Lean Foundations: Perfectly Positioned for Advocacy - Exponent Philanthropy
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Lean Foundations: Perfectly Positioned for Advocacy

Photo by Greta Hoffman

Advocacy is the act of promoting a broad and general position to legislators, bureaucrats, media, and the public. For example, saying “Poverty is bad” is advocacy. It includes public education, media outreach, regulatory work, litigation, lobbying, voter registration, and more. Many foundations think advocacy and lobbying are the same. While all lobbying is advocacy, not all advocacy is lobbying.

Lobbying starts when advocacy becomes focused on a specific proposal or piece of legislation, like saying “Poverty is bad. Please support this proposal to combat it.” Lobbying aims to influence specific legislation by communicating views to legislators or encouraging others to contact their legislators. (For more on the legal rules, see the Exponent Philanthropy primer, Funding and Engaging in Advocacy.) 

Advocacy Activities and Strategies

While lobbying is part of advocacy, it isn’t the only tool available. Foundations and nonprofits can do some lobbying, but other advocacy strategies are often cheaper and more effective. 

In our Advocacy Field Guide for Lean Funders, we show how lean foundations can fund or engage in efforts to:  

Educate and Influence the Public
  • Raise public awareness about a policy issue, shape public opinion on a specific issue, write opinion pieces for newspapers and engage with the media.
Convene, Train, and Support Nonprofits
  • Convene staff, volunteers, and various stakeholders, including nonprofits, community leaders, businesses, and journalists, to share information, identify common issues, and brainstorm solutions. Educate and train grantees in advocacy and lobbying, and support them in legislative advocacy efforts.
Commission and Conduct Research
  • Commission public opinion surveys and polling on policy issues, and conduct policy research and analysis.
Strengthen Civic Participation
  • Support or conduct public education and training on participating in the political process, as well as nonpartisan voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote activities.
Engage and Educate Candidates
  • Educate candidates on public issues, sponsor candidate debates, encourage campaigns to include specific issues, and advocate on party platform issues.
Engage and Educate Policymakers
  • Hold meetings with policymakers to discuss shared goals and objectives, educate them about specific issues, and support or build bipartisan legislative caucuses on policy issues. 

Preparing Your Lean Foundation for Advocacy 

Success in advocacy and policy work depends on knowing the decision-makers, their motivations, the best arguments and data, effective voices and champions, and the right timing. These factors vary by issue and location. To apply the principles in this guide, start by choosing one or two issues you care about deeply, and learn everything you can about them. 

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. 

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