The Quest for Attention
Nonprofit Advocacy in a Social Media Age
Chao Guo and Gregory D. Saxton




The Beginning of a New Paradigm

October 4, 2010. The New Yorker Magazine. Canadian journalist and writer Malcolm Gladwell published a short essay titled “Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” He began with a recount of the 1960 Greensboro sit-in, when a group of African American college students in North Carolina peacefully protested at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter after being denied service. After comparing traditional activism and its online variant, Gladwell then wrote, “The instruments of social media . . . are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause” (Gladwell 2010).

February 25, 2015. New York City. The annual Social Media Week conference welcomed a special guest: the Reverend Jesse Jackson, prominent American civil rights leader and two-time Democratic presidential candidate. In his keynote speech, Jackson talked about the impact of social media on social justice. His message was unequivocal: social media does not equal social change. He said, “I think sometimes people who use social media think that you can sit there and send the message to people. People need more than information. . . . If you leave here and [see] there’s a school in your city that does not teach music or art, there should be a protest” (Dalenberg 2015).

Underlying the above viewpoints is an uneasy feeling that social media may be pushing to the wayside more important “traditional”—meaning offline—advocacy work. In the United States, advocacy has been in the DNA of nonprofit and voluntary action since the genesis of the sector, and has been an increasingly salient function of nonprofit organizations in the wake of World War II. From civil rights to anti-war movements, from women’s rights to gay rights, from poverty to the environment, from Occupy Wall Street to the fight for a $15 minimum wage, countless nonprofit organizations and generations of activists have been at the forefront of these causes since the start. They have been seen participating in letter writing, petitioning, lobbying elected officials, running or contributing to political campaigns, and participating in rallies, protests, sit-ins, boycotts, and strikes. Battles fought, causes won, changes made. In doing so, the activists have often risked confronting the authorities, getting injured or arrested, and sometimes even losing their lives.

Then, with the advent of the new millennium came a new age. In just two decades, the Internet and Web 2.0 have quickly become inseparable parts of our lives. Social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Google+ have greatly enhanced the ability of both citizens and organizations to engage in meaningful interactions in cyberspace. The nonprofit sector is not immune to these developments, as the way people think of and participate in social change and advocacy has also changed (see Goldkind and McNutt 2014; Guo and Saxton 2014b; Karpf 2012; McNutt and Menon 2008; Suárez 2009). Today, you can have the comfort of sending testimony or signing a petition by email, or showing your support for or against an issue by tweeting, retweeting, commenting and liking on Facebook, posting a photo on Instagram, or watching a video on YouTube. You can engage in a policy debate or attract a huge following on social media without meeting with people face-to-face.

For lifelong activists and seasoned leaders of advocacy groups, it is difficult not to view social media with a skeptical eye. All of a sudden, many nonprofit leaders feel like an old kid in a new town. Are newer forms of engagement replacing demonstrations, sit-ins, meetings with policymakers, and other offline efforts? Will traditional nonprofit advocacy organizations become dinosaurs in this increasingly networked world? Can these “old dogs” be taught new social media tricks?

This book seeks to explore these questions by unpacking the prevalence, mechanisms, and ramifications of a new model for nonprofit advocacy in a social media age. The key word for this new model is attention. Advocacy always starts with attention: when an organization speaks out on a cause, it must ensure that it has an audience and that its voice is heard by that audience; it must ensure that current and potential supporters are paying attention to what it has to say before expecting more tangible outcomes. Yet the organization must also ensure that advocacy does not end with attention: attention should serve as a springboard to something greater. In the course of this book we will elaborate how attention fits into contemporary organizations’ advocacy work. We will explain key features of social media that are driving the quest for attention. We will develop and then test conceptual models that explain why some organizations and some messages gain attention while others do not. And we will explore how organizations are weaving online and offline efforts to deliver strategic advocacy outcomes.

Nonprofit Advocacy: A Primer

In much of the world, the nonprofit sector plays a key and growing part in fostering a strong civil society (e.g., for recent changes in China, see Guo et al. 2012; Xu and Ngai 2011; for recent changes in Russia, see Salamon, Benevolenski, and Jakobson 2015). Focusing just on the United States, where voluntary civil society organizations have a long tradition (de Tocqueville 1838), America’s nonprofit sector has continued to steadily increase in social, political, and economic importance. In the past four decades alone, the number of organizations has jumped from 740,000 in 1977 (Independent Sector 2001) to 1.3 million in 2000 (Blackwood, Wing, and Pollak 2008) and 1.56 million in 2015 (McKeever 2018). These organizations come in a range of sizes and undertake activities in a wide array of areas, covering activities in, among others, health, religion, education, the environment, the arts, politics, human services, and international affairs. Their work can be done by full- and part-time paid employees, volunteers, members, or, more typically, a combination of the above. Some organizations are funded chiefly by government, others are dependent almost solely on individual donations, and others receive funds from private philanthropists or social entrepreneurial activities. In brief, it is a diverse and growing sector.

Advocacy is a core nonprofit function. Through their advocacy work, nonprofit organizations strengthen the democratic process by representing the interests of citizens and promoting changes in public policy. In the United States,1 certain types of nonprofit organizations have advocacy as their primary purpose; public interest groups and business leagues would fall into this category. However, the most common type of nonprofit is the charitable organization, classified as 501(c)(3) by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Charitable organizations—or public charities—cover a wide range of organizations including hospitals, universities, museums, churches, human services organizations, and international and foreign affairs organizations. These groups are often known by the public for their service-provision roles, but they also advance their missions by influencing public policy and empowering the individuals and families whom they serve (Guo 2007; LeRoux 2009; Mosley 2011; O’Connell 1994). As with the corporate sector, the nonprofit community engages in advocacy efforts related to public policies that govern its work, including operational concerns such as benefits for charitable giving and benefits afforded to employers.

In light of the tremendous growth of the nonprofit sector in the United States and worldwide, it is not surprising that scholarly interest in nonprofit advocacy has increased over the past two decades (e.g., Almog-Bar and Schmid 2014; Berry and Arons 2003; Boris and Mosher-Williams 1998; Chen 2018; Child and Gronbjerg 2007; Clear, Paull, and Holloway 2018; Frumkin 2002; Fyall and McGuire 2015; Guo and Saxton 2010; Guo and Zhang 2014; Kim and Mason 2018; LeRoux and Goerdel 2009; Li, Lo, and Tang 2017; Lu 2018; Mosley 2011; Neumayr, Schneider, and Meyer 2015; O’Connell 1994; O’Connell 1996; Prakash and Gugerty 2010; Schmid, Bar, and Nirel 2008; Suárez and Hwang 2008; Zhan and Tang 2013; Zhang 2018; Zhang and Guo in press).

There is no clear consensus, at least in the early literature, regarding the definition of nonprofit advocacy (Bass et al. 2007). Hopkins (1992, 32) defines nonprofit advocacy as action by nonprofit organizations to “[plead] for or against a cause or a position,” and “address . . . legislators with a view to influencing their votes.” This relatively narrow definition brings it closer to direct lobbying. Jenkins (2006, 308) provides a broader definition, including activities such as “grassroots lobbying (encouraging others to contact legislators to support or oppose specific legislation), attempts to influence public opinion, and educational efforts designed to encourage community and political participation” (see also Boris and Mosher-Williams 1998; Reid 1999). Broad or narrow, both definitions regard the ultimate goal of nonprofit advocacy as influencing government policy. More recent studies seem to take a middle ground, focusing on influencing policy but covering a wide variety of activities. Guo (2012), for example, defines nonprofit advocacy as attempts by nonprofits to influence government decisions through direct and indirect means, including communication with policymakers, grassroots mobilization, and public education.

There is a common misperception that, except for some public interest groups that are often classified by the IRS as 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, most public charities do not engage in advocacy activities. One key source of the misperception is that people often confuse advocacy with lobbying, which is only one type of advocacy work. Charities are required to report to the IRS “direct lobbying” activities, which are defined as attempts to influence a legislative body on specific legislation, and “grassroots lobbying,” which involves encouraging members of the public to take action on specific legislation. Only a tiny percentage of charities actually report this type of activity: for example, Suárez and Hwang (2008) show that less than 3% of operating charities in California lobby in any given year between 1998 and 2003, though some types of charities (e.g., environment, health) lobby more than others (e.g., religion and arts). Despite this low level of participation, charitable organizations can certainly engage in lobbying activities as long as such work does not constitute a substantial part of their activities.

Advocacy, on the other hand, covers a much broader range of activities beyond lobbying (a point we will return to later in this section). Mounting research demonstrates that policy advocacy broadly defined is a common practice of charitable organizations (e.g., Andrews and Edwards 2004; Berry and Arons 2003; Guo and Saxton 2010; Mosley 2011), though research varies widely on the level of participation. In a well-known survey of Indiana nonprofit organizations, Child and Gronbjerg (2007) found that nearly three-quarters of nonprofits in their study did not participate in any form of advocacy activity, and only one-quarter of those organizations that did report participating in some advocacy work devoted substantial resources to advocacy efforts. By contrast, in another influential, multiple-year research project called the Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project (SNAP), Berry and Arons (2003) conducted a national survey of 1,738 public charities. Their findings showed that about three-fourths of these organizations engaged in some sort of advocacy activity, ranging from direct and grassroots lobbying to testifying at a legislative or administrative hearing. Having said that, the frequency of policy participation was generally low among those charities who indicated their engagement in advocacy work.

There are at least two possible explanations for this fairly large discrepancy in the findings from these two studies. The first explanation is methodological: the Indiana survey includes a less detailed definition of advocacy than SNAP, which might cause the respondents to underreport their participation in advocacy work. The giving and volunteering literatures serve as a useful reference here: prior research indicates that longer, more detailed questionnaires on giving and volunteering led respondents to report higher incidence rates and higher levels than did less detailed surveys (Rooney, Steinberg, and Schervish 2004). The second explanation is conceptual: there is a lack of clear understanding among nonprofit leaders in terms of the nature of advocacy work and what it entails. Berry and Arons (2003) found many charities did not think of themselves as influencing public policy even when they actually engaged in public policy matters. In other words, it is very likely that more organizations are involved in advocacy work—they are just not aware of it.

What does advocacy work involve, then? An organization’s advocacy efforts can be understood in terms of its advocacy strategy as well as the tactics it employs to implement the strategy. Berry (1977) pioneered this line of inquiry by making an early distinction between the more general, long-range approaches to influencing public policy (i.e., advocacy strategies) and the specific actions taken to execute a particular strategy (i.e., advocacy tactics). Scholars have since devised various ways of broadly categorizing advocacy strategies: Gais and Walker (1991) characterized inside and outside strategies; Gormley and Cymrot (2006) theorized insider versus outsider strategies; while Mosley (2011) conceptualized insider and indirect strategies. Despite the minor differences in preferred terminology, these studies share a concern with distinguishing working “inside the system” (e.g., legislative lobbying, legislative testimony) from working “outside the system” (e.g., public education efforts, mass media campaigns, and protests and demonstrations).

The existing literature has also compiled a long and comprehensive list of advocacy tactics nonprofit organizations use to execute their chosen strategies. In an earlier study (Guo and Saxton 2010), we drew upon existing typologies (e.g., Avner 2002; Reid 1999) to identify eleven advocacy tactics: research, media advocacy, direct lobbying, grassroots lobbying, public events and direct action, judicial advocacy, public education, coalition building, administrative lobbying, voter registration and education, and expert testimony. In that study, we did not explicitly relate these advocacy tactics to broader strategies, but one can reasonably infer that direct lobbying, judicial advocacy, administrative advocacy, and expert testimony would fall under the umbrella of the “insider” strategy, while the other tactics would fall under the “outsider” strategy.

In summary, prior research has highlighted the importance of advocacy work for nonprofit organizations and identified the broad strategies and specific tactical forms these organizations employ offline to reach their public policy goals. Next, we turn to how social media are quietly changing the ways in which advocacy work is done by nonprofit organizations.


1. For ease of exposition, for the remainder of the chapter our discussion focuses on US-based nonprofit organizations.