Many Small Funders Don’t Engage in Advocacy. That’s A Mistake. - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Many Small Funders Don’t Engage in Advocacy. That’s A Mistake.

Photo by Gagan Cambow

For far too long, foundations and philanthropists have sat on the sidelines of policy debates. As a result, many nonprofits that receive foundation support have opted out of the political process for fear of angering their benefactors. But there’s a cost to this silence.

Advocacy and Lobbying by Private Foundations

Funders can engage in advocacy, fund advocacy, and encourage grantees to engage in advocacy, with exceptions involving lobbying and electioneering. There are two types of lobbying: direct lobbying and grassroots lobbying. Direct lobbying means communicating with legislators to express a view about specific legislation, while grassroots lobbying means asking the public to communicate with legislators to express a view about specific legislationa call to action. On the other hand, electioneering, or partisan political activity, is prohibited. Electioneering means engaging in or funding political campaign activity that has the intent of influencing the outcome of a public election. If the foundation wishes to engage in voter education, it can be done. However, the foundation should work closely with an attorney.

Private foundations may:

  • Fund public charities that lobby
  • Learn about grantees’ lobbying or advocacy work in reports
  • Communicate with legislators about an issue, so long as they do not address a specific proposal
  • Conduct and disseminate a nonpartisan analysis or research on a legislative issue
  • Provide technical assistance to a legislative body
  • Lobby on their own behalf (i.e., if their tax-exempt status, duties, or regulations that govern them are affected)

When a private foundation makes a grant to a grantee that engages in lobbying, the foundation needn’t include a restriction in the agreement that the grantee may not lobby. In fact, private foundations can fund a specific project whose budget contains a line item for lobbying, but the grant agreement should state that the grant cannot be greater than the project’s budgeted non-lobbying expenses. Concurrently, foundation board members, officers, and staff may undertake private lobbying on their own time and on their own behalf.

Why Lean Funders Make Perfect Advocates

What makes foundations perfect advocates? Some of the reasons include:

  • The freedom to focus on an issue over the long term. Philanthropists have the freedom to go deep on an issue and commit. This is even more true for smaller funders that can take the time to listen to community leaders; learn about gaps, needs, and leverage points for change; and become experts.
  • Being able to take risks. The U.S. government gives foundations the freedom to experiment and take risks to a degree not available to institutions beholden to customers, shareholders, and voters. The power to support new and promising programs, grantees, and ideas can change the status quo.
  • The deep relationships they can forge. Small funders open doors. They operate locally and hold a wealth of connections with diverse people in their communities. Their relationships and reputations allow them to get calls answered and meetings granted, empowering them to directly engage community leaders, legislators, the business community, researchers, and others who have knowledge and influence. Small-staffed foundations have the reputation, independence, and time to convene diverse stakeholders to make sense of important issues, develop ideas and solutions, and build collective will for action.
  • Being nimble and responsive. Governed and staffed by just a few individuals, small funders can move fast when needs and opportunities emerge. Agility can make a huge difference in a fast-changing advocacy and policy landscape.

How Small Funders Can Benefit From Advocacy

Small funders who put these assets to use in the policy arena achieve huge returns on investment. Grants as little as $5,000, combined with targeted investments of time, effort, and imagination at just the right moment, can yield investments in the hundreds of thousands or hundreds of millions of dollars. These investments in policy work build networks, skills, capacity, and momentum in your city or state for long-term change. When lean funders invest in policy work, it advances equity, participation, and democracy.

The issues confronting our country are complex and complicated. Small funders can choose to participate in this dialogue–wisely and well–or they can choose to sit on the sidelines. The choice is clear.

Find Your Voice, Get Together, and Get Started

To get started, work with your board to develop a focus, by choosing a specific problem or issue you care about and want to tackle. If there’s disagreement or lack of clarity about a focus, hire an experienced facilitator to help guide board and staff through productive conversations.

Next, learn everything you can about your chosen issue. Go out into your community or field and talk with people. Listen, learn, and read. Then listen again. Engage your grantees and the people for whom they work. Ask how the policy landscape intersects with their work and lives. What policies are blocking nonprofits’ and citizens’ potential to be more effective? What changes in laws, rules, and public budget priorities could really make a difference to them?

Listening and humility are essential, empowering lean funders to find out what the community needs. Around the country, they have responded to needs by convening, funding research and data, supporting communications and advocacy training for nonprofits and citizens, spotlighting innovative policy solutions and reform efforts, mobilizing and building grassroots networks, and even catalyzing bipartisan task forces and legislative caucuses, especially at the state level.

Find out what advocacy coalitions already exist in your community or state. Is there a coalition working on an issue you care about? Is there a coalition working on something completely different from your mission? Ask if you can join a couple meetings of that coalition to learn and test the waters.

You may feel you lack time or staff to do advocacy work. But some of the most effective small funder advocates have no staff. There has never been a more critical time to get involved with advocacy work.

Additional Resources to Begin Your Advocacy Journey

Advocacy Field Guide for Lean Funders
The core of the guide is a set of seven practical, field-tested steps for funding and engaging in advocacy, such as discovering the salient arguments that will move decisionmakers, finding and using effective data, and recruiting unexpected messengers. Download >>

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

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 staff, trustees, and donors of leanly staffed foundations in leadership, advocacy, and catalytic philanthropy. He works to empower more small foundations to leverage their unique position and assets to catalyze change on important issues. Andy has an MBA from the University of Michigan Business School and 30 years of experience in management, training, and program development for nonprofit organizations. 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!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *