Writing Grants for Nonprofit Advocacy

True confession time: I have been avoiding this post.

One of the most common questions I am asked relates to money–how do nonprofit organizations get it, to do advocacy? Where do you look? Whom do you ask? How do you make the case, especially when your organization is new to advocacy, that you deserve it? How do you define ‘success’ in such a way that your donors have confidence in your outcomes, without boxing yourself into a corner where you only look good if you win the ‘big prize’–policy change?

The answer, of course, is that there’s not nearly enough money out there for nonprofit advocacy. It’s too hard to find, foundations are too reluctant to give it, it’s still undervalued as a legitimate nonprofit activity. That’s why I have been avoiding this.

Still, when I was looking through my files the other day, I came across some grant applications (that were funded!) that I had written for advocacy work during my time at a couple of different nonprofit organizations, and it occurred to me that, even though I don’t have any easy answers for organizational advocates who are perpetually overworked and underresourced, it might still be helpful to share some of what I do know.

  • Advocate with your current donors to help them understand the importance and legality of funding advocacy. Anyone who writes grants for nonprofit work knows that building relationships with donors is essential. Your organization obviously has relationships with some donors (or you wouldn’t be open for business!)–community or local foundations, corporate-giving operations, individuals–but these partners may not be on board in terms of funding advocacy. Sometimes there are ideological gaps, and sometimes these cannot be hurdled (you need to be prepared, honestly, for the chance that your advocacy work may, at least initially, cost you some support from those donors who don’t approve of the strategies you employ or the causes you champion). Sometimes, though, the obstacle relates more to ignorance about the ways in which donors can support advocacy or how they can measure its success. Use the Alliance for Justice materials, get them on the phone with your donors, hold a roundtable discussion with those who are funding advocacy–in essence, direct some of your advocacy work towards those you want to support your advocacy.
  • Research advocacy funding to get a sense of the causes different donors support and how you can make connections. Use some investigative techniques and your coalition/relationship connections to find out who is funding the advocacy work of other nonprofit organizations you admire. This will give you some ideas for who might be willing to fund your work, explain some of the relationships among donors and recipients, suggest ideological orientations of advocacy donors, and help you as you craft both short-term and long-term advocacy fundraising plans.
  • Develop a budget that allows you to phase-in advocacy work. When we develop program budgets, we often think full-scale immediately, and that’s inarguably the easiest and best way to do program development. In this economy, though, and particularly in the arena of advocacy fundraising, it’s often just not possible. You don’t want to wait to get started on your organizing and advocacy work until you can raise the $80,000 or whatever dollar amount you need to implement a full-scale effort, so think more in terms of assigning dollar figures to each of the activities that you consider core to your overall strategy, and figure out how much it would take to get started with a particular campaign, or set of campaigns, if you can’t get everything you might want initially.
  • Sketch our your campaigns and figure out how you might approach different funding sources for each of them, in such a way as to build a budget that supports your overall advocacy and organizing effort. At El Centro, Inc., in my last year as Director of Policy Advocacy and Research, we received one grant for our work on comprehensive immigration reform (where we were specifically prohibited from spending anything on state advocacy or any other policy issue, even those related to immigration but had no limits on lobbying), one grant for our applied research work (could not be used for lobbying/advocacy at all), one grant for our grassroots organizing work (regardless of issue, but not to include any direct lobbying), and one grant for our work on anti-poverty policy (including our children/family issues, housing, and anti-predatory lending). We covered the rest of our expenses with unrestricted money that we raised from fundraisers and income-generating activities (like survey data presentations and other public speaking events). Yes, when you have to account for all of this, on top of managing the rules that govern nonprofit advocacy, it’s complicated. But this is not an ideal world, and few people are handing out blank checks for nonprofit advocacy and organizing, so the key here is that these grants allowed us to fully fund a comprehensive advocacy and organizing effort that meant that we were able to mount effective campaigns on all of the issues that mattered most to us.
  • Build relationships with those foundations, including those that you think are way out of your league, that have a history of funding advocacy. Early in my advocacy career, I read with considerable envy about those nonprofit organizations receiving large grant awards from the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation. At the urging of our development person, I even worked up some unsolicited letters of intent and sent them in–after all, these were foundations that actually encouraged advocacy requests! Not surprisingly, though, I received slim envelopes with cordial rejection letters, even once I did more research regarding the kinds of proposals and the budget range in which they funded projects. We found other ways to fund our work, and I got busy organizing. Fast-forward to 2006, when I met someone from Carnegie at a DC event regarding comprehensive immigration reform. We talked at a cocktail hour, and she was familiar with our work on instate tuition. We had many common contacts in the movement and discussed our prognoses for reform. We exchanged cards, but I was so jaded by my past rejections that I didn’t even follow up on the conversation. Then, in early 2007, I received an invitation to a Carnegie-funded training for immigration advocates. I went and saw that same grant administrator again. When I returned to Kansas City after that weekend, El Centro, Inc. received an invitation to submit a proposal to the Carnegie Corporation for $50,000 for a year of our advocacy work. Especially where these major donors are concerned, it’s not nearly as much what you do as who you know, so start meeting people and don’t assume that you are too small or too Midwest or too local to be of interest to those whose job it is to spend other people’s money to make the world a better place.
  • Craft outcomes that are consistent with your internal priorities yet measurable, in order to create accountability without leading to mission drift that will compromise the effectiveness of your advocacy. Unfortunately, many of us have had the experience of working in an organization that, at least at some point, ‘chased’ dollars, ultimately securing a grant but having to create a new program or pursue an entirely different direction in order to receive the money. That’s not a wise way to fund an organization, and it leads more often to watered-down goals and incompatible activities than to healthy funding. I know that there’s a temptation to mold your activities to try to be what donors are looking for, but you’re better off clearly defining what you want to do, what ‘success’ looks like, and how you’ll measure the extent to which you are succeeding, and then employing multiple strategies to find donors who share your goals.
  • Demonstrate that you are raising some of the money for your advocacy work through your own efforts–through grassroots fundraisers, earned-income generation, or other strategies, so that donors can see not only that you have deep and strong alliances within your community but also that you are leveraging those connections into financial support. Donors like to see that they are not going to be your sole source of support. In advocacy and organizing, there is a further advantage to highlighting your other revenue sources–they can illustrate the extent to which your target population supports your organization and demonstrate your skills and power.

    I hope that these lessons learned, and the materials that follow, are at least somewhat helpful in your grantwriting efforts, even though they are mostly reflective of a different (and slightly better) fundraising climate. I don’t have any magic answers, but I’d be happy to help folks think through where they might apply for funding and/or how to make the best case for advocacy to potential donors. Those of you currently fundraising successfully for advocacy, are you willing to share what’s working for you?

    New Voices at the Civic Table proposal
    Sample funded proposal

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