Family Science Report: Policy advocacy or policy education — how to impact family policy

by Jennifer Crosswhite, Ph.D., CFLE, NCFR director of public affairs
NCFR Report
Content Area
Family Law and Public Policy

When learning family policy, students commonly ask "How can I impact policy? I'm just one person." Since my arrival at NCFR, I have heard very similar thoughts from individuals and affiliates wanting to influence policy. As the person responsible for advancing NCFR's policy initiatives, it is my job to help create tools to help you as an individual or affiliate impact family policy. As such, the purpose of this article is to begin that education by helping you understand the context in which you as an individual or a representative of NCFR can influence family policy.

501(c)(3) tax exempt organization

It is important first to understand NCFR's status as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization. According to the Internal Revenue Service, any organization deemed a 501(c) (3) organization "may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates" (paragraph 1). As a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization, the majority of policy work done on behalf of NCFR cannot be lobbying.

What this rule means is that NCFR members cannot campaign "for or against political candidates" on behalf of NCFR. For example, I could not say, "As NCFR's Director of Public Affairs, vote for (or against) X." As an organization, NCFR also cannot put out materials asking members or others to vote for or against a person.1

Similarly, members cannot lobby (i.e., attempt to influence governmental decisions) for particular legislation on behalf of NCFR. For example, members cannot tell a legislator to vote a particular way (e.g., for or against a bill), for or against a particular policy option, or ask a legislator to do something (e.g., a call to action) on behalf of NCFR. Again, I could not say, "As NCFR's Director of Public Affairs, please vote for X or vote for a particular policy alternative."


Another way to identify these types of political actions is as advocacy; that is, as active support of a particular cause, idea, or legislation. Using the term advocacy in place of the word lobbying might suggest that we cannot advocate. This statement, though, brings forth questions, given that we all love and are passionate about families. Many of us already advocate for families through our work and other activities, and we should continue to advocate for families. Using the term advocacy can then be quite confusing, and I would like to provide some clarification.

Karen Bogenschneider has referred to advocacy in two ways; Advocacy with a big A and advocacy little a (personal communication). Advocacy with a big A refers to the lobbying identified earlier; that is, telling a legislator how to vote or what to vote for, asking for a specific policy option, and so on. Members cannot engage in Advocacy witha big A on behalf of NCFR. Advocacy with a little a would be considered as working on behalf of families, or for families, and educating legislators or other policymakers about family research and how policies affect families so that families are considered when policies are made. Other policymakers are the individuals in a variety of contexts who may directly or indirectly work with or impact families. This is exactly the type of advocacy that NCFR members and affiliates can and are encouraged to do in connection with NCFR.


To give you more concrete examples of how individuals and affiliates can influence family policy, I would like to provide specific examples of how one might educate legislators and other policymakers about families. Ideally, when educating legislators and other policymakers we would provide them objective, research-based information written in a manner that it is easy-to-read and understandable. The following is a list of possible ways to educate legislators, but it can be expanded to include other policymakers. This list is not exhaustive.

  • Provide information to legislators on how a potential policy may positively and negatively affect families.
  • Give information to legislators on how various policy options may positively or negatively impact families, including the option of doing nothing and how the policy options impact different families.
  • Provide legislators with basic research on families to help inform legislators' their decisions on a bill or when sponsoring legislation.
  • Supply legislators with research-based materials (e.g., reports, fact sheets, executive summaries, briefs, etc.) describing family research and policy implications based on the research.
  • Conduct Family Impact Seminars or other meetings for policymakers to provide research-based information and a means for policymakers to connect with researchers in a bipartisan manner. (See the Policy Institute for Family Impact Seminars for additional information.)

Advocating for the profession

As we move forward efforts to impact family policy, it is important to know that we also can advocate for the profession (e.g., family life educators [FLEs], marriage, couple, and family therapists, etc.). If you recall, the IRS definition of a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization, states that organization "may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities." The phrasing "as a substantial part of its activities" allows NCFR a little room to advocate or lobby on behalf of the family profession. We can help raise the visibility of family professions with legislators and other policymakers. One area that is in need of advocating is that of Family Life Education (FLE).

Why is advocating for Family Life Education important?

Some individuals may find FLE similar to other occupations, such as marriage and family therapists (MFTs), child and family social workers, or social and human service assistants, and so on. FLEs are distinct from each of these occupations. While both FLEs and MFTs can arrive from the same academic program, FLEs cannot ethically provide therapy as an MFT. Furthermore, child and family social workers and social and human service assistants often provide intervention as the base of their family services, while FLEs' work comprises education and prevention. While both education and prevention, along with intervention, are needed to help support families, education and prevention differ from intervention. For example, with education and prevention, families and individuals are taught life skills to help empower and prevent problems before problems occur. Intervention services occur when families and individuals have demonstrated at least some initial signs of risk indicating that services are needed to decrease risky behaviors demonstrated by the family or an individual. (For a more in-depth discussion of the similarities and differences among the work of FLEs, MFTs, and family case managers, see Myers-Walls, Ballard, Darling, and Myers- Bowman, 2011.) Each of these service areas is needed; yet, FLEs often have to fight for a job or to be recognized. We know the importance of FLEs. It is time to ensure they have employment opportunities too.

Where might one advocate for Family Life Education?

Several avenues for FLE advocacy exist. You might advocate in your local community, with state agencies or legislators, or even with federal agencies or legislators. For example, FLE can occur in post-secondary education settings; birth through secondary education settings (e.g., Early Head Start and Head Start); community-based services, including community education (e.g., home- visitors); faith-based organizations; private practice; government and military settings; health care and family wellness settings (e.g., child life specialists); family courts; adult and juvenile justice programs; and other settings. These are excellent places to advocate for the profession in your community. It is also possible to track bills within each of the states and federally to determine where FLE is currently being considered and where FLE should be considered, and then contact your representative to advocate for the profession.

Tips for advocating for the profession

When talking with policymakers or representatives from any one of the contexts noted above, it will be important for the individual to understand FLE. Providing fact sheets, reports, white papers, executive summaries, and so on to policymakers from the community to state to federal level, can accomplish the following:

  • Raise the visibility of FLE to policymakers.
  • Help policymakers understand how FLE may impact families in their environment (e.g., providing family court judges information on how parent education can help couples navigate the divorce process).
  • Help inform policymakers' decisions on whom to hire.

Many of the ideas presented in the "Education" section earlier in this article could similarly be applied here with respect to advocating for the profession. (See Dawn Cassidy's article in this issue of Report for additional information on advocating for the profession.) One notable difference, though, when advocating for the profession is that you can ask a policymaker to (a) include FLE in their new policies, (b) vote for bills that include FLE, and (c) include FLE in bills relating to families. You also can encourage others to contact the policymakers to advocate for FLE.


As you consider how you will try to influence family policy or advocate for the profession, I encourage you to think about how those plans also fit with NCFR's global ends regarding policymaking and advocating for the profession.

  • "NCFR will provide information about the policymaking process and the impact of public policies on families" (Global End 1d ); specifically, the impact that policies have on families.
  • "NCFR will raise the visibility of family research, theory, and practice to policymakers and the general public" (Global End 2c); specifically, raising the visibility of family research to policymakers.
  • "NCFR will advocate for family practice professionals such as family life educators and marriage and family therapists" (Global end 3c).

I also encourage you to keep in mind that NCFR is a diverse organization and that policy work done on behalf of NCFR is inclusive and representative of the diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and families of the NCFR membership and is non-partisan. As policy work and advocacy for the profession moves forward, additional resources will emerge. The information provided in this article is just the beginning. If you are interested in helping me develop resources for impacting family policy or advocating for the profession, please let me know. Remember, my door is always open.

1 People wishing to lobby or participate in campaign activities can as an individual; meaning, s/he cannot indicate s/he is a representative of NCFR.


Myers-Walls, J. A., Ballard, S. M., Darling, C. A., & Myers-Bowman, K. S. (2011). Reconceptualizing the domain and boundaries of Family Life Education. Family Relations, 60, 357–372.

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