< Browse more articles

This Isn’t Your Grandpa’s Advocacy 
Advocacy Isn't Just About Government Relations

By Ken Cousineau, CAE

I met with a corporate Vice President a few weeks ago to discuss his business and how a product produced by another company could potentially be beneficial to his company’s future success.  My role was to broker a business relationship between the two companies, which were trying to sell non-competing products within the same marketplace.  Our discussion started off very cautiously.  I was feeling a bit like a snake oil sales representative trying to get this VP to accept what I was saying as factual.  He seemed to be treating much of my commentary as conjecture or assumptions on my part.

Since I had a short term but positive relationship with this individual in another context, I decided to segue our discussion to more personal topics in an attempt to warm up the meeting a bit.  After catching up on family and sports and having a few laughs about some current events, I brought the discussion back to the potential business dealings between his corporation and my client.  In the end, this tactic was effective.  The VP agreed to consider my proposal outlining the terms and conditions of a business-to-business relationship between my client and his company.  The terms of that relationship would need to be negotiated but essentially his company would be acting as a distributor of my client’s product.  The VP had an established sales force and distribution network whereas my client had a new product that needed market exposure.  There were benefits to both parties to entering into this relationship.  In the end, the decision was made to conduct a six-month pilot and then, based on the results, to either expand the pilot across the country or abandon the relationship with no hard feelings.    In addition, the VP also asked for a proposal from another client of mine to supply a number of products that his company purchases annually.

Component parts of advocacy

Would the above scenario be considered an advocacy process?  It had all of the component parts including extensive research, a rationale, coherent position on my part, an effective presentation of that position to the target audience, a negotiation that involved both parties getting benefits from the outcome, and it all happened over an extended time frame that culminated in the meeting described above.  Most association executives wouldn’t categorize this as advocacy, but to me, this is definitely an advocacy scenario, although not in the traditional sense.  Traditional advocacy is almost always about some form of societal change that relates to policy, laws, attitudes or programs that are the purview of some level of government.  It almost always involves government, both at the political and bureaucratic levels.  In my scenario, although it has nothing to do with any government entity it does utilize many, if not all, of the classic tools that need to be employed to be successful at your advocacy efforts.  Let’s look at some of those tools and techniques.

The starting point

The starting point for any advocacy process is to identify, in very specific terms, your issue or “ask”.  This is what you expect to achieve at the end of the process.  Spend time and get input from your key stakeholders to ensure that your “ask” is precisely what you want, and if you are successful, that the change will result in significant benefits for your client, organization or group.  Be very clear in defining the “ask” and why it is reasonable, logical, a best practice and good for all individuals with a stake in the project. 

This clearly defined request needs to be effectively communicated to the party or parties that can make the change you are looking to achieve.  This stage has two components – effective communication and determining the appropriate parties.  Effective communication may only be possible once you know the appropriate parties.  It also involves having a succinct message and knowing how to deliver that message in a number of situations.  It is critical that the message be communicated consistently and that it be repeated as often as possible.

Identify the right parties

With respect to the appropriate parties, in some cases they may be very easy to determine, and at others the desired outcome may require actions by several parties.  The necessary participants may not be readily apparent.  They may only be identified once you start down the path of delivering your message. Although critical to achieving the end result, there may not be any current connection between the parties or between you and the parties.  This is another time consuming aspect of the process.  It is also the most important component of the process next to the development of your message.  The better your relationship the more the receiving party will trust that you are being honest, that you are working to implement positive change and that they can depend on you to deliver on your part of the agreement.  All of these are sidebars to having a positive relationship and they are all extremely important to your advocacy efforts.

Another interesting component of advocacy involves the interests of the party or parties that are receiving your message.  If one or more of these parties has an end that it is trying to achieve, that provides an opportunity for the advocacy effort.  If you, as advocate, can align your request in such a way that it provides an opportunity for those you are advocating with to achieve something that they have been trying to achieve, the chance of your request being met with a favourable response increases significantly.  As such, it is important to know the goals of those to whom you are advocating.  Once you know their goals and objectives, you have the opportunity to explain to them how your request will enhance their chances of being successful in their own efforts.  If you can do that, your efforts have a much greater chance of success.  If you do not take the other parties objectives into account, you do so at the peril of not being able to achieve your objectives.

The final component that you need to keep in mind when advocating is time.  Advocacy takes time.  It just doesn’t happen because you have covered off all of the component parts that have been discussed above.  The time element will vary depending on the parties involved but as the advocate, you may not be in a position to reduce the time line to any significant extent.


So, if you take the component parts – define the “ask”, enhance your message, identify your targets, cultivate your relationships, spend the time to communicate, repeat – and apply them to the situation outlined in the first paragraph, does it fit?  It definitely fits and it applies to advocacy between not-for-profit (NFP) organizations like associations and governments (traditional) but it also applies to advocacy between two or more NFPs and between one or more NFP’s and one or more private sector companies.

With respect to the situation I outlined at the outset, the advocacy efforts have led to a pilot project for one client, with the opportunity to expand the project across Canada later this year, and, the opportunity for a second client to submit a proposal to the company to supply it with a disposable product on an annual basis.  Both are significant positive outcomes for the parties involved that resulted from having an effective approach to advocacy.


The starting point for any advocacy process is to identify, in very specific terms, your issue or “ask”.

It also applies to advocacy between two or more NFPs and between one or more NFP’s and one or more private sector companies.

The final component that you need to keep in mind when advocating is time.  Advocacy takes time.