Foundations for Advocacy

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’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.

4 responses to “Foundations for Advocacy

  1. First blog post of yours that I’ve read–This is good stuff. A lot of your last paragraph speaks to ‘strategic selling’ and knowing your customer. I wonder why SWer’s aren’t more confident about this because it’s basically information + empathy –> strategy. Perhaps the funders are perceived as too different (socio-economically?) from the advocates for them to even try and relate to their perspective. From their perspective: I want results, and I want bang for my buck. I want something I can show people that a difference is being made (outcome measures! and in baby steps), and I don’t want to wait forever for it.

    These funders are just people like us. And we don’t want to throw our money at something that seems insurmountable–which, at best feels like gambling and at worst feels like, well, throwing money away. This is the perception we battle. We need to be able to break the insurmountable into bite-size pieces (How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!). Not just that, but we need to convince them (and make it true) that all of their peers are munching on elephant and that it will be fully consumed. Not easy to do, and I agree that the advocates must be better organized to plan and coordinate the feast-O-pachyderm because we need to make sure everyone’s eating the SAME elephant at the same time!

    So here I am echoing the problem without presenting a solution… What would help? It seems to me that if we want to tackle the REALLY big stuff, we need to build our capacity in a variety of ways. One key area would be leadership. Due to demographic trends we will losing a lot of experienced leaders in the next couple decades (damn baby boomers!). The numbers are against us here, so our new leaders need to be more savvy, sharper, and develop at a faster pace. We also need to find new sources for these leaders. Speaking of other sources….

    Perhaps the economic downturn and (pardon the stereotype) boomer mid-life crises could benefit the not-for-profit sector…we could use some of their talent. I am seeing people with talent, energy, and experience that REALLY want need something to do with meaning and purpose–but the corporate world can’t afford them right now. What are we doing to bring these people into the fold? Some of these of these folks (I’m thinking of my stepmom here) were forced into early retirement and WANT to work. Ok, so she watches a lot of FOX news and grew up in the south–she won’t easily fit into a swarm of young, left-of-center SWers. But she does care about others, even if her values differ from mine. She has a lot to offer, but no one to pay her for it, and she’s not ready to retire. This could be a big opportunity, if we don’t let our differences screw it up. She set up and managed regional distribution centers for Sprint, she knows how to run a trucking fleet–Imagine what she could do for Harvester’s or Heart to Heart Intl.

    But neither one is seeking out the other.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I know a 50-year-old laid-off marketing guy who is abandoning the corporate world. He wants to be the CEO of a non-profit by age 55. Right now he’s working for free as the marketing manager of a small non-profit. He is struggling to find paid work doing the same thing, but he wants a better work/life balance than before, and wants a job that has meaningful rewards. We can offer that!!!! We can’t match corporate money, but we can offer meaning and flexibility!!

    If we can strip our missions and messages down to core values, more insulated from ideological divisions/conflict, perhaps we can bring a greater diversity into the fold. These people don’t just have talent–many of them have money! And they know people with money. Some folks would rather ease their conscience with a gift than with applied effort, and if we don’t find some common ground that money might end up supporting a cause that scares us, but welcomed them.

    Once we bring them into the fold, can we keep them? I have seen right-of-center professionals in human services treated with disrespect because of their beliefs. I have seen older professionals treated the same way. Yes, we are most comfortable when surrounded by others like us, but then our peers become less diverse and our community more divided. To tackle the really big stuff, we need to become less divided. But, as we saw last night, good role models for this kind of collaboration are rare. So we need to be the role models from the bottom up.

    Do we, as SWer’s focus on ideological diversity, or do we only want to be with people who agree with us?
    What are doing to invite this pool of talent, with diverse backgrounds and beliefs? Are we making them welcome?

    • Matt, there’s so much here that I want to respond to! Thank you so much for taking the time to share these thoughts. First, I’m actually working on something on the whole nonprofit leadership crisis right now! I’m reading through some reports on the state of the nonprofit labor market but also some discussions about what strategies might improve the situation–interestingly, I haven’t really come across anything that makes the case that the economic crisis can be an opportunity for nonprofits, but I think that you make that case well. The ideological differences, I think, are only a problem if we have conflicts in our core values, or if we aren’t clear about the values that we hold to be ‘core’. Sure, I like talking politics with people who share my passions, but I can absolutely do good work alongside people whose political opinions are different than mine, if they share my commitment to the value and dignity of all people (recognizing that no one ideology holds a monopoly on that value). I’m also working on some more stuff about how we measure and evaluate advocacy, because you’re right; not only does no one want to throw money away, but we can’t afford it–there is too little money and too many critical causes; we have to know that we’re directing our advocacy dollars at what’s proven to work. That requires establishing a theory of change and then advancing along that chain towards our ultimate outcome. I’d love to hear what you think we could do within the academic context to funnel more talented folks to social work/social change, whether it’s in recruiting or certification or continuing education or mentoring/advising… and I’ll shoot these other 2 posts at you when I get them worked up. I always appreciate your insights!


  2. A quick thought– KU Edwards campus is crawling with MBA students, often just down the hall from social work students. But, in my experience, our paths never crossed. Why should it be that way?

    There’s a business component to what we do, and there’s a human component to what they do. Can we not learn from each other? What can we offer each other? I think a great deal–if it’s done right.

    I’m better at asking the questions than answering them. But the academic environment seems to reinforce divisions between people. Some divisions are necessary for pursuing disciplines. But in real life we must all live together. This part doesn’t seem to be addressed. Too often, the better you get at what you do, the more isolated you become within your discipline/profession. So, when do we all re-integrate? Seems that we could benefit from blurring those lines…
    Thanks for your thoughts.

    • You’re absolutely right that our current silos in academia reinforce (and even create–look at how we divide macro and clinical social workers, despite the abundant professional wisdom that social work is an integrated art) divisions. I just met yesterday with some folks from the KU Work Group for Community Health and Development, where there’s obviously significant overlap with social work’s mission, and the School isn’t even collaborating in any meaningful ways with them. Some of our distance from business schools comes from a fear, which is not unfounded, that the management (and, thus, the ‘leadership’) of our nonprofit organizations is being overtaken by nonprofit administration graduates from business school perspectives. Obviously, this would have significant implications for the value base of our institutions.

      We need people asking good and hard questions! I don’t have the answers either, but I am committed to playing some role in change, not only within the broader community but also within the educational system that is, after all, training the future of our profession and, therefore, the future that our clients will encounter. Thanks again for your insights.

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