So….you want to be an advocacy professional?

Looking down at tiled floor that has the words “passion led us here” emblazoned in red next to two sets of feet.
Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

am a huge believer in giving back to the community, it’s why I am a non-profit advocacy professional. It is one of my favourite things to mentor and advise people who are early on in their career and considering the profession, or perhaps are mid-career and are increasingly feeling like they want to be motivated by their passion rather than their pension. These conversations have helped me develop the advice I give below.

I have hired many people for different advocacy roles at a wide range of job levels, and there are always a group of core competencies that I look for. So before you unnecessarily throw your money away because you feel obliged to go back to school to take a Public Policy Administration degree (you don’t) or someone told you you need to have a project management certification or take a course in communications (both not true), I want to provide you with the advice I have given to others over the years on what skills you actually need to build and demonstrate in order to be successful in this line of work.

Which qualification should I have?

The beautiful world of advocacy is multifaceted, combining communications, government relations, marketing, campaigning, public relations, and much more. So regardless of the degree you have, there is always going to be something missing from a qualification alone. Some people have a background in politics. Others have a History degree, or a degree in Journalism, or another related field. Do not get hung up on getting a specific degree, as there is no degree that directly leads to a career in advocacy. I have an undergraduate degree and two master’s degrees in Classics and Ancient History, which has some transferable skills but definitely was not the make or break of my career prospects, and I have also hired people with a wide variety of professional qualifications.

What personal qualities should I have?

  • Be a personable chameleon. If you are not a people person, then this line of work is not for you. One day you could be at a meeting with other community organizers in the morning, in the afternoon you could be coaching a community member on their individual advocacy issue, and in the evening you could be rubbing shoulders with politicians at an event. When my partner and I worked from home together during the pandemic, he asked me when I ever got any real work done because I am always talking to people. When interviewing a prospective employee, I look at whether I can see this person being adaptable and successful in all these environments. An organization is not going to put a community organizer who can’t appropriately channel their passion in front of politicians and therefore create a major reputational risk. Nor will they put a person who is more traditional but can’t soften their rigidity in the mix with community members, and risk alienating the community from the organization. At my core I am always my authentic self in the actions I take and the words I say, but I also know how to adapt to the environment I find myself in.
  • Embrace the unknown. If you are someone who is certainty driven and likes to carry out the same process every single day, this is not the work for you. Even organizations with a very specific focus like climate change or penal reform will often have a whole sub-level of issues that they work on which falls under the broader mission umbrella. You can be an expert in advocacy, but you also need to be a quick learn in picking up the fundamentals from the subject matter experts across your organization, because your job is then to put an argument and strategy around what you heard. You will be working in multiple worlds from one minute to the next, and need to have the ability to shift gears in your brain at a moment’s notice.
  • Be an argument builder. You need to be able to demonstrate that you can build a coherent argument on a wide variety of issues. Normally I get a good sense from a person’s cover letter if they can build a solid argument, because if you can’t sell me on you as a potential team member via a document that I hope you spent at least a little time on, then that indicates to me that you aren’t going to be able to build a solid argument on an issue and ultimately persuade decision makers.
  • Endure. If you’re looking for a career that gives you instant gratification (beyond the daily gratification that you are having a positive impact) then you are in the wrong line of work. You will be knocking on doors that may remain firmly closed, in spite of multiple and clever strategic attempts. You will be working on big system changes issues for multiple years, slowly chipping away and building momentum on your chosen issue. There’s nothing easy and quick about addressing complex fundamental societal issues. Think about ways that you can demonstrate a long-term mindset, as well as some quick wins you have had along the way.

What experience should I have?

  • Volunteer experience. While this is always a great skill to have for most jobs, it is especially true in advocacy. As I mentioned above, there is no specific degree for this career, so you will need to demonstrate how what you’ve done so far is transferable to an advocacy role. The first advocacy/campaigns role I applied for had over 200 applicants. When I asked why they hired me for the role, it was because my volunteering experience had demonstrated that I had insights into the community the organization was serving, as well as existing connection and commitment to that community.
  • Project/Campaign Management. A lot of what we do is reacting to the sudden clusterbomb that the government or a decision maker has dropped upon our community and we have to spring into action and respond. But a lot of what we hope to do is proactively plan and build campaigns for mapped out execution. I like to see that people have experience in planning and rolling out a project, and that can come from a wide range of sources and doesn’t have to be a political campaign or directly related to advocacy, although it’s a bonus if it is.
  • Mobilization. This can also take many forms, whether that’s experience managing volunteers (which requires engagement and mobilization as they are not doing it for the money), experience fundraising (persuading others to take an action), or bringing people together somehow through a personal interest like directing an amateur play or being a student politics campaigner. Managers manage, but a true leader is able to bring people along with them even though they don’t have a fancy job title or official prestige. You cannot do this work alone, so you will need to convince others to join you along for the ride.

What I will leave you with is this. If you want to go back to school because you are passionate about that degree and the prospect fills you with joy, then I say go for it. But don’t let fear be the main driver towards paying for professional designations that you do not truly want or need. Or believe that once you have more qualifications, then you will be “good enough”. The vast majority of what I learned was on the job and through my volunteer and professional experience, sprinkled with a bit of natural ability and temperament. I salute you for considering such a wonderful career, and wish you well on your journey.

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