I work for a London-based NGO which aims to influence the UK Government on trade policy; particularly how trade affects global development and climate change. This post is not about trade policy, but about working in advocacy more generally.
I used to work in the UK Parliament, which I have written about here. I will be moving on again soon to work for a foreign policy think tank, but I believe advocacy is a potentially high impact route which very few EAs (in my experience) go for.
- What is NGO advocacy?
- What sort of roles are available?
- What does the role involve?
- How to apply
- How can working in NGO advocacy have an impact?
- What are the risks?
- What sort of skills are involved?
- What sort of experience is helpful?
- What are future career prospects?
1. What is NGO advocacy?
For the purposes of this post, I mean working for a nonprofit organisation to influence government policy. 'Advocacy' roles are often distinguished from 'policy' roles: while the latter focuses on research and policy development, advocacy is about communicating with decision-makers to influence their policy.
This includes things like building and managing relationships with politicians and civil servants; writing briefings and other materials for these audiences; speaking at or organising events to influence policy-makers, and working with the media, among other things.
Advocacy is the same as 'public affairs', 'lobbying' or 'political communications' - it's just a slightly nicer word, and more common in the nonprofit sector!
This post does not cover agency public affairs, where you work for a company which takes on clients (including nonprofits) to help them with their lobbying goals. I have no experience of working for an agency but my instinct is that you have greater impact by working for an NGO that is focused on an issue you care about, though I'm sure agency public affairs involves similar skills and may be better for professional development.
2. What sort of roles are available?
As mentioned above, roles are typically distinguished from policy or research teams, though in smaller NGOs the same person may end up doing both. Roles tend to be divided by seniority rather than responsibility. Examples of the titles associated with different levels are listed below, in order of highest to lowest seniority. Note that ‘public affairs’ may be replaced with ‘political communications’, ‘parliamentary’, ‘advocacy’, ‘government relations’ or similar.
- Head of communications (or ‘director’): a role which may include managing non-public affairs communications, such as press communications and external (nongovernmental) relations.
- Head of public affairs (or ‘director’, ‘manager’): responsible for all public affairs communications, likely to manage junior roles
- Senior public affairs adviser (or ‘manager’)
- Public affairs officer (or ‘executive’)
- Public affairs assistant (or ‘executive assistant’)
- Public affairs intern
Smaller organisations may only have one or two of these roles, and may not always use the more senior labels. For instance, the ‘senior public affairs adviser’ for a small NGO may be effectively the head of public affairs, and may not manage any junior officers.
3. What does the role involve?
Compared to corporate or agency lobbyists, NGOs tend to focus on political influencing and seeking policy change, rather than generally managing government relationships, though some NGOs will have more corporate-style interests in policy, compliance and government relations.
At more junior levels, working in advocacy involves monitoring political and legislative opportunities for impact, sending politicians suggested questions, drafting briefings and organising events in Parliament/Congress to influence legislators. For instance, a political advocacy officer at ChristianAid might read Hansard debates on international development and send briefings to MPs ahead of development questions, or organise an event at Labour Party conference on development and climate change (insert equivalent institutions for US, EU or other contexts).
At more senior levels, advocacy involves building relationships with politicians and senior civil servants to effect policy change. This might include meeting with politicians and (shadow) ministers, drafting amendments to legislation, attending civil service stakeholder meetings and speaking on panels, including giving evidence to parliamentary committees.
It is likely that, particularly for smaller NGOs, advocacy roles will include some press communications, cross-sector campaigning and policy work. Smaller NGOs may not have separate policy and public affairs staff, so advocacy officers may be expected to understand the policy issues in depth and produce policy research.
In the UK:
Overall range: £20,000 - £80,000+ (highly dependent on the size of the NGO and seniority)
Typical salary: £45,000 (advocacy manager in a medium-sized NGO, perhaps managing one staff members)
A head of advocacy for a large NGO in the UK is unlikely to earn more than £80,000. An advocacy officer at an NGO with 5 years of work experience will typically earn around £35,000.
I believe the median and range are both much higher in the US, though in Europe rates are probably similar to the UK, or even less outside of the larger capitals. Corporate lobbying is unsurprisingly better paid in all countries.
5. How to apply
In the UK, the vast majority of entry-level and mid-level advocacy roles are advertised on the Work4MP Jobs website.
Other roles may be advertised on CharityJob, Public Affairs Networking or Guardian Jobs. Using search terms (public affairs, advocacy, parliament, political) and filters can help identify advocacy roles from more general charity, campaigning or PR roles.
Every organisation has its own recruitment process. Smaller NGOs typically ask for a CV and cover letter, followed by an interview. Larger companies may have a more formalised recruitment process, with aptitude tests and assessment centres, though this is somewhat rare for advocacy roles.
6. How can working in NGO advocacy have an impact?
In short, advocacy for an NGO can have an impact by driving government policy in a better direction. An individual’s impact will depend on:
- The cause area: perhaps the most important consideration; an NGO lobbying on a low-impact area may even inadvertently cause harm by directing attention or money away from other issues. Likewise, an NGO working on a high priority, neglected and tractable issue can have a huge impact. Especially if this is the kind of issue which requires policy solutions and cannot be solely addressed by philanthropy/donations (such as AI policy or great power conflict).
- The NGO’s effectiveness: some of the most influential NGOs have good relationships with key decision-makers, most often the Government (such as Oxfam or WWF). Others may be more adversarial in their approach, but draw on strong public and media support (such as Greenpeace or 38 Degrees). It is difficult to assess NGO effectiveness when it comes to lobbying, as policy change can have a wide range of causes, and having a close relationship with the Government is no guarantee of impact.
- Influence within the NGO: some NGOs prioritise advocacy more than others, often due to caution about political lobbying. This can affect an individual advocacy officer's influence. Note that having influence over direction might be more important if the NGO is not very effective, to help them prioritise better. For example, an advocacy manager may be able to get their animal welfare charity to focus on farm animals rather than pets. This is potentially more impactful if their organisation was previously ineffectively working in a high-impact area, or has the option to move to a higher impact area.
- Dial-shifting: even if NGO advocacy does not lead to direct policy change, there is good reason to believe that ‘shifting the dial’ or encouraging political conversation in a particular direction can have a long run impact. Many successful campaigns take decades, or even centuries, and rely on early adopters going against the status quo (for example, feminism, which now dates back centuries and has seen a progression of different wins).
As with other roles, working in NGO advocacy can also be impactful through skill-development and exposure to important networks. This can be used to work at a more senior level, in a more impactful area, or leveraged to pursue other careers in the wider policy sector (discussed later on).
7. What are the risks?
Compared to other jobs in politics, the political or reputational risks of working for an NGO are generally low. Most NGOs have favourable public opinion, though an important minority may be associated with particular political ideologies. The career risks are also low, in that it is possible to go from NGO advocacy into other political and policy roles.
The biggest risk is that the role is not impactful, or even has a negative impact. This will depend very much on the factors described in answer to the previous question.
As with other roles, picking the right cause will be important. In some areas, EAs might caution against public lobbying. For example, many have identified US-China conflict as a priority area in terms of importance and neglectedness, but it is not clear how to lobby on this issue, and engagement could risk inflaming a volatile situation further.
Political lobbying can also have the inadvertent effect of politicising an issue, which can hinder progress if significant parties or individuals decide they are set against it. EA engagement with advocacy therefore needs to be carefully thought through, and is not simply a matter of applying lobbying pressure to existing EA cause areas.
8. What sort of skills are involved?
Compared to other roles in policy, strategy and communication skills are more useful than research and academic skills. The following skills are particularly useful:
- Interpersonal skills: a large part of the job is likely to involve speaking to politicians, civil servants, the media and/or individuals in the NGO sector.
- Writing skills: particularly blogs, short briefings and emails to decision-makers. Simple English and persuasive communication is more important than in-depth policy writing.
- Strategic skills: particularly in terms of predicting political changes, having a sense of how policy change comes about, and what influence an individual organisation has.
- Presentation and public speaking skills are likely to be useful at more senior levels, as public affairs directors may end up speaking on panels, speaking to the media or giving evidence to parliamentary committees.
- Political knowledge and monitoring: a keen eye for political developments, potential hooks and wider political context is useful.
9. What sort of experience is helpful?
Some NGOs, particularly larger ones, may offer internships and entry level jobs similar to private sector graduate schemes. For these roles, a university degree and some demonstration of interest (such as research area or volunteering) may be sufficient experience.
For mid-level and more senior roles, the following experience is helpful:
- Working in Parliament/Congress or for a political party, especially if this work involved focusing on the same policy area
- Working in a think tank on a relevant policy area
- Media, press or digital communications
- Public Relations or advertising
- Relevant academic study
- Involvement with the same or similar NGOs - e.g. as a volunteer, trustee or adviser
Demonstrating commitment to the cause and emotional engagement is important, especially for smaller organisations, or those working on more niche issues.
10. What are future career prospects?
Working in NGO advocacy can be a stepping stone towards more or less any other kind of work in policy. It is not unusual for advocacy staff to move between different cause areas, since the skills are seen as relevant and applicable. Advocacy professionals may go on to work in:
- Government / civil service - either in communications, or in the same policy area that they advocated on
- Parliament/Congress and political parties - mostly as researchers, though there is also evidence of advocacy professionals become MPs/legislators
- The media
- Think tanks and policy research
- Non advocacy charity work - including policy, management and operations
- Law, especially if relevant to the policy area
- Private sector public affairs or public relations
If you are interested in working in NGO advocacy, particularly in a UK context, I'd love to chat to you - just drop me a message.