Learning Lab

About this blog
As an independent consultant, I get to work on lots of interesting projects with a wide variety of organisations. The aim of this blog is to capture what I’m learning and share that learning with people who are interested.


What I learned: The Critical Role of the ‘Advocacy Entrepreneur’

Project and Client*

Over the last three years I have developed and led an online advocacy training course which supports civil society organisations and activists to think more effectively about how they can influence change.

Many of the people that I trained were part of a programme funded by the Dutch Government which included support for advocates in conflict-affected countries.

In this blog I’m going to focus on what I learned from this experience about the personal skills and qualities that are needed to do effective advocacy in these contexts – the need for advocacy entrepreneurs.

What is an advocacy entrepreneur?

While a course in advocacy can give people tools and approaches for thinking through how they can catalyse change, it won’t provide a blueprint for success particularly in a complex context. In this project I’ve found that much of the success of the advocacy endeavours has come down to the personal qualities of the people involved.

In contexts where government institutions are weak or predatory effective advocacy has relied on an advocacy entrepreneur’s ability and willingness to identify opportunities (the cracks in the wall) and to be creative in how they engage with those in positions of power.

The advocacy entrepreneurs I worked with share some key characteristics.

They are:

  • interested in how power operates, how decisions are made, who is involved, and what their interests and incentives are.
  • not afraid to ask questions to help them to understand why things aren’t working and what changes are needed.
  • well connected with a diverse network of contacts including people with power and individuals eople who hold different views to them.
  • motivated by finding ways to progress issues and are willing to cooperate and collaborate with others.

Finally, they are:

  • brave but not reckless – they consider the risks of their actions within their context very carefully.

Where to find an ‘advocacy entrepreneur’

  • This programme showed me that existing CSO or NGO staff have the potential to become advocacy entrepreneurs if they are given the flexibility and support to do so. Some aid-funded programmes have not historically encouraged entrepreneurialism – with staff viewed as implementers of programmes that had been designed by ‘experts’. In fact advocacy entrepreneurs in these environments can often be viewed as being annoying or difficult because of their willingness (compulsion?) to ask difficult questions or deviate from the pre-determined plans.
  • As part of this programme I worked with advocacy entrepreneurs who didn’t have a traditional CSO or NGO background. One was a former journalist his background gave him the passion for asking questions, a wide network of contacts and a desire trying to understand how change could happen. The other had trained as a lawyer and then been an advisor to a local politician. He also owned a local marketing agency and a radio station with his sister. These skills and network of contacts combined with their drive and motivation saw significant progress against the odds in their countries.

How to support advocacy entrepreneurs

Give them the flexibility they need

  • As things change in the context they are working in, advocacy entrepreneurs will need to change their plans. This can frustrate managers, donors and finance staff who often view success as activities being delivered as planned, on time and on budget.

Recognise their achievements and mark the small victories

  • Progress and results in advocacy can be slower and seem more intangible than providing services or directly supporting communities. Managers need to recognise the small shifts in relationships and power dynamics between communities and power-holders that incrementally lead to success.

Create the time and space for reflection and learning

  • Advocates can get caught in a cycle of action and reaction as the context in which they are working is constantly changing and there is always more to do. This can lead to advocates ‘burning out’. Creating structured time for taking stock and re-strategising is key. The most effective element of the programme in my view was the exchange visits where advocates were able to visit neighbouring countries with similar contexts to learn and share experience. For example, an opportunity to see community parliaments in action in Northern Uganda led to the advocacy officer from Burundi adapting and introducing the idea at provincial level in Burundi

Finally, I must thank the advocacy entrepreneurs – Daniel, Jean-Pierre, Abdulla and Walter (as well as Elske for her coordinating efforts). The broader programme funded by the Dutch Government has now ended but I have no doubt that this group of advocacy entrepreneurs will go on to catalyse and drive change in their communities.

*I’ve documented separately in this short paper what I learned about online training in these contexts and the broader lessons from the advocacy work of the programme are also available.

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