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Updated May 15, 2012

Major Characteristics of Religious Advocacy Groups

Advocacy groups represent a growing variety of faiths in Washington. They also vary greatly in staff size, yearly financial expenditures and other characteristics that affect their visibility on Capitol Hill and in the national media, including their institutional structure and tax status, their main strategies or methods of seeking to influence public policy and the issues they focus on.

Religious Traditions
Nearly three-quarters of the organizations included in this study describe themselves as rooted in particular religious traditions or denominations (157 groups, or 73%). Groups that represent a distinctly atheistic or secular perspective comprise 1% of the groups in the study (two groups). A quarter of the groups combine the interests and viewpoints of multiple faiths or advocate on religion-related issues without representing any particular religious tradition or denomination (57 groups, or 26%). These interreligious groups (which include both ecumenical Christian and interfaith groups) are more numerous than the groups representing any single faith.

The religious traditions with the largest number of advocacy groups in Washington are Catholicism (41 groups, or 19%) and evangelical Protestantism (39 groups, or 18%).12 These proportions, however, are somewhat lower than the percentages of Catholics and evangelical Protestants in the U.S. adult population. According to the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, about half of all American adults are affiliated either with Catholicism (23.9%) or with evangelical Protestant churches (26.3%).13 About 7% of the religious advocacy groups in Washington (16 groups) identify themselves with such mainline denominations as the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church; mainline Protestants comprise 18.1% of the U.S. adult population.

breakdown by religious affiliation

Some smaller religious groups account for a much larger share of the advocacy organizations in the study than they do of the general population. For example, there are 17 Muslim advocacy organizations in Washington (8% of the total) and 25 Jewish advocacy organizations (12%), while Muslims make up 0.8% of U.S. adults and Jews make up 1.7%. This may reflect the importance these groups place on advocacy to protect their rights as religious minorities.

Other groups account for a smaller share of the advocacy organizations in the study than they do of the general population. Just 1% of the advocacy organizations in this study reflect an expressly secular, atheist or humanist point of view, though nonreligious Americans (atheists, agnostics and unaffiliated people who say religion is not too important or not at all important in their lives) make up 10.3% of all U.S. adults.

At first glance, historically black Protestant churches appear almost absent from religion-related advocacy in the nation’s capital. There is only one group in this study – the Progressive National Baptist Convention – affiliated with a historically black Protestant denomination, though members of these denominations make up 6.9% of the U.S. public. One possible explanation is that, rather than attempting to influence public policy through permanent organizations in Washington, historically black churches tend to participate in temporary alliances, permanent coalitions, interfaith efforts and civil rights organizations. They may also use informal methods that are not captured in this study, such as discussing policy matters in church groups, mobilizing lay members on political issues and sending delegations to Washington.14 Although it may appear that, in strictly numerical terms, certain religious groups are under- or overrepresented in the Washington advocacy community, the absolute number of groups is not a reliable indicator of how well a particular religious tradition is represented in Washington. For instance, a single, highly active, well-staffed and well-funded organization may offer better representation than a number of smaller, less active or less well-funded groups. In addition, comparisons between the size of a religious tradition and the number of advocacy groups that come out of that tradition do not take into account interfaith groups and coalitions, which make up a quarter of the religious advocacy groups in Washington. Nor do the comparisons take into account the role of advocacy organizations based outside of Washington.

For the full list of 216 religion-related advocacy organizations in the study and their religious affiliations, see the online directory.

Organizational Structure

This report divides religious advocacy groups into six mutually exclusive categories based on their organizational structures.

Membership organizations – groups whose main constituents and/or funding sources are individual members – are by far the most common organizational type. They represent about four-in-ten of the organizations in the study (90 groups, or 42%). Of these, more than a quarter (24 groups) are interreligious. Roughly equal numbers of these organizations draw their members primarily from evangelical Protestants (16 groups), Catholics (15) and Jews (14). Some derive their funding exclusively from individual members, but many also receive support from foundations or other sources. Examples of membership organizations include Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Family Research Council and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. This category also includes religion-related professional associations, such as the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, and Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.

Breakdown by Organizational Structure

Groups that primarily represent institutions, rather than individuals, are the next most common type. They include almost a fifth of the organizations studied (37 groups, or 17%). These advocacy groups defend the interests of secondary schools, colleges, hospitals, international relief and development agencies, social service providers, broadcast media organizations and religious orders. Associations of Catholic institutions, such as Catholic Relief Services and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, are particularly common (16 groups). Organizations representing religious institutions tend to be funded by those institutions. Many have had a steady Washington presence for decades, consistently focusing on the same issue areas.

Thirty-two advocacy organizations (15%) represent official religious bodies. A quarter are mainline Protestant groups (eight), and about a fifth are evangelical Protestant (six). The remainder represent a variety of faith traditions, including Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology and the Baha’i faith, among others. These groups, such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church & Society, defend the official interests and positions of their religious traditions or denominations, or the interests of interdenominational associations of official religious bodies, such as the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA and the National Association of Evangelicals. They typically receive financial and organizational support from the religious bodies they represent.

Religion-related think tanks make up one-in-ten religious advocacy groups (21 groups, or 10%). More than six-in-ten of them (13) are interreligious. These groups conduct research and provide policy recommendations on religion-related issues or approach their research and policy recommendations based on values rooted in a particular religious tradition. For example, the Culture of Life Foundation conducts research on bioethics, family and marriage, and other social issues, largely from a Catholic perspective. Similarly, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy conducts research and policy workshops that promote the idea that Islam and democracy are fully compatible. Think tanks typically are funded by donations from benefactors – individuals and/or foundations – that support their policy positions.

While short-lived alliances frequently form around legislative issues, more enduring networks of groups are common enough to be considered as their own category. Permanent coalitions are about as numerous as think tanks (19 groups, or 9%). More than half of these (11 groups) are interreligious. These coalitions typically have their own funding, which is separate from the funding of the member groups. Unlike temporary alliances, however, they also tend to have their own permanent staff, as opposed to staff borrowed from alliance members. Established coalitions often have emerged from what originally appeared to be short-term alliances. For example, Jubilee USA Network, a coalition of development agencies and relief groups from different religious traditions, was formed in the late 1990s to support legislation to provide debt relief for Third World countries. Today, Jubilee USA Network works for the broader goal of complete cancelation of developing countries’ international debts.

Hybrid groups (17, or 8%) blend features of more than one structural type or do not fit neatly into any of the above categories. An example is the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which conducts legal research and generates publications like a think tank but also provides pro bono legal representation for individuals and religious bodies to further the cause of religious freedom. Six of the 17 hybrid groups in the study are interreligious, five are rooted in the evangelical Protestant tradition, four represent Catholic points of view, one is affiliated with the Unification Church and one is Muslim.

Religious Tradition and Organizational Structure

Within each religious tradition, one or two organizational structures tend to predominate.

Among evangelical Protestant advocacy groups, about four-in-ten (41%) are individual membership organizations, such as Concerned Women for America and the Home School Legal Defense Association. Jewish groups also tend to represent the interests of individual members (56%), as do Muslim groups (53%). And among interreligious advocacy organizations, a majority represent either individual members (42%) or think tanks (23%).


Most Catholic advocacy groups represent either individual members (37%), such as Human Life International and Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or institutions (39%), such as Catholic Charities USA and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

By contrast, half of mainline Protestant advocacy organizations (50%) represent the interests of official religious bodies, such as the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries.

For a full list of groups and their organizational structures, see the online directory.

Tax Status

More than 80% of the groups in the study (177) operate exclusively as nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations.15 According to Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, these groups are restricted in the proportion of their activities and budgets they can devote to direct lobbying.16 These groups may not endorse or oppose particular candidates for public office, for example. These tax-exempt groups are not prohibited, however, from drawing on religious principles to conduct public education campaigns on issues or providing information from a religious perspective to policymakers. Donations to 501(c)(3) entities are tax deductible.

breakdown by tax status

A relatively small number of the groups in the study (10, or 5%) are organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, which allows them to hire registered lobbyists and gives them greater leeway to engage in direct lobbying efforts in support of or against particular legislation. Donations to 501(c)(4) groups are not tax deductible.

Some 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations create companion 501(c)(4) entities that are allowed to engage in direct lobbying. However, the two organizations must remain legally distinct, and the 501(c)(3) may not fund activities of the 501(c)(4) that the 501(c)(3) would be prohibited from doing directly. Similarly, some 501(c)(4) organizations create companion educational foundations, which fall under section 501(c)(3) and can therefore receive tax-deductible donations. One-in-eight groups in the study (27, or 13%) have both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) arms.

For a full list of groups and their tax status, see the online directory.

Advocacy Expenditures

Collectively, religious advocacy groups spend at least $350 million per year to advance their public policy agendas, according to the most recent data from 2008-2009 for each group. Financial information was available from federal tax filings or annual reports for 129 of the 216 groups studied (60%), so the $350 million annual figure is probably conservative.

About one-third of the 129 groups reported annual advocacy outlays in the $1 million to $5 million range (44 of the 129 groups, or 34%). More than one-quarter were in the $100,000 to $500,000 category (37 groups, or 29%). Just a handful of groups (10, or 8%) reported expenditures of $100,000 and less, and only eight groups (6%) had expenditures that exceeded $10 million.

Top Advocacy Expenditures

annual advocacy expenditures

Forty groups (about one-third of the 129 groups for which data were available) accounted for more than $300 million of the $350 million in total reported advocacy expenditures. The top 10 of these groups each had expenditures of $8 million or more and collectively accounted for more than $190 million of advocacy spending.

Among the 40 groups with the highest annual advocacy spending from 2008 to 2009, 15 are interreligious, six are Jewish, six are evangelical Protestant, four are mainline Protestant, three are Catholic, two are Muslim, one is Quaker, one is Buddhist, one is Unitarian Universalist and one is secular.

Of these 40 groups, 25 represent individuals, while six represent religious bodies, three are permanent coalitions, three represent institutions, two are think tanks and one is a hybrid group.


It is important to note that advocacy groups report their spending in many different ways. While some groups break out their advocacy and lobbying expenditures, many do not. In addition, many groups report expenses only for direct lobbying as strictly defined by the Internal Revenue Service – attempts to influence, or urge the public to influence, specific legislation, whether the legislation is before a legislative body, such as the U.S. Congress or any state legislature, or before the public as a referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment or similar measure. As noted earlier, this study defines advocacy more broadly, encompassing a wide range of efforts to shape and influence public policy on religion-related issues.(See “What Is Religious Advocacy?”) In analyzing the groups’ spending, the study therefore tries to use the expenditure figures that best reflect the broader definition of religious advocacy used in the report rather than the narrower definition used by the IRS. For example, for Washington-based groups whose principal mission is advocacy, the study uses the group’s total operating expenses rather than its reported expenses for direct lobbying. In other cases, especially for groups that spend substantial amounts on humanitarian relief efforts or social services, the study uses other spending categories reported by the groups themselves in tax forms, annual reports and financial statements. These include such budget items as public awareness and education, public relations, program services and policy activities. Here are a few specific examples:

  • World Vision, an international humanitarian aid organization, had total operating expenses of more than $1 billion in 2009, according to its consolidated financial statements. Given the organization’s broad mission and robust advocacy work, this study does not use either the organization’s total expenditures or its narrowly defined lobbying expenditures. The study instead selected World Vision’s total reported expenditures for “public awareness and education,” including its efforts to inform constituents and shape public opinion about global issues of concern to the organization, which totaled about $7 million in 2009.
  • The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, with total expenses of about $5.6 million in 2009, reported that its direct annual lobbying expenditures were $6,000. However, the Pew Forum selected the group’s expenditures for “program services” as a better measure according to the study’s definition of religious advocacy. The group’s program services expenditures, including support for “civil liberties,” “environmental justice” and “economic justice,” totaled about $4.6 million in 2009.
  • B’nai B’rith Interational’s total expenses were more than $24 million in 2009, and the group did not report any direct lobbying expenditures. In this instance, the Pew Forum selected the group’s “public advocacy” expenses (nearly $2 million in 2009).

See the Methodology for more details on how the study calculated the groups’ advocacy expenditures. To view all expense categories considered in the process of determining which expenditures most closely reflect each group’s annual advocacy-related spending, see the “All Expenditures Data” PDF. For a full list of groups and their advocacy expenditures, see the online directory.

Collective Spending on Particular Issues

Groups that support Israel are among the highest annual spenders on religion-related advocacy in Washington. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, with almost $88 million in advocacy spending in 2008, has the largest annual expenditures of any group in the study. Maintaining U.S. support for Israel is also an important issue for many other Jewish and Christian groups.

Several of the top 40 groups in annual advocacy expenditures either oppose abortion or support abortion rights as part of their primary mission. These include the National Right to Life Committee, American Life League, Human Life International, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Americans United for Life and Catholics for Choice. Collectively, these groups had combined annual advocacy expenditures of more than $30 million in 2008/2009. Furthermore, this estimate of spending does not include the advocacy investment of other groups for which abortion is an important issue, such as Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council.

A number of the 40 groups with the highest advocacy expenditures advocate for conservative or traditional cultural values. These include the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, CitizenLink (A Focus on the Family Affiliate), the Traditional Values Coalition, the National Organization for Marriage, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Ethics and Public Policy Center and Eagle Forum, to name just a few. These groups have combined annual expenditures on advocacy of more than $64 million.

Groups that oppose religious conservatives on cultural issues also are among those with the highest annual advocacy spending. Examples include People For the American Way, with nearly $8 million in advocacy spending in 2009, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, with advocacy expenditures of more than $6 million in 2008. In addition, certain groups that represent religious bodies – such as the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism – have similar perspectives on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and funding of parochial schools.

Groups that focus on issues such as hunger, poverty and peacemaking – often called “social justice” issues by these groups – also collectively spend many millions of dollars to support their advocacy efforts. Examples of well-funded social justice groups are Bread for the World, World Vision, Sojourners, the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Church World Service. These five groups have combined advocacy spending of nearly $30 million a year. Moreover, a number of groups that represent religious bodies also support social justice concerns, such as the United Methodist Church Board of Church & Society, United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries and Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

Two-Year Comparison of Advocacy Spending

The recession in the U.S. economy from late 2007 to mid-2009 appears to have taken a toll on many religion-related advocacy organizations’ spending. Of the 102 groups for which data on advocacy expenditures were available for both 2008 and 2009, more than half (57 groups, or 56%) reported that their advocacy spending decreased; the average decline in spending among these groups was about $500,000. In the same period, 45 groups (or 44%) reported that their advocacy spending rose; the average increase in advocacy expenditures among these groups was about $300,000. The median expenditures for the 102 groups was about $800,000 in 2009, down from roughly $900,000 in 2008.

Overall, among all 102 groups that reported advocacy expenditures in both 2008 and 2009, spending increases amounted to roughly $13 million, while spending cuts totaled about $30 million, for a net drop of about $17 million in total advocacy expenditures by these groups in 2009 compared with 2008.

In addition to the economic downturn, numerous other factors could be partly or wholly responsible for the declines in spending reported by various groups in 2009. Because 2008 was a presidential election year, some groups might have spent more heavily than usual in 2007-2008 in an effort to draw attention to particular issues. Both the White House and control of the House of Representatives changed hands in 2008, and such changes can have a major impact on fundraising by some groups. Shifting public perceptions of the salience of issues ranging from HIV-AIDS in Africa to the death penalty in the United States also play a big role in the fortunes of religious advocacy organizations. And, of course, each organization’s leadership, strategy and competition matter, too.

There are no notable differences in the organizational structures between the groups whose advocacy outlays increased and those whose expenditures decreased. But there are some differences by religious tradition. For instance, nine of the 45 groups (20%) that had an increase in advocacy spending are Muslim, while only one of the 57 groups (2%) whose expenditures decreased is Muslim. By contrast, four of the groups (9%) whose advocacy spending increased are Jewish, while nine of the groups (16%) with decreased spending are Jewish. Similarly, two of the groups (4%) with an increase in advocacy spending are mainline Protestant, while six of the groups (11%) that saw decreases are mainline Protestant. Among interreligious, Catholic and evangelical Protestant groups, about as many organizations reported increases as decreases.

The group with the largest drop in advocacy spending in absolute dollars during the period studied was People For the American Way ($4.5 million), followed by the Republican Jewish Coalition ($3.7 million). Seven other groups also reported decreases of at least $1 million in advocacy expenditures.

largest numberical decreases in advocacy expenditures

In percentage terms, however, the group with the greatest decrease in spending (as a proportion of its advocacy expenditures) was the Dalit Freedom Network, an evangelical Christian group that opposes discrimination on the basis of caste and race in India, whose spending went down by 79%. Four additional groups saw their advocacy spending decrease by more than 50%. Of the 57 groups that reported a decrease in spending, 42 groups (74%) reported that the decline was 30% or less.

largest percent decreases in advocacy expenditures

The group that had the largest numerical increase in advocacy spending was the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage. Its reported advocacy expenditures jumped by more than $5 million. The group with the next-largest rise in advocacy spending was the Muslim American Society, with an increase of about $900,000.

largest numerical increases in advocacy expenditures

Five groups more than doubled their advocacy expenditures: the World Organization for Resource Development & Education, Christians’ Israel Public Action Campaign, the National Organization for Marriage, PICO National Network (an alliance of groups engaged in community organizing) and the International Uyghur Human Rights & Democracy Foundation (which promotes religious and political freedom for China’s Uyghur Muslim minority). But 34 of the 45 groups whose advocacy spending increased (76%) reported that the increase was 30% or less.

largest percent increases in advocacy expenditures

For a full list of groups and the most recent advocacy expenditures available for the period 2008-2009, see the online directory.

Issue Agendas
In describing their work, religious advocacy groups cite about 300 policy concerns. These include some inherently religious issues, such as the promotion of religious freedom around the world. But religious advocacy groups also bring their religious viewpoints and moral principles to bear on many other issues, ranging from taxation and national security to abortion, same-sex marriage, poverty and economic inequality.

Despite historical roots in domestic issues such as Prohibition (see Evolution, Growth and Turnover ), religious advocacy groups today are, on the whole, almost as involved in international work as they are in domestic matters. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of the groups studied (63%) engage in both realms.

Domestic vs. International Issues

The breadth of their agendas reflects the groups’ widely differing theological and political perspectives. No single religious, political or ideological position monopolizes religious advocacy in Washington. On the contrary, religious groups can be found on both sides of many issues, and at times, even groups with a shared religious background come down on opposite sides of a policy debate. For example, two Jewish groups – J Street and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – frequently are at loggerheads over U.S. policy toward Israel.

At the same time, groups from different faith traditions sometimes come together on the same side of an issue. For example, evangelical Protestant groups including Prison Fellowship and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, joined with a mainline Protestant group, the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church & Society, in supporting the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, even though these groups often find themselves on opposite sides of other issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

In classifying the groups’ issue agendas, this study generally tries to reflect the language employed by the groups themselves. For example, if a group says it promotes religious freedom, it is included in the religious freedom category, even though another group engaged in similar activities might describe itself as working on international human rights and be listed accordingly. Thus, readers should note that the issue categories are not mutually exclusive. Many groups work on multiple issues, and the issues themselves often overlap.

Global Advocacy Issue Agendas

About eight-in-ten of the religious advocacy groups studied are involved in at least one international policy issue (16% work only on international issues, and 63% work on both international and domestic issues). More than half of the 216 groups (54%) say they tackle international human rights in some fashion, and nearly half (47%) address international poverty and economic issues. Almost as many groups (43%) address issues of peace and democracy, including peace-building and demilitarization. About one-in-five groups (21%) deal with religious freedom in particular countries or worldwide.

International Issues

Religious advocacy groups are involved in promoting policy initiatives that affect every region of the world, most notably the Middle East-North Africa. Four-in-ten of the 216 groups in the study address issues in the Middle East-North Africa region, such the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But one-in-six groups address concerns in the Asia-Pacific region, such as human rights in China, and a similar percentage are involved with issues in sub-Saharan Africa, such as poverty and HIV-AIDS.

regions covered by international advocacy

One common mission among denominational groups that engage in global advocacy is protecting or defending fellow believers, both domestically (e.g., Sikhs lobbying against what they consider unjust screening policies at airports) and internationally (e.g., the Baptist World Alliance promoting religious freedom for, among others, Baptists living as minorities in foreign countries).

The large international membership of some denominations – such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which says it has about 1 million members in the U.S. and 16 million worldwide – means that the advocacy groups related to these denominations (e.g., Adventist Development and Relief Agency International) reflect both the humanitarian impulses of the church and the needs of its believers abroad. Similarly, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and Baha’i groups are closely linked to their counterparts around the world. For example, the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, USA, is directly linked to the international Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and American Ahmadiyya leaders advocate for their counterparts in Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere in testimony before Congress, reports to the State Department and media awareness campaigns.

A more recent development in global religious advocacy is a tendency to move beyond issues that relate to the treatment of fellow believers (or other human rights-related concerns) and to take positions on social and cultural issues in foreign countries. As the United Nations and other international bodies have taken on issues such as abortion, genetic engineering, the role of women, gay rights and the definition of the family, religious traditionalists in recent years have moved into international arenas that, in some cases, other U.S. religious groups entered much earlier. For example, the anti-abortion group Human Life International now operates in nearly 100 countries, and conservative groups such as Concerned Women for America routinely lobby at the United Nations. Mainline Protestant denominations, on the other hand, have been engaged in international issues since the end of World War II, from backing the formation of the United Nations to opposing the Vietnam War and the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America.

Driving the Global Issue Agenda

Easier communications and travel have created connections between American religious groups and constituencies around the world. Because they have more opportunities to meet and engage with fellow believers or people of different faiths around the world, advocates are more likely to be motivated and find it easier to advocate internationally. Americans meet visiting foreign religious leaders in their places of worship; they communicate via email with counterparts around the world; and more than a million believers a year travel on mission trips to work on humanitarian projects, often side-by-side with fellow believers in developing nations.17

Migration also has increased global advocacy, for the simple reason that immigrants to the U.S. often stay connected with their home countries and bring international concerns to U.S. policymakers. The Hindu American Foundation, American Islamic Congress and Dalit Freedom Network are examples of advocacy groups that represent the concerns of immigrants.

Global religious advocacy has had a wide-reaching impact on American foreign policy in the past two decades. During the Cold War and its aftermath, a number of Christian organizations documented the harassment, arrest or killing of fellow believers in Soviet states; provided succor to victims; and lobbied governments to get prisoners released. In the 1990s, these groups found allies across the religious and ideological spectrum who could unite around the idea of promoting religious freedom through American foreign policy. Thus, evangelical Protestant groups joined with advocates representing Catholics, Episcopalians, Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists and Sikhs in successfully lobbying for the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, and they have joined with new groups, such as the American Islamic Congress, to press for its robust implementation.18

Galvanized by the success of the campaign for international religious freedom legislation, religious alliances also backed legislation on human trafficking (the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 and Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003, 2005, 2008), peace in Sudan (Sudan Peace Act, 2002) and human rights in North Korea(North Korean Human Rights Act, passed in 2004 and reauthorized in 2008). Together, these laws have erected a sizable legal architecture for promoting human rights in American foreign policy(North Korean Human Rights Act, passed in 2004 and reauthorized in 2008). Together, these laws have erected a sizable legal architecture for promoting human rights in American foreign policy.19

Domestic Issue Agendas

The growth of global advocacy does not appear to have come at the expense of advocacy on domestic issues, however. More than eight-in-ten religious advocacy groups (84%) either work solely on domestic issues (21%) or are involved in both domestic and foreign issues (63%).

domestic issues

Of the 216 groups studied, about half (52%) address domestic church-state issues, such as debates over public displays of religion, hate-crime laws and school vouchers. A similar portion (49%) works on civil rights and liberties, such as gay rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.

About four in-ten groups in the study (42%) work on bioethics and life issues, which include abortion, capital punishment, stem cell research and end-of-life issues. Roughly as many (39%) address family and marriage issues, including the definition of marriage, domestic violence and fatherhood initiatives. About one-in-six groups (16%) work on other domestic issues, a catch-all category that includes corporate accountability/responsibility, limited government/private enterprise, elections/campaign finance, capitalism, volunteerism and veterans’ issues.

Constituency Size
Comparing the constituencies of religious advocacy groups is difficult because they are defined and measured in many different ways.

The groups in the study use a variety of metrics to describe their reach. Some groups list the number of “activists” they represent, such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (13,000) and the Save Darfur Coalition (1 million). The Quixote Center, a social justice group with roots in Catholicism, mentions on its website the “friends, associates and donors” that are among its constituents. Concerned Women for America states on its website that it has a membership of “half a million women and like-minded men,” though it is not clear whether all are financial contributors.

Constituency size is most easily measured for groups that represent individuals. Though membership figures are not available (or consistently reported) for all these groups, the Pew Forum was able to gather membership estimates from websites, questionnaires and interviews for 35 of the 90 groups that represent individuals. These 35 groups make up 16% of the 216 groups in this study. Collectively, these groups have a total of more than 3.5 million members and other constituents. Even allowing for the potential of inflated counts, this sample suggests a potential grassroots reach of several million people for advocacy organizations that represent individuals.

Additionally, the employees and clients of religious institutions also can be viewed as constituents. The following self-reported examples illustrate the representational reach of some institutions:

  • Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities: more than 200 institutions of higher learning
  • Association of Christian Schools International: more than 5,900 member schools in 106 nations
  • Care Net: more than 1,000 crisis pregnancy centers
  • Catholic Charities USA: more than 150 agencies
  • Catholic Health Association of the United States: more than 600 hospitals
  • National Institute of Family and Life Advocates: 1,200 centers
  • National Religious Broadcasters: 1,400 broadcasters and media ministries
  • Jewish Federations of North America: more than 150 federations and over 300 independent community groups

Additionally, because many religious traditions and denominations have Washington advocacy offices, millions of their members are, in a sense, represented. For example, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission says it represents the 16 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism says it advocates on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism’s 900 congregations with 1.5 million members. The Washington Office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America says it speaks on behalf of 10,000 congregations and 4.2 million members. And Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says the organization acts “as shepherds of over 70 million U.S. citizens.”20 However, members of a particular faith do not always know about, or necessarily agree with, the activities of the denomination’s advocacy office in Washington.

Staff and Facilities
There is no definitive source of information on the number of full-time, paid employees engaged in religious advocacy in the nation’s capital. However, the Pew Forum gathered self reported figures from websites, questionnaires and interviews to try to get a rough sense of staffing levels. Data were available for 120 groups, which together employ more than 1,000 paid staff members in the Washington area. Since the 120 groups represent only about half of the 216 groups in the study (55%), the cumulative staffing level for religious advocacy in the nation’s capital is likely much higher. On the other hand, some employees may not engage in advocacy, though all presumably contribute to the missions of their groups.

Most religious advocacy organizations are modest operations. Eight-in-ten groups for which data were available have 12 or fewer employees (80%). More than half (55%) have five or fewer employees. Less than one-in-ten have more than 25 employees (6%).

staff size

Organizations that represent the interests of relative newcomers to religious advocacy, such as Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, tend to have particularly small staffs (five or fewer employees), as do the advocacy offices of many well-established but small Protestant denominations, such as the Mennonites, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Of the seven groups with more than 25 employees, five are interreligious, combining the interests of multiple faiths or advocating on religion-related issues without representing any particular faith. Six of the seven groups with a Washington-based staff of more than 25 represent individuals (the other is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which represents a religious body and has a Washington headquarters with many responsibilities besides public policy advocacy).

In addition to staff located in or near Washington, D.C., some organizations have professional employees around the country or around the world. Among the largest is Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic community, which has around 5,000 staff providing development and emergency assistance in approximately 100 countries. Only a small portion of them are involved in Washington advocacy efforts.

Office Spaces

Just as staff size varies widely, so do office spaces, with some groups sharing cramped quarters while others occupy large buildings. Some advocacy programs, such as the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, are attached to larger national organizations headquartered in the Washington area and benefit from the organizational stability provided by such arrangements, which helps buffer them from economic vagaries.

Other groups have erected their own office buildings in the nation’s capital, which often serve as the hub of coalitions. One of the most prominent is the United Methodist Building, situated across from the U.S. Capitol. Built in the 1920s, it houses the General Board of Church & Society of the United Methodist Church and other mainline Protestant denominational groups, along with several religious organizations that rent space. (See “Evolution, Growth and Turnover”.) Other religious advocacy groups that occupy substantial buildings include the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Family Research Council and the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Methods and Strategies

The Pew Forum used responses to a mail and email questionnaire to gather data about the strategies religious advocacy groups use to try to influence public policy. Early in the study, questionnaires were mailed to 148 separate, active groups that had been identified as religious advocacy groups at that point, and 61 of these groups returned completed questionnaires. (For more details, see Methodology.)

About nine-in-ten groups that responded to the questionnaire report that they contact policymakers in person (90%) and in writing (93%). Leaders of the groups say they use both issue-specific research and broader moral or theological arguments in these communications.

advocacy strategies

About seven-in-ten of the groups that returned a questionnaire say they give testimony at hearings (70%) or author policy papers (75%). Far fewer groups produce scorecards on how members of Congress vote on legislation (8%) or support candidates in elections (7%). Because of their tax status, many religious advocacy groups are barred from supporting or opposing candidates in elections. In addition, leaders of many groups say they eschew partisan political activity on moral grounds. Interviews conducted as part of this study found that many of the leaders, particularly those who represent official religious bodies, tend to view electioneering as divisive and theologically inappropriate.

More than nine-in-ten groups that responded to the questionnaire also say that informing their grassroots constituencies (95%) and informing the general public (97%) are among their advocacy strategies. About three-quarters of the groups say they initiate letter-writing or email campaigns (77%) and issue news releases (82%). More than half participate in demonstrations or rallies (57%).

Among the other activities listed by religious advocacy organizations are participating in other groups’ conferences and events, holding leadership workshops, and conducting academic and polling research to inform advocacy work.

most frequent advocacy methods

The questionnaire also asked groups to report which activities they use most often. Informing constituents about issues is by far the most common strategy, cited by 41% of the groups as the one they use most often.

An increasingly common strategy that blends grassroots pressure and more-traditional Washington lobbying is the “lobby day,” when a group brings members from around the country to Washington, D.C., for a conference, provides training (and sometimes detailed scripts) to participants, then organizes their visits to congressional offices. One example is the Mobilization to End Poverty, sponsored by the group Sojourners along with other faith and anti-poverty groups in April 2009. The meeting drew more than 1,100 activists who visited 83 Senate offices and 200 House offices to advocate for inclusion of low-income people in economic recovery policies. Another example is the Sikh Advocate Academy, held for the first time by The Sikh Coalition in June 2011. Billed as “a week-long, all expenses paid, experiential learning course in Washington D.C.,” it offered activists from across the country a chance to be “certified” as members of a volunteer network, the Sikh Coalition Advocacy Corps.

Another category of strategy is litigation aimed at establishing national legal precedents. This is a prime focus of certain organizations, such as the Home School Legal Defense Association, Christian Legal Society, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. For example, the Becket Fund has argued in federal courts that the denial of zoning permits to religious groups seeking to construct or expand houses of worship violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.21

Nearly all religious advocacy group leaders interviewed for this study agreed that building coalitions is vital to their efforts. Similarly, 95% of the groups that completed the Pew Forum’s questionnaire said that signing coalition letters to public officials is one of their advocacy strategies, and several mentioned more informal collaboration with like-minded groups, such as attending other groups’ conferences or meetings.

New Media Strategies

The growing popularity of new media has transformed the nature of constituent mobilization and woven it more deeply into the policymaking process. Previous studies of religious advocacy found that most religious groups did not have the means of operating large direct-mail operations to generate pressure on policymakers from constituents.22 Today, maintaining a large email list is relatively inexpensive, and with the click of a mouse constituents can register their views with their congressional representatives. And because email messages are easily shared, a group’s reach can expand beyond its core mailing list. For example, the executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation reported that some of its email alerts, such as its campaign against torture, have gone viral and generated as many as 160,000 messages to Congress, more than twice the number of people the Friends Committee has on its email list (60,000).

new media strategies

Additionally, many groups use sophisticated lobbying software to monitor constituent communications. Not long ago, Washington advocates had no way to know how many people responded to issue alerts urging them to write to members of Congress. Now, through email messaging software, many can track who wrote to which congressional offices and when.

Six-in-ten of the groups that responded to the questionnaire (61%) maintain blogs on their websites, and more than eight-in-ten use targeted emails (85%) or mass emails (89%) to mobilize constituents. As of 2009, when the questionnaire was administered, more than sixin- ten groups already were using social networking tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, to engage and grow their audiences. Since new media usage – particularly social networking – has continued to grow since then, it is likely that new media use is even more prevalent today.23

In addition to the Web-based activities listed in the graph above, religious advocacy groups also reported hosting webinars, sending email newsletters, circulating online petitions and posting videos online.

The size and sophistication of constituent operations vary, but new technologies act as a kind of equalizer, enabling even small Washington staffs to reach deeper into the lives of their constituents through online networks.

Digital technologies also speed the process by facilitating the real-time response of grassroots constituencies to breaking developments in Washington, D.C., or around the world. And new media also allow people to take action easily, even from a distance, as religious leaders and advocates connect with other individuals and groups across the globe. In an interview for this study, for example, the Washington director of World Vision reported that the organization gained more than 100,000 new activists by using Facebook Causes. Similarly, the lobbying director of NETWORK, which describes itself as a national Catholic social justice lobby, observed that Twitter allowed her to generate virtually immediate discussion among constituents about breaking legislative developments.

Strategies for Global Advocacy

Some strategies are specific to groups that engage in global advocacy. Ninety groups promote their causes to governments outside the U.S. or to international bodies, and many of them have gained official nongovernmental organization (NGO) status at the United Nations, giving them an ongoing platform for their advocacy. Achieving “consultative” or “observer” status at the U.N. requires considerable time and dedication and bespeaks a serious ongoing commitment to international advocacy. An increasing number of groups also press their concerns before specific U.N. agencies, such as the Human Rights Council or the High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.

Some religious groups concerned with poverty and economic development strive to influence other global institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Given that legal precedents influence the enforcement of international law on human rights and religious freedom, American legal advocacy groups also take cases before the European Court of Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international tribunals.

Establishing offices in other countries also facilitates global advocacy. Several faith-based international relief and development organizations maintain offices on every inhabited continent, and some of the larger organizations – such as Catholic Relief Services, World Vision and Adventist Development and Relief Agency International – staff operations in nearly 100 countries, or more. Several groups concerned with human rights and discrimination against minorities also maintain offices around the world. These include B’nai B’rith International (offices in London, Paris and Santiago, Chile, as well as other international cities), the International Campaign for Tibet (offices in Amsterdam, Brussels and Berlin) and the American Islamic Congress (offices in Cairo and Basra, Iraq).

Grassroots mobilization of constituents is another important strategy in global advocacy.24 For example, American activists monitor events along the border between Sudan and the newly independent nation of South Sudan, alerting congressional staffs, the State Department and the news media to developments they think are important.

For some organizations, advocacy takes a more diplomatic turn. The Institute for Global Engagement, for instance, seeks to promote religious freedom abroad through a combination of quiet negotiations with governmental officials and grassroots workshops to help religious communities practice their new freedom responsibly. The group cites as an example its work with Vietnamese Christians and the government of Vietnam to enable churches to operate more freely there.


12 Many of these advocacy groups, however, are not officially sanctioned by church bodies and are not, in that sense, formal representatives of particular faiths. Indeed, groups from a single tradition sometimes come down on opposite sides of particular issues. There are groups that identify themselves as Catholic, for example, on both sides of the abortion debate, even though the Roman Catholic Church is unequivocally opposed to abortion. (return to text)

13 Most figures for the size of religious groups in the U.S. adult population are from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted in 2007 and published in 2008, Figures for Muslims are based on data from Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism, Pew Research Center, 2011,–No-Signs-of-Growth-in-Alienation-or-Support-for-Extremism.aspx, in combination with U.S. Census Bureau data. (return to text)

14 For more information on black churches’ civic engagement, see R. Drew Smith, “The Public Influences of African-American Churches: Contexts and Capacities,” The Leadership Center at Morehouse College, 2002, (return to text)

15 In June 2011, the Internal Revenue Service announced that it had revoked the tax-exempt status of approximately 275,000 organizations because the groups had not filed the required tax form for three consecutive years. Because the change in tax status occurred after the Pew Forum had completed its research, the report and online directory do not take these revocations into account. For more information, see the IRS press release at,,id=240239,00.html. (return to text)

16 Groups that register as regular 501(c)(3) entities cannot devote a “substantial” part of their activities to “lobbying,” defined as activities in support of specific legislative acts or public referendums. Some nonprofit groups – but not churches or private foundations – can choose “h election” (501h), which is governed by an expenditure formula that allows greater lobbying effort as long as it meets specified limits and percentages. (return to text)

17 For more information, see Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, University of California Press, 2009. (return to text)

18 For more information, see Q&A with Allen Hertzke, “Ten Years of Promoting Religious Freedom Through U.S. Foreign Policy,” Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, Oct. 16, 2008, (return to text)

19 For more information, see Allen D. Hertzke, Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights, Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. (return to text)

20 See (return to text)

21 For more on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, see “A Fluid Boundary: The Free Exercise Clause and the Legislative and Executive Branches,” Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2008, (return to text)

22 See Hertzke 1988. (return to text)

23 See, for example, “65% of online adults use social networking sites,” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 2011, (return to text)

24 For more information, see Hertzke 2004. (return to text)