The Philanthropy of Changing Minds

So you’re probably recognizing a theme here, right? That I’m interested in what makes some donors fund advocacy, as part of my ongoing mission to get more resources for advocacy directed at nonprofit social service organizations? In pursuit of that cause, I found this Philanthropy of Changing Minds report, another collection of wisdom from foundations that do fund advocacy, intended for the audience of foundations that do not.

The report begins with the assertion that the principal barriers to increased foundation funding for advocacy are not legal (which, in reality, are often more of a screen behind which foundations hide) but rather lack of capacity/knowledge/expertise, and, honestly, insufficient courage. On the latter point, leading philanthropists in advocacy caution that foundations need to be fully committed to advocacy because of the controversy that can arise; they need to prepare Board members and dedicate themselves to social change over the long haul. Just as, obviously, nonprofit organizations themselves must. They don’t love conflict, certainly, but they must ‘negotiate with a high tolerance for confrontation’, as one funder put it.

Some insights that seemed that they would resonate with donors in this part of the country that have reservations about funding advocacy:

  • Many are wary of ‘advocacy’ as a vague concept but supportive when it’s framed as another tool for problem solving, or when the specific issues (“education reform”, “housing desegregation”) are highlighted.
  • Donors emphasized the strategy of choosing effective advocacy organizations and giving general support dollars to those efforts (rather than getting into the admittedly messy business of carefully not earmarking grants for lobbying, so as to avoid legal problems), but, to me, this begs the question of how nonprofit advocacy organizations are supposed to become effective, if foundations are going to wait to grant to them until they’ve ‘arrived’?
  • Several profiled foundations pointed out the importance of not overlooking non-legislative advocacy, particularly in the judicial and regulatory arenas. That’s something that I stress with my students all the time. We’re missing so many opportunities if we think that policy change only happens in legislative bodies. In addition, foundations can invest in constituent leadership development, organizational development/infrastructure, media work, coalition-building, and other enhancements that will ultimately increase organizations’ advocacy efficacy.
  • In a reiteration of another theme that is becoming somewhat of an obsession with me, the report distinguished between process (what happened), outcome (how did audience view it), and impact evaluation (what was the actual effect on policy), and return-on-investment analysis (how much was gained per unit of investment). They questioned whether the emphasis on outcomes, as a whole, within the philanthropic community is unnecessarily discouraging advocacy funding, where such measurement is more difficult.
  • My two favorite parts were towards the end, in the section where they asked advocacy grant recipients what they wished that grantmakers knew about funding advocacy. First, foundations need to invest in local groups in order to build critical mass for policy change; only giving to the big national groups is not going to fundamentally shift the power balance (that sound is grassroots groups not in NY or CA cheering!). Second, foundations should not demand so much collaboration from grantees; not only is it an unnatural and unreasonable expectation but (my contribution here), this can force convergence of policy options that undermines later negotiation. There are many examples of when social workers’ causes would be best advanced by having a diversity of voices, including those from our left, advocating for change, rather than trying to speak with ‘one voice’ and having that one voice dismissed.

    Your homework this week: Share this document with at least one of your funders and start a conversation about how advocacy funding might fit into their philanthropic mission. Let’s get those dollars flowing! And let me know how those conversations go and how I can help!

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