The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Advocacy Participation and Structure within Human Service Nonprofit Organizations: An Exploratory Study

Friday, January 18, 2013
Grande Ballroom A, B, and C (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Marcela Sarmiento Mellinger, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD
Purpose: Advocacy has allowed social workers to raise their voices regarding issues affecting individuals, groups, and entire communities; it has also enabled human service nonprofit organizations (NPOs) to respond to environmental factors influencing the services they provide (Abramovitz, 1998; Austin, 2000; Lundblad, 1995).  However, in spite of the seemingly important role of advocacy there is a paucity of research in this area (Berry, 2003; Ezell, 2001; Mosley, 2006; Salamon & Geller, 2008). This lack of research includes many aspects, and it is perhaps the most evident regarding the structure of advocacy within organizations. Although it has been suggested that advocacy should be part of organizational structures (Donaldson, 2008; Gibelman & Kraft, 1996), a scarce number of studies address the structure of advocacy. Guided by institutional theory, which proposes that prevailing social rules, norms, and values (institutions) constrain and regularize organizational behavior (Anheier, 2005; Scott, 2001), the purpose of this study was to explore the influence of institutional factors on advocacy behaviors of human service NPOs. More specifically, this quantitative exploratory study was guided by two questions: (1) what institutional factors predict overall participation in advocacy? And (2) what institutional factors predict the structure of advocacy within human service NPOs?

Method: This study employed a cross-sectional design.  Data was collected through an electronic survey; the sample consisted of 72 human service NPOs located in a southern state. Organizations had 501(c)(3) status and were service providers; directors were asked to complete the survey. Four institutional factors were used as predictor variables for advocacy participation and structure; they included formalization, clinical identity, percentage of restricted funding, and knowledge of the lobbying law. Size and age of the organizations were used as control variables.

Results: A simple logistic regression used to determine factors that influenced overall advocacy participation showed knowledge of the lobbying law as a significant predictor (p = .01). The results indicated that the odds of advocacy participation decreased for each unit increase in knowledge of the lobbying law. The other predictors did not reach statistical significance. The simple logistic regression for structure of advocacy showed that only formalization was a significant predictor (p < .01). The odds of having an advocacy structure almost doubled for each unit increase in organizations’ formalization. Although the majority of organizations reported doing advocacy, the study showed that actual advocacy participation was low. 

Conclusions and implications: These findings provide support for previous research showing that NPOs are involved in advocacy; however, it also raises questions about the level of advocacy involvement. Additionally, they point to the need for continued research regarding organizations’ interpretation of advocacy and the impact of their knowledge of the lobbying law on their advocacy participation. Regarding the structure of advocacy, the findings provide initial insight into the influence of formalization on the adoption of systems that can potentially increase the legitimacy of organizations regardless of their value or actual use. Continued dialogue regarding advocacy’s definition, its place within the profession, and its role in social work education is encouraged in this study.