Robert E. Ross, President of the California Endowment pointed out recently that, “philanthropy often vigorously works to protect its brand and doesn’t spend it enough.”Part of that insufficient brand spending includes advocacy. Advocacy is the single most effective strategy to achieve social impact. Without advocacy, achieving real social transformation is not possible. It provides both the scale and pathway to implement the solutions foundations fund. Yet there remains a tendency to undervalue and avoid it as a grant making strategy for a multitude of reasons based on misperceptions, fear, and often impatience for quicker results. According to research funded by the Aspen Institute, while more nonprofits report engaging in advocacy over the last decade their participation and engagement are sporadic and inconsistent. The number one impediment cited was a lack of resources—most prominently foundation funding.
So what can be done to shrink this gap between the possibilities advocacy affords and the reluctance of foundations to fund it? For starters, we need a different narrative, one that is more focused on possibilities and less on pitfalls. Its always important to get educated before pursuing any activity that has legal rules attached, but then as a sector philanthropy needs to move beyond those conversations to narrowing the gap. We also need to be inspired by stories of foundations funding advocacy so that we can change the dominant narrative from “advocacy is political and fraught with uncertainty” to “understanding advocacy is imperative for advancing social change.”
One foundation that has understood this reality from early on in its grant making is the Campion Foundation. Its co-founder and President, Sonya Campion, and I recently connected at the YWCA Leadership Institution and had the opportunity to identify three shifts needed for philanthropy to develop a new advocacy narrative.
1. Advocacy is not about politics – it is about fulfilling the mission.
The first step for foundations interested in advocacy is to get educated about the issues central to their mission and to identify good leaders working to change the landscape.
2. It’s not about being controversial, it is about leadership and supporting your grantees.
A key leadership piece missing from many foundations is board engagement and support for advocacy.
3. It’s not about paying for the soup. It’s about ending the soup line.
For the Campion Foundation funding advocacy started as a practical and effective strategy for tackling two big problems, protecting federal wilderness lands and ending homelessness in Washington State.
Advocacy provides far more impact than direct service alone and at some point it becomes a practical concern when comparing the scales of investment. Government systems and government funding “are the big titanic” that can make a difference if targeted with advocacy. Government has billions. Individual foundations can never reach the same scale, but collectively their influence and their grantees advocacy provides more leverage.
Read the full article on changing philanthropy’s advocacy narrative by Laurel O'Sullivan and Sonya Campion.