What Students Should Know About Advocacy in Social Work

social worker advocating for clients

What is social policy in social work? Social work policy and advocacy can happen on all levels of social work practice. Typically, students seeking to pursue social work welfare or public policy advocacy are expecting to address a problem head-on, and often that means working side by side with the client or community.

But, what if I were to tell you that advocacy can benefit clients and their communities, yet at a level where there is minimal interfacing with the client and community? Yes, it is possible to develop alliances with the leaders who represent an array of clients and communities from all over the country and possibly the world.

In This Article:

Why Is Policy Important in Social Work?

At Grand Canyon University (GCU), we believe it is important for students in the social work degree programs to understand the answers to why is policy important in social work? Students will be taught to recognize the large-scale impact of social policy, understand why it is important to advocate in social work and learn effective advocacy strategies in social work.

Students will also be taught what social policy is all about, as well as the various populations it can impact and the difference policy advocacy can make in the pursuit for social change. The program covers how social work advocacy can take place and be effective on all three levels of social work. Lastly, students will be taught the jobs that are available for practicing social workers who pursue policy leadership roles.

Advocacy in Social Work

Social workers’ values are focused on service, social justice, the dignity and worth of a person and human relationships, while upholding ethical responsibilities to clients and broader society.1 Social workers have been involved in policymaking since the Great Depression of the 1930s. But even before the federal government created social welfare policies, Jane Addams and other social workers worked with public agencies toward the well-being of individuals and families.2

Advocacy in social work can happen at all three levels of social work practice — micro, mezzo and macro. The micro and mezzo levels of social work have the potential to contribute to wider processes of change in relation to the development of more preventive and more participatory approaches to social work. However, by themselves they cannot possibly substitute for wider processes of economic, social and political changes.

Policy advocacy in social work at the macro level is directed at changing policies or regulations that affect practice or group well-being. Macro-level policy advocacy is distinct from case or client advocacy, which is advocacy on behalf of families and individuals.3 Macro-level policy advocacy can promote more appropriate, more coordinated and more democratically accountable approaches to economic and social planning, to meet social needs.

Advocacy in social work at the macro level can expose you to:

  • Working productively with political leaders representing community groups and organizations
  • Developing a profile based on resources and existing policy
  • Developing a strategic analysis, alliance and planning

Advocacy Strategies in Social Work

The privatization of human services to the nonprofit community has led some to believe that the only advocacy to engage in would be for governmental funding. However, this is not the case, as human service organizations have recognized that preserving their funding stream is directly dependent on their advocacy for policy change to benefit clients.3

“Policy practice” refers to the skills and strategies of those who seek to modify policies at all levels of social work practice. “Policy advocacy” describes efforts to change policies to gain greater resources and opportunities for powerless, disadvantaged and oppressed groups.2

Micro policy advocacy consists of helping clients directly navigate social policies in eight sectors that personally impact them. Mezzo policy advocacy derives from reforming dysfunctional agency and community policies in those eight sectors. Macro policy advocacy pursues the goal of changing policies that originate from local, state and federal governments.2

What Is Advocacy in Social Work at GCU?

A degree in social work from GCU prepares graduates for roles in policy advocacy. The versatility in our instructors’ backgrounds allows them to provide a distinct approach to policy advocacy in social work — the multilevel policy advocacy framework.

As social workers, we must work on policy advocacy at the micro, mezzo and macro levels to help the United States address income inequality and social problems that contribute to poverty while undermining healthcare and education. The multilevel policy advocacy framework can be applied to health, gerontology, safety net, mental health, child and family, education, immigration and criminal justice sectors.2 A multilevel policy advocacy framework allows social workers to advocate at the micro, mezzo and macro levels to enact meaningful change at all social work levels.

Preparing GCU Students With Advocacy Strategies in Social Work

GCU’s Master of Social Work (MSW) students build from their foundational knowledge in policy advocacy and are taught how the multilevel policy framework supports the following:2 

  • Advocating for ethical rights, human rights and economic justice
  • Improving the quality of social programs
  • Making social programs more culturally responsive
  • Increasing preventive strategies to reduce social problems
  • Improving access to social programs
  • Increasing the scope and effectiveness of mental health programs
  • Making social programs more relevant to households

This framework is also helpful for policymaking, implementation, research and evaluation because it consists of eight steps a practitioner must complete before they are able to implement the policy.

What Is Social Policy in Social Work?

In the field of social work, social policies are actions, programs or initiatives that are designed to address and improve human welfare. So, what does this look like? As a social worker, your responsibilities in policy advocacy can involve:

  • Social planning
  • Community development
  • Fighting against poverty and social exclusion
  • Challenging discrimination by race, disability, age, religion, gender and sexual orientation
  • Promoting participation in decision-making to help give people more power
  • Encouraging people to build skills, knowledge and confidence through taking action
  • Taking action, which can range from individual self-help to lobbying and campaigning

If social workers fail to uphold a policy leadership role, there will be a diminished role of advocacy, which can cause an increase in the privatization of social welfare services, a devolution of policymaking to state and local levels as well as a cut in funding for social programs.4

Policy advocacy and leadership play a large role within social work because they directly impact the resources available to the clients and their communities. The GCU social work program was designed to incorporate specific theories, perspectives and frameworks that allow the professional social worker to engage in policymaking.

The theoretical perspective of "policy learning" has helped social workers connect the cognitive and social dynamic of policy making. Additionally, a "policy learning" perspective adjusts the understandings and beliefs related to public policy advocacy.5

If you have a desire to help guide policy and advocate for others in your community, complete the form on this page and get started on your Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or MSW today. Both programs, offered by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, teach you about effective advocacy strategies in social work that enable you to help make a difference for your clients.


1 National Association of Social Workers. (2017). Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to Clients. Retrieved September 30, 2022.

2 Jansson, B. S. (2020). Social welfare policy and advocacy: Advancing social justice through eight policy sectors (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA. SAGE Publications. ISBN-13:9781506384061

3 Mosley, J. (2013). Recognizing new opportunities: Reconceptualizing policy advocacy in everyday organizational practice. Social Work, 58(3), 231–239. Retrieved January 30, 2021.

4 Bliss, D. (2015). Using the social work advocacy practice model to find our voices in service of advocacy, human service organizations: Management, leadership & governance. 39:1, 57-68, DOI: 10.1080/23303131.2014.978060

5 Moyson S., Scholten P., & Weible C. (2017). Policy learning and policy change: theorizing their relations from different perspectives. Policy and Society (36:2, pp.161 177), DOI: 10.1080/14494035.2017.1331879


Approved by faculty for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on May 11, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.