Some of the most effective foundations engaged in policy and advocacy in the United States are small, place-based foundations. By focusing deeply, developing insight into their issue, leveraging their reputation and relationships, and working with persistence, these funders are achieving extraordinary impact and a high return on their investment.

The path to advocacy for these and other small-staff foundations begins with passion for an issue in their own town, city or state. The issue could be children dropping out of school; a lack of early education options for working families; a river devastated by pollution; a risk to health in the community; or one of many other urgent issues.

For the foundation benefactors, board members, family, and staff who reside in the community, these issues are tangible, immediate and personal. Since tough issues and problems are complex, changemaking requires understanding the ecosystem of the issue.

Few institutions in our society have the perspective and freedom to see across a community and make sense of a complex problem. Foundations have this unique capacity, and small-staff foundations are especially good at developing insight into tough issues at the city or state level. A dynamic small-staff foundation working in one city or state can catalyze the momentum needed to create a critical mass for change, and have an impact on thousands or millions of people.

Most foundations default to the idea that advocacy and lobbying are the same thing. While foundations and nonprofits can engage in limited lobbying, other advocacy strategies are often cheaper and more effective. (For more on the legal rules, see the Exponent Philanthropy primer, Funding and Engaging in Advocacy.)

Foundations can fund or engage in efforts to:

  • Educate and influence the public
  • Convene, train, and support nonprofits
  • Commission and conduct research
  • Strengthen civic participation
  • Engage and educate candidates
  • Engage and educate policymakers

Advocacy and policy engagement can mean doing things that have little to do with making grants, such as funding research, raising public awareness, convening, brokering, matchmaking, building capacity, and lending political cover.

Read the full article about philanthropy and advocacy by Andy Carroll at Exponent Philanthropy.