Advocacy roles for philanthropy…and lessons for nonprofits

Recently a foundation colleague and I had an email exchange sparked by this Nonprofit Quarterly article about the role of philanthropy and advocacy in ACA implementation.

It sparked my thinking about the importance of implementation, and, hence, the request for more examples of implementation advocacy stories, from all of you.

There are also some really important points about the more technical pieces of healthcare reform implementation, and the roles for philanthropy in making sure that that legislation has the impact on people’s access to health care and, ultimately, overall health status, that was intended. It’s very worth reading.

But I think that there’s also a larger point about the role of philanthropy in advocacy, and about what nonprofits need to think about regarding the disconnect, often, between the strategies we deliver and the types of change we hope to pursue. Because one of the major criticisms from the article, and the primary point of our online ‘conversation’, was about how much ‘advocacy’ by nonprofits–and how much advocacy support by philanthropy–is really more public education, despite the obvious fact that “politics, not information, plays the decisive role in policy decisions”.

It ties back to the advocacy framework, and the reality that we spend a lot of our time in the community information-generation sphere, when what will be required to get to policy change might be grassroots organizing, or direct lobbying, or even litigation. The article largely pins the blame for that chasm between strategy and outcome on philanthropy’s reluctance to aggressively fund advocacy; one source said that “foundations have a higher sense of the impact of their reports and studies on public policies than is actually warranted”, and this colleague of mine was quick to concur that foundations, in general, can shy away from anything that looks like contentious policy debate.

But I think that nonprofits are often complicit in this, in that we may be no more eager to get into heated policy controversies than the foundations that fund us, or no more equipped to take on the long-term work of base-building, either.

So, while, yes, the foundation conference that this article covers reflected a “bias…toward the capacity of philanthropy to publish objective information even though facts are often less influential than hard-nosed politics”, but I have those same conversations with nonprofit Boards of Directors and staff executives, too.

We want to think that injecting really good information into the policy debate will make all the difference, that facts will get us where we want to go.

We want to live there, because we’re comfortable with those activities, and because that vision of how change happens aligns with our hopes for how public policy should be constructed.

But wishing and hoping doesn’t make it happen, and, in reality, neither do really well-researched fact sheets, either. Not alone.

So, my hope, in healthcare reform implementation and in all other policy issues with implications for people’s well-being, is that nonprofit advocates will get confident and capable of playing in all areas of the advocacy framework, that we’ll cultivate relationships with philanthropists ready to work with us, and that, as a result, we’ll win.

A lot.

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