Advocacy Funding: The Philanthropy of Changing Minds

Grantmakers tend to be cautious about funding advocacy, and for good reason - yet advocacy can play a crucial role in advancing a foundation's mission. In this guide, contributors explain that advocacy includes a lot of opportunities to improve public policy through work that is well within the limits of the law. Whether your purpose is to advance an idea, argue a position, or enrich the policy debate, the guide offers resources and strategies for planning your work, reaching your audience, assessing impact, and more.

Highlights

  • What's permissible for foundations
  • Working with grantees who lobby
  • Building a case, cultivating a constituency
  • Preparing for opposition

What's in the Guide?

  • Why Foundations Support Advocacy: For foundations, the pursuit of better public policy is often crucial to achieving their fundamental missions. Advocacy can be an important part of the strategy. 
  • Defining Your Role as an Advocacy Funder: An advocacy strategy needs to match a foundation’s mission, values, and long-term goals. It should also be in alignment with your level of persistence, grant-making style, and tolerance for public attention.  
  • What’s Permissible: Foundations, Advocacy, and the Law: U.S. federal law prohibits private foundations from lobbying or expressly funding lobbying — that is, promoting a particular position on pending legislation. Yet those restrictions still leave a lot of open territory for grant makers who want to improve public policy. 
  • Building Knowledge and Will: Tools and Techniques: Grantmakers in advocacy also help to define and describe problems of public concern, and to educate policy makers and their constituents about possible solutions. 
  • Identifying and Cultivating a Constituency: Tools and Techniques: Advocacy is typically a collaborative effort in which organizations, coalitions, or movements deliver their message to the wider public. Organizing people and groups that share a common interest and a determination to make change may therefore be part of the task. 
  • Preparing for Opposition: When Advocacy Meets Resistance: When advocacy comes up against opposition, the options for action are not solely to attack or retreat. Success may depend on striking the right balance between confrontation and negotiation, resistance and engagement. 
  • Defining and Measuring Success: One common fear that keeps grantmakers from funding advocacy is that success is hard to measure. In this section, grantmakers offer approaches to assessing advocacy work.
  • takeaways
    Why Foundations Support Advocacy

    Many people believe that private foundations are prohibited from funding advocacy — and there are, to be sure, some kinds of advocacy that are legally impermissible. But these are few and relatively easy to avoid. “I don’t think the principal constraints are legal ones,” said one grantmaker, reflecting on attitudes he encounters in the field. 

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    Choosing a Strategy

    Among the earliest choices facing grantmakers in advocacy - and a question that may recur many times - is how an advocacy campaign should be organized: What kind of activity, involving what kinds of relationships among people, will drive the effort for change?

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    Advice from Grantseekers

    It's not necessary - and it's often counterproductive - to expressly forbid lobbying in grant letters. Unless a particular grant specifically requires "expenditure responsibility" or the grant might appear to have funds "earmarked" for lobbying, there is no reason why grant letters should forbid activities that are perfectly legal for the grantee and that are not the responsibility of the funder.

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    Levels of Advocacy Operation Individuals, Organizations, Collaboratives or Networks?

    Mobilizing individuals directly may be the easiest approach to understand, but it’s usually the hardest to accomplish. To stir individuals to carry out or advocate for change directly, it may be necessary to apply mass media in a sufficiently sustained and concentrated way to reach thousands or millions of people with a persuasive message.

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  • takeaways
    Advocacy Controversy

    The presence of controversy and the possibility of confronting opposition are not reasons to avoid advocacy. In fact, they may be the most important reason to engage in advocacy — given adequate precautions. Grantmakers emphasize that confronting opposition and negotiating an effective compromise are not necessarily opposite alternatives.

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  • takeaways
    Approaches to Evaluating Advocacy

    Types of Advocacy Evaluation:

    1. Process Evaluation - intended mainly to determine whether the campaign resulted in the activities and products that were expected of it. This is the most basic kind of evaluation for any grantmaking effort.
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  • takeaways
    What Grantees Wish Funders Knew about Advocacy Funding
    1. It’s not necessary — and it’s often counterproductive — to expressly forbid lobbying in grant letters.
    2. General support grants are a useful way to support public policy work while minimizing legal risk to the foundation.
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  • takeaways
    Why Evaluate an Advocacy Effort?

    Despite the difficulties of measuring the effectiveness of an advocacy effort or pointing to the difference made by a particular activity or grant, one experienced advocacy grantmaker argued that there are other rationales for supporting an evaluation:

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  • takeaways
    Preparing for Opposition When Advocacy Meets Resistance

    Balancing Negotiation and Confrontation: One grantmaker in civil rights described her view of opposition and negotiation this way: “My portfolio was a constant combination of battle and negotiation, but the most successful work, I would say, amounted to negotiation with a very high tolerance for confrontation.

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  • takeaways
    Small Targets vs. Larger Ones

    Grantmakers often struggle with the question of whether their advocacy would be more likely to succeed if they aimed at small, narrowly defined issues — things that could be adopted or enacted fairly quickly by an easily targeted group of people.

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  • takeaways
    Identifying and Cultivating a Constituency Persistence is Key

    Funders need persistence, too. “Political and economic cycles seem to trump everything,” one advocacy funder observed. “Suddenly a new development can make a top priority seem less important, and everybody’s attention starts to shift toward the new new thing.” This grantmaker’s advice is to “figure out methods [of funding and leadership] that can survive some of those changes. And these aren’t the only cycles that affect the life expectancy of an advocacy program...If you set out on this, you’ve got to think about how you’ll carry through with it, because it can take a long time.”

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  • takeaways
    Building Knowledge and Will: Advocacy Tools & Techniques

    Identify your audience and what they need to know: The audience may be a few people at the right moment. A grantmaker who funded years of advocacy for transportation reform recalls that the whole effort began when a few leaders of policy research groups recognized “a unique policy moment, an opportunity for change that hadn’t existed before.” What created the moment, more than anything else, was a particular configuration of congressional leadership and staff, a growing body of research in which those officials seemed to be interested, and a growing political weakness among defenders of the status quo. So what eventually became a national movement for transportation reform, including at least two significant pieces of federal legislation, started with an observation about a potentially receptive audience — a small number of people in influential positions who really cared about the issue.

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  • takeaways
    The Tools of Advocacy

    For most of the grantmakers who contributed to this guide, advocacy consisted essentially of seven instruments or methods, which could be used by grantees, funders, or both:

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  • takeaways
    After the Law is Passed: An Opportunity for Influence

    One area of wide freedom for foundations and nonprofits is in the public policy process surrounding the writing of regulations. After a piece of legislation is passed, many important decisions about the effect and reach of that legislation are left to executive agencies and regulatory bodies to iron out.

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  • takeaways
    What’s Permissible: Foundation, Advocacy, and the Law Lobbying

    What if you know your grantee plans to engage in lobbying as part of a project for which you’re making a grant? The short answer is: As long as you take some simple precautions to be sure the lobbying and the grant are permissible, that’s fine. Foundations that support 501(c)(3) organizations don’t need to pretend that lobbying doesn’t take place, and they don’t need to wall themselves off from any knowledge or discussion of it.

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  • takeaways
    The Risks of Not Knowing the Law

    Grantees don’t necessarily know the law. Although grantees often have more legal latitude for advocacy than their funders do, it can be a mistake simply to assume that all grantees know the law and how to apply it. “One of the most important things a foundation can do if it intends to engage in advocacy work primarily through its grantees,” one grantmaker wrote, “is to be sure that they are well-trained in the legal requirements around both their own activities and those of the partnering foundation.”

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  • takeaways
    What’s Permissible: Foundation, Advocacy, and the Law The Basic Rules for Foundations

    Organizations designated as private foundations are free to express opinions on public issues, inform people (including lawmakers) about public problems and possible solutions, and mobilize constituencies around principles they believe in. But the Tax Code does not permit them to lobby — that is, under most circumstances they may not spend their money and other resources to advocate for or against any specific piece of pending legislation (exceptions do apply).

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  • takeaways
    What’s Permissible: Foundation, Advocacy, and the Law

    Firsthand advice from legal and tax advisers who are thoroughly versed in the rules of advocacy and who have your specific interests in mind, is a must. Expertise in advocacy is a must, one grantmaker advises: “Many attorneys and accountants are unfamiliar with these laws and regulations, and so, in order to protect their client, they recommend the safest possible route: i.e., stay away from it. Foundations … may even want to pay for their attorney or accountant to attend some workshops on this specific area of IRS law and regulation.

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  • takeaways
    Advocacy Resources Read More »
  • takeaways
    The Beauty of the General Support Grant

    Many funders said they preferred to choose proven, effective advocacy organizations as grantees and then offer them core support to carry out their work.

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  • takeaways
    Defining Your Role as an Advocacy Funder Finding Your Tolerance Level

    Advocacy grantmaking typically entails risks of both frustration and controversy, which worries some funders. One grantmaker recalled that the founder of the family foundation where she works “originally didn’t want to do anything with system change and public policy. He basically hates the world of government; his eyes glaze over and he gets frustrated.” But later, this same founder met some beneficiaries of the foundation’s grants in person and learned how longstanding practices of state government were inadvertently undermining some of the very work the foundation was trying to support: “He was outraged. He’s a problem-solver by nature, and he couldn’t stand the idea of problems being created by default, with no one paying attention to them and no one doing anything about them. Suddenly, he was the biggest force for us in policy change.”

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  • takeaways
    Defining Your Role as an Advocacy Funder: To Fund or Act?

    Some grantmakers fund advocacy, and some are advocates themselves. Many do both. The choice of whether a grantmaker directly promotes an approach to public issues or funds others to do so depends on several considerations: 
     

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  • takeaways
    Defining Your Role as Advocacy Funder

    "Advocacy is not something you can do well if you do it half-heartedly. It’s not really a 'what-the-hell' kind of effort, where you can make a few small grants and just see how it turns out. The potential for controversy or midcourse surprises, or for legal questions turning up now and then, means you really have to pay attention to it, and you have to be really committed to it. That way, if controversy arises, you’ll remember why you got into this in the first place, and why it’s important to stick it out. And more important, if it takes a long time to reach a point of real, recognizable change, it’s your values and your mission that are going to help you persevere over that long haul." - Grantmaker

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  • takeaways
    What is Advocacy?

    "The grantmakers we talked to described “advocacy” as a category of activities — usually carried out by grantees, but sometimes undertaken directly by foundations — whose primary purpose is to influence people’s opinions or actions on matters of public policy or concern: 

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We hope this guide sparks thoughtful deliberation about the role of public policy advocacy in your foundation's areas of interest and approach to philanthropy. You may find it helpful for framing discussion in the following ways: 

  • With your board or top executives, this guide can open conversations on what public policy interests they would like to see advanced, what options should be considered, and what skills, partners, and resources would be needed. 
  • With grantees, this guide can facilitate in-depth conversation about what public policy issues have consequences for their work, what role they would like to take in advocacy (if any), and what resources they need to play that role effectively. 
  • With colleagues and advisers, this guide can be a starting point for debate about the role of public policy in your field of activity, and the pluses and minuses of pursuing an advocacy agenda. 
  • As a training tool for funders, this guide can be the basis for an examination of their foundation's approach to advocacy and how that approach affects the grant maker's particular field.

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