.
  • Always remember that any information provided (in websites or other publications) is intended to persuade, and look at it with a critical eye.
  • Annual reports may provide helpful information about sources of income, the Board of Directors, and group composition.


What am I looking for in an annual report? These seem pretty routine, with little variation from year to year.


Annual reports may provide a balance sheet, or at least describe sources of income – this is crucial information. The Board of Directors will be listed. Ask If these are the kind of people likely to be involved in decision-making, or are they so committed elsewhere that their involvement is likely to be limited? This can provide an insight to the internal working of the group. Also look for a list of sponsors or an advisory committee. Who are the members? Do the sponsors include corporations? This might signal a relationship between advocacy and corporate activity that is worth exploring further. Take a membership list with a grain of salt. A very large number of people may be counted as members in the annual report, even though being a member might mean nothing more than signing something on the street by a representative of the group. But even this can be useful information.

E. Interview Key Spokespeople

  • You cannot do research on advocacy without interviewing spokespeople from the advocacy groups that seem to be the most active or influential.
  • Remember (again): any information provided will be intended to persuade.
  • It will take expert probing to get beyond superficial information to the details of how the group operates and why. Prepare carefully for your interviews.


How do I choose who to interview?


As discussed, spokespeople will present information that puts the group in the best possible light. They are worth interviewing, but try to get them to go beyond the superficial information. The most useful interviews are often with groups that either oppose or take a somewhat different stance from the group of interest. These groups make it their business to know about the policies and activities of others. They know about the finely calibrated differences between one group and another. The constraints that apply to spokespeople do not apply here. It is also useful to ask questions of governmental or corporate actions – they make it their business to know something about advocacy groups, especially those that oppose their decisions or activities. They know about the level of expertise within the group and have an opinion about the group’s claims to being representative of a larger public.

F. Search Social Media

  • Social media can be useful source material when researching advocacy groups.
  • Reading social media could serve as an emergency substitute for interviewing (but interviews are still superior).
  • Blogs often contain frank and useful information, but it MUST be checked for advocacy.
  • Check for a group’s Facebook or Twitter accounts, and any relevant listserves or chatrooms.

G. Attend a Meeting

  • If at all possible, attend a meeting of the group or a deliberation where it is a participant.
  • There is no substitute for actual observation.

You should create a checklist of information you need to know about the group for your research, and make sure that you gather all this information through Steps D-G). A suggested checklist is provided to help you start. (See at the bottom of the page)

Once you have read this chapter, you should be able to:

  1. Have a basic understanding of the role of advocacy groups in public decision-making.
  2. Identify different kinds of advocacy groups.
  3. Understand how and why these groups form and operate.
  4. Describe the common bond that holds a group together.
  5. Identify features of the group (their audience, funding, etc) that may influence the actions they take or the kind of information they produce.
  6. Map the relevant groups operating in your field.
  7. Locate and analyse sources of information regarding advocacy groups.
  8. Complete a checklist of information on your chosen groups.

Advocacy Groups Checklist

The basics:

  • How big is the group?
  • What is its budget?
  • How many staff does it have?
  • What does it claim to be doing?
  • What are its recent activities?
  • Which issues are the focus of its concern?
  • What arguments are made on each of these issues?
  • What activities are done (and funded)?


  • Who is on the Board?
  • Is there an advisory committee, and if so, who are its participants?
  • Is there a membership and if so, how large is it said to be?
  • How does someone before a member?
  • What is the cost of membership?
  • What is the role of members?
  • Who authors publications?


  • What formal and informal relationships with other groups exist?
  • Is the group a part of a coalition or represented within an umbrella group?
  • Is it, itself, an umbrella group representing others?
  • Whom does the group consider to be its natural allies?
  • Which groups does this advocacy group distinguish itself from,or see itself in opposition to?
  • Are the relationships thus identified on-going or do they come and go?

What is it that holds the group together?

  • Are there common beliefs?
  • Do the members know those who run the group?
  • Do the members know each other?
  • Why do people become members?
  • Are there groups competing for the same members?
  • How likely is it that those in the group “speak with one voice”?
  • How does this group differ from groups with which it disagrees?
  • How does this group differ from other groups professing the same beliefs or points of view?


  • To what extent are the group’s publications and statements aimed at members or potential members?
  • How important is the media for this group?
  • With whom does this group have regular contact and interaction?
  • Is the audience for the group’s advocacy the general public or specific people or institutions?


  • Does this group consider itself an insider to the processes of deliberation and decision-making?
  • Are its proposals, recommendations or demands pragmatic in nature?
  • How important does the group consider the immediate consequences of its proposals, recommendations or demands?
  • How important is it for the group to stake out a definitive position, independently of any interest in pragmatic measures?

Funding and/or sponsorship:

  • Approximately how much money is needed to run the organization and its activities annually?
  • What are the sources of this funding?
  • How much is government a source of funding, and if so, how does government contribute money (through grants or contracts, for example)?
  • Is there corporate funding or sponsorship, and if so how do corporate actors contribute money, through grants, foundations, sponsorship, contracts?
  • Do the groups activities contribute to the funding?  If so, which activities require and receive funding from which sources?
  • To what extent is membership a major source of funding not only for the organization but also for all its activities?
  • How are each of the activities, say research or a report) funded?


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