Advocacy With a Small “a”—Big Ideas for Small Foundations - Exponent Philanthropy
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Advocacy With a Small “a”—Big Ideas for Small Foundations

While attending Exponent Philanthropy’s 2018 National Conference last month, I had a surprise: I saw a significant number of grantmakers genuinely excited about getting involved in advocacy!

At the closing luncheon, I was seated with Melinda McAliney, Director of the Brown Sisters Foundation and Vario Philanthropy, in St Louis, Missouri. She noticed it too and shared her own insight, which she graciously gave me permission to share here: “So many funders are already involved in advocacy, but they don’t even know it. I describe this work as advocacy with a small “a.” It’s not political, or lobbying, but it’s definitely using your influence to advance your mission and that of your grantees.”

Perhaps you have wondered whether it’s appropriate for your foundation to support advocacy groups in the community. Or, maybe you’ve seen how certain policy issues are creating problems for your grantees but are not sure what your foundation can do about that. Participants and panelists in two conference sessions offered these ideas for ways grantmakers can be advocates with a small “a”:

  • Give your grantees power by helping them understand that it is an unfortunate myth that nonprofits can’t lobby or be advocates. Bust this myth by sharing your expectation that grantees will be strong advocates for their missions.
  • Share your foresight. Help grantees see issues before they become a problem. What’s on the horizon that could derail their programs and make it harder for them to meet community needs, balance their budgets, and ensure the sustainability of their operations? Encourage them to stay informed.
  • Point out free policy and advocacy resources. There’s a list of free resources at the end of this post.
  • Find someone to tell the story. Elected officials may be unaware of how government policies are impacting real people until their constituents walk into their offices and share a story with them. Your foundation may be in a position to encourage grantees to identify the people who can bear witness to pain points caused by public policies, and help those people get in front of elected officials so they can share their stories.
  • Use the power of convening. In one session, we heard how even small funders can convene a funders collaborative, leveraging their smaller dollars into potentially many millions deployed to address an issue that all funders in the collaborative care deeply about. Your foundation may not be able to bring the “big bucks” to the collaborative, but your familiarity with the community, time, and organizing skills can go a long way toward influencing the effectiveness of the collaborative.
  • Help grantees find their voice—or amplify it. Charitable nonprofits may not be able to invest very much in communications tools or communications strategy. One way to support advocacy is to help your grantee-advocates build their communications capacity. Having a clear, concise message around a policy issue is critical. A special grant that gives a grantee the opportunity to boost its own strategic communications capacity can result in messages heard all around the state, leveraging your foundation’s small grant into big results.
  • Involve your foundation’s trustees. Remember how much power and influence grantmakers have in the community. When your trustees write op-ed pieces, people who make policy decisions are reading and paying attention!
  • Be a catalyst for broader knowledge sharing. Your foundation can convene a “community of practice” for grantees to share what they are learning about a specific issue area, and invite policymakers to be part of it too. In one session, we heard about a small funder that convened nonprofits in the community who were all concerned about a particular issue. What started as a relatively modest convening is now an annual conference, held at the statehouse, that attracts not only over a thousand attendees annually, but also has become a not-to-be-missed event for lawmakers in the state. These “issue briefing” convenings are powerful for lawmakers because they bring together not only nonprofits but others (academics/researchers, data scientists, other funders, and subject matter experts) to compare notes and educate one another in a nonpartisan manner. They meet periodically throughout the year and co-create the larger convening annually. Accelerate problem solving through knowledge sharing!
  • Look at your grant application and reporting process through the lens of advocacy. Policy work needs to be evaluated differently from grantees’ program work, so your foundation may need to be more flexible in how it asks advocacy-grantees to apply for grants and report on their advocacy work. In particular, grant reports for policy/advocacy clients should take into consideration that policy change is often incremental and therefore takes time.
  • Be a connector: Your foundation may have connections that your grantees don’t. Can you introduce policymakers to your grantees? This is not lobbying! When you make introductions, you are connecting the very people who can solve problems in the community. You are also giving grantees the gift of opening relationship doors that they can enter later, on their own. You’re literally building your grantees’ capacity to have influence by being an advocate yourself for your grantees’ missions.
  • Sow the field with information. Thirty-six states will have gubernatorial races in a matter of weeks. Do the candidates understand how various policy issues impact the communities they are hoping to represent? Foundations can help support or convene candidate education forums. These forums are nonpartisan opportunities to make sure that whoever is your state’s next governor understands the issues that matter most to your foundation’s mission. Examples of bipartisan issues that candidates should be informed about but may not be: the lack of high-quality childcare; or food insecurity among college students in the community.
  • Celebrate your foundation’s love of data. Grantmakers that love data shouldn’t be shy about celebrating their data-geekness. In fact, just shining a light on otherwise hidden data gives grantees a tool: advocacy “cred.” Policymakers love (and need) trustworthy data. Grantmakers can capitalize on their trusted and nonpartisan profiles in the community by funding research or conducting a “data scan” to pull together what data are already available. Your foundation can bring together individuals who are knowledgeable about data in certain fields, and not only encourage them to share data, but also to help make sense of the data in relation to public policy issues in a nonpartisan way. We all want policymakers to base their decisions on sound data. Ensuring access to data that otherwise lives in silos is a huge help to advocates in the field.

Although it would be terrific if more foundations funded advocacy directly, that may not be in the cards for your foundation yet. Nevertheless, effective advocacy can happen in many other ways. If your foundation is truly committed to work together with its grantees as “mission partners,” then honoring that commitment can be as simple as “advocacy with a small ‘a.’”

Free resources for grantees and foundations about advocacy and public policy issues

By Jennifer Chandler, Esq. @NonprofitQ&A

The author is the former vice president of the National Council of Nonprofits.

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