I am convinced that lack of adequate financial resources is a major, if not the most significant, barrier to effective nonprofit advocacy. Yes, we have challenges to overcome regarding institutional capacity and expertise, preoccupation with direct service, and, sometimes, lack of courage to take the stands needed to be effective advocates, but I truly believe that we could surmount these obstacles much more easily if nonprofit organizations could invest in the staff, training, and other resources they need to succeed in advocacy.
And, yet, the kind of long-term, sustainable, unrestricted funding that nonprofit organizations need to build their capacity to take on these battles is declining, and lack of funding continues to be a shield behind which organizations not engaging in advocacy can hide, and a real limitation for those trying to make it work.
All of this has led to one of my current research interests of sorts–the role of donors to social service organizations in supporting those organizations’ social change work (particularly advocacy, but also community organizing and broader justice work). This document outlines the highlights from a report regarding “Social Justice Grantmaking”, the authors’ term for grants that target work for structural change. I have contacted the authors to see if the study will be updated, since the data were collected in 2005, and I am very interested to see what the current recession means for these foundations–both those that were funding social justice work then and those that were not–and their levels of giving and priorities.
Here are the findings that I found most notable: social justice grantmaking is only 11% of total foundation support; it has grown somewhat since the late 1990s but more slowly than overall increases in giving. The ‘big names’ represent the majority of social justice grantmaking: the top 25 foundations for this kind of grantmaking constituted only 13% of the sample of donors but gave 68% of the total dollars to social justice work. That’s huge; what it means, essentially, is that those nonprofits doing excellent work not on the radar screen of the Fords or Caseys or Rockefellers or Carnegies are going to be competing with others for only ~30% of the 11% of total grantmaking dollars. It’s still a lot of money, but it doesn’t stretch too far. By social justice ‘topic’, economic development tops the list, followed by health care access (I’d love to see how this has changed given the current political openings on health care reform), civil rights, education reform, housing, and human services. What that makes me wonder is how nonprofit organizations can frame their advocacy so that it hits those priority areas, given that, in many instances, we’re seeking the kind of wholesale societal changes that touch on multiple areas of inequity. Somewhat surprisingly, the Midwest is second in terms of its share of social justice dollars (24%, behind the unsurprising Northeast).
The end of the report has barriers cited by grantmakers to increasing their participation with this social change work: the magnitude of the problems (um, to me, that suggests a need for MORE investment in social justice grantmaking, no?), the short-term focus of most grants (a problem it seems that they could change, right?), lack of field coherence (e.g. we don’t all use the same language to talk about change, we don’t work together like we should, advocates still need to get our acts together), and lack of outcome measures (this is another one of my obsessions right now–I’ve read at least 6 advocacy evaluation reports a week for the last month–more on that to come soon).
But, I loathe anything that just lays out a problem without suggesting some way around, over, or through it, so I’ve sought out some resources to help nonprofit advocates get the social justice grant dollars that ARE available, as well as some really excellent individuals and organizations that are working hard to convince foundations of their moral obligation and obvious self-interest (um, solve the problems and you can do whatever you want with your money!) in investing in social change. One that I’m really stoked about is Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training. Some of their resources (like the seemingly-superb webinars–once my kids can sit still for 30 minutes, I’m totally there) cost, but others are free. I’m on their e-newsletter now, and they’ve got great stuff on how to survive the recession, how to plan good special events..it’s not all advocacy-focused, but it’s good.
And here’s the other one I want to share right now: Grantcraft. Now, if you follow that link, you might wonder why I’m sending you to a website clearly designed for grantmakers (since I doubt many of you are sitting on millions of dollars in endowments). But here’s the idea: first, think like a grantmaker in order to influence grantmakers. Read what they read, use their same language, understand their rationale for saying ‘yes’, so that you increase the likelihood that they’ll say it to you. Second, direct the donors with whom you have an existing relationship to resources like this if they’re currently reluctant to fund advocacy/social change work. They need to know that they won’t be alone, or breaking the law, or throwing money away. They need to connect with other grantmakers who, in fact, find social justice grantmaking the most rewarding and effective part of their portfolio. And then they need to open their pocketbooks, because we’ve got work to do.