Advocacy and Lobbying – What’s the Difference?

Frequently I talk with librarians about advocacy in teen services. We talk about what it means to be an advocate. We talk about how to get started in advocacy efforts. We talk about how to find time to advocate. We talk about a lot more related to speaking up and out about teen services to a variety of audiences including colleagues, community members, and government officials.

I recently realized that for some librarians there is a concern that if they talk with government officials – legislators and such – in order to advocate for teen services, that they might actually be lobbying. And, for some, lobbying is not allowed within their job description. This got me thinking, what is the difference between advocacy and lobbying?

First I read the Wikipedia article on lobbying that includes this definition (that comes from Merriam Webster and BBC News):

” ‘Lobbying’ (also ‘Lobby’) is a form of advocacy with the intention of influencing decisions made by the government by individuals or more usually by Lobby groups; it includes all attempts to influence legislators and officials, whether by other legislators, constituents, or organized groups.”

After reading that definition I thought, OK, the influence part is an important piece of the lobbying definition. Then I read about the difference between advocacy and lobbying in a document from the Connecticut Association of Nonprofits. In their advocacy/lobbying toolkit they include this statement:

“Although most people use the words interchangeably, there is a distinction between advocacy and lobbying that is helpful to understand. When nonprofit organizations advocate on their own behalf, they seek to affect some aspect of society, whether they appeal to individuals about their behavior, employers about their rules, or the government about its laws. Lobbying refers specifically to advocacy efforts that attempt to influence legislation. This distinction is helpful to keep in mind because it means that laws limiting the lobbying done by nonprofit organizations do not govern other advocacy activities.”

What this means to librarians working with teens who wonder if they can talk to legislators at an event like library legislative day, or even in the community if a legislator is at a local event, is yes, even if your employer’s policies state that you are not supposed to lobby as a part of your job, you can go to something like a library legislative day and advocate for teen library services.

You can advocate by speaking up and out to educate legislative officials about the value of teen services in the community. You can speak up and out to educate about the need for teen space in libraries. You can speak up and out to educate about the role that technology plays in teen lives. You can speak up and out to educate. You just can’t exert influence in order to have a legislator vote a particular way on a particular piece of legislation.

Advocacy is such an important aspect of what librarians do in their work with and for teens that it would be unfortunate if it was left behind because of a misunderstanding about what is and isn’t allowed. If you are not allowed to lobby as a part of your job, talk with your administrators about the differences between advocacy and lobbying. You probably do want to make sure that you are clear, and that your administrator is clear as well, what those differences are. Then go out and advocate whenever and wherever you can.

Don’t let the no-lobbying portion of your organization’s policies (if it is a portion of those policies) keep you from advocating in order to educate and inform. It’s an important way to guarantee that you are able to provide the best teen services possible.

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.

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One Comment

  1. It’s amazing how language can make things seem so muddled. Thanks for the clarification, Linda. Hopefully this will help us all be more willing to advocate without fear of reprisal.

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