Advocacy: A Crucial Tool for Lean Funders - Exponent Philanthropy
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Advocacy: A Crucial Tool for Lean Funders

Photo by Werner Pfennig

For far too long, foundations and philanthropists have stayed out of policy debates. Consequently, many nonprofits supported by these foundations have avoided political involvement to avoid upsetting their donors. However, this silence comes at a cost. 

Advocacy and Lobbying by Private Foundations

Funders can support and participate in advocacy and encourage their grantees to do the same, except for lobbying and electioneering. There are two types of lobbying: direct and grassroots. 

Direct lobbying involves talking to legislators to express views about specific laws, while grassroots lobbying involves asking the public to contact legislators about specific laws—a call to action. Electioneering, which means participating in or funding political campaigns to influence elections, is not allowed. 

However, private foundations can: 

  • Fund public charities that lobby 
  • Learn about grantees’ lobbying or advocacy in reports 
  • Talk to legislators about issues without discussing specific proposals 
  • Conduct and share nonpartisan research on legislative issues 
  • Provide technical help to legislative bodies 
  • Lobby for themselves if their status or regulations are affected 

When making grants to organizations that lobby, foundations don’t need to prohibit lobbying in the grant agreement. They can fund specific projects that include lobbying, as long as the grant doesn’t exceed the project’s non-lobbying budget. Additionally, foundation board members, officers, and staff can lobby privately in their own time. 

Why Lean Funders Make Great Advocates

What makes foundations excellent advocates? Here are a few reasons: 

  • Long-term focus: Philanthropists can commit deeply to an issue, especially lean funders who can take the time to listen to community leaders, understand needs, and become experts. 
  • Risk-taking: Unlike institutions tied to customers, shareholders, or voters, foundations can experiment and take risks, supporting new programs and ideas that might change the status quo. 
  • Deep relationships: Lean funders have strong local connections and reputations, allowing them to engage directly with community leaders, legislators, businesses, researchers, and more. 
  • Agility: With small teams, lean funders can quickly respond to emerging needs and opportunities, making a big impact in the fast-changing world of advocacy and policy. 

How Lean Funders Can Benefit from Advocacy

Lean funders can achieve significant returns on investment by engaging in advocacy. Even small grants, paired with focused time, effort, and creativity at the right moment, can lead to substantial impacts, potentially amounting to hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in investments. These efforts in policy work help build networks, skills, capacity, and momentum within your community or state, driving long-term change. Investing in policy also promotes equity, participation, and democracy. 

Find Your Voice and Get Started

Start by working with your board to choose a specific issue you care about tackling. If there’s uncertainty, consider hiring a facilitator to guide discussions. Next, deeply engage with your community. Talk with people, listen, and learn. Understand how policy affects their work and lives. Identify barriers and potential policy changes that could make a difference.

Lean funders across the country have convened discussions, funded research, and supported advocacy training. They’ve mobilized grassroots networks and catalyzed bipartisan efforts at the state level. Explore existing advocacy coalitions in your community. Attend meetings to learn and consider collaboration opportunities. You don’t need a large staff to advocate effectively. Now is the time to get involved in advocacy.

Resources to Start Your Advocacy Journey

Foundation Advocacy Intensive: Develop Your Policy Acumen
Sept 25 – Nov 20, 2024  /  2:00 – 4:00 pm ET  /  4-part Virtual Workshop 
This program helps lean funders leverage their strengths in advocacy. Explore how your foundation can drive systemic changes that benefit grantees, partners, and the community. Gain practical skills and apply strategies from the Advocacy Field Guide through hands-on practice. Learn more »

Advocacy Field Guide for Lean Funders
This guide helps lean foundations and donors fund and engage in policy directly. It offers seven practical steps, a basic primer on essentials, ways to fund and engage, and tips for convincing your board. We include strategies and real examples from lean funders to inspire and guide you. Download »

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About the Authors

Jason Sabo is the founder of Frontera Strategy. Jason has led and assisted efforts to pass legislation and secure appropriations at state capitols across the country for more than two decades. Jason knows the issues and politics important to nonprofits and philanthropy, and he knows how to win. He holds a master’s degree in History from Indiana University.

Andy Carroll advises lean foundations on advocacy and Catalytic Leadership in Philanthropy. With an MBA from the University of Michigan Business School and over 30 years in nonprofit management, he helps these foundations leverage their unique assets for impactful change. Follow him on Twitter @andycarrollexpo, and check out his Catalytic Philanthropy Podcast. 


  1. Jeffrey Glebocki

    Two thumbs up to encouraging small funders in supporting advocacy efforts. Advocacy can have a multiplier effect on funder’s support of issues and of their grant partners.

    • Andy Carroll

      Thanks Jeff–that is so true!

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