Foundations Supporting Advocacy

Private foundations are subject to strong prohibitions on “direct” and “grassroots” lobbying, generally meaning any direct contact with a member of a legislative body regarding specific legislation and encouragement by the foundation to have individuals contact legislators to convey a position on specific legislation, respectively. However, as the Donor Forums of Chicago discusses in “How Can Foundations engage in Lobbying and Advocacy?,” foundations can still be influential catalysts toward public policy change through non-lobbying communication and efforts. They support the notion that “almost all social change has started with non-lobbying advocacy but ended with major lobbying efforts” such as the civil rights movement that began with “sit-ins, marches and other forms of protest that were advocating for equal rights” and ultimately led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act.

The Alliance for Justice’s (AFJ) “Investing in Change: A Funder’s Guide to Supporting Advocacy” discusses the various roles foundations can fill in the advocacy process with their foundation resources—“in the form of financial support, information, organizing, and convening… [that] enable nonprofit organizations to shape public policy and conduct powerful advocacy work.” AFJ uses the term “advocacy” to describe a wide range of activities such as research and lobbying which are used to influence public policy and create social change. This post will focus specifically on a foundation’s advocacy capacity as a grantmaker.

A major concern for many foundations is their ability to gauge the results or impact of their donations. Unlike monetary donations to programs that, for example, may provide supplies or services that can be directly implemented and assessed in a tangible way, advocacy support is of slightly a different nature: “The impact may be harder to see and measure at first, but changes in public policy are often a precursor to the meaningful, long-term success vital to tackling larger community challenges.”

When it comes to grantmaking, AFJ advises foundations to use six strategies throughout the grantmaking process to help foundations more comfortably, safely, and successfully leverage their grantmaking abilities and effectuate longer lasting results:

  1. Define and articulate the foundation’s own advocacy goals. Internal discussions between the board of directors and staff on key issues such as the rationale for advocacy support, its compatibility with the foundation’s broader goals and mission, and previous success in advocacy funding efforts will raise comfort levels in these efforts before publicizing the foundation’s commitment to advocacy externally. Business cards, letterheads, and websites are examples of the many ways a foundation can broadcast its message (e.g. the Kirsch Foundation’s motto, “Effecting change through strategic giving and advocacy,” is printed on all employee business cards). Furthermore, the clearer the foundation is about advocacy-related goals, the more likely it will attract potential grantees that are equally clear about advocacy efforts in their proposals.
  2. Communicate the foundation’s advocacy goals when identifying grantees. Articulating the foundation’s advocacy-related goals in requests for proposals achieves a dual-purpose: “1) it increases the potential for receiving proposals that include advocacy, and 2) it helps grantees think differently about the projects they undertake.” Foundations can convey “a clear message” about the type of advocacy or organizations they support with or without using the term “advocacy.” The AFJ lists the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and MAZON as good examples. Additionally, conducting pre-application workshops, asking questions, and introducing advocacy options to strictly direct service providers are all avenues that encourage applicants to explore advocacy in their programs.
  3. Recognize advocacy opportunities when reviewing proposals. Take advantage of renewal proposals to ask program officers to suggest and introduce advocacy options if appropriate. This challenges service providers to broaden activities, helps nonprofits engage in strategic thinking about systemic problems, and encourages grantees interested in advocacy work to speak up.
  4. Encourage advocacy in grantwriting. Grantwriting provides creative room for advocacy capacity building. General support grants, which may be used in furtherance of any charitable purpose, should not include overly restrictive language that will prevent grantee participation in legal advocacy activities or hinder prompt responses to a policy issue. Furthermore, foundations can issue reporting requirements and suggestions when the grant is awarded to help grantees document and assess their advocacy achievements. Given that social change occurs over time, foundations and grantees must maintain a communicative relationship where open conversations about successes and challenges can and do take place.
  5. Make advocacy resources available to grantees. Grantees may need additional information to become effective advocates and foundations can help, for example, by hosting training sessions, making grants to pay legal fees for more sophisticated activities, or offering technical support through the foundation’s staff or external technical assistance providers. AFJ also suggests educating grantees about the 501(h) election as to not unnecessarily jeopardize the grantee’s 501(c)(3) status.
  6. Use leadership to focus on advocacy strategies and bring diverse players together. AFJ suggests foundations embrace their function as a role model/spokesperson, take advantage of current or potential connections with decision makers (e.g. policymakers), convene funders with similar grantmaking priorities, collaborate with other grantmakers to mobilize their collective power, and publicize grantee advocacy achievements through promotional materials. Each of these efforts contributes to the foundation’s credibility with all communities – public and private sectors, policymakers, and peers – which will, in turn, help raise money, build allies, and secure its place as an important participant of a larger movement.

Foundation support can play a crucial role in a public charity’s ability to successfully affect the lives of people here and/or abroad. However, as discussed earlier, there are separate regulations in place to limit lobbying of both private foundations and charitable organizations that foundations should be aware of. Reliable publications and the IRS website provide important resources that help foundations most effectively and safely maximize their influence in advocacy.

An example advocacy effort assessment is available in MAZON’s evaluation of the California Nutrition Initiative (CNI), Evaluating Advocacy Grantmaking – The Advanced Practical Institute.

More information about the 501(h) election is available in a previous post, Introduction to Lobbying by Public Charities.

For more resources on foundation advocacy support in general, please view The Atlantic Philanthropies’ publication, “Investing in Change: Why Supporting Advocacy Makes Sense for Foundations,” as well as their corresponding web page dedicated to this topic.

– Emily Chan