Bolder Advocacy

Breakthrough Philanthropy: Hewlett Foundation, NCRP, and AFJ

“Titanic battles are being fought in D.C. and state legislatures over the future of our country. It’s up to all of us to make sure that lawmakers hear not just the voices of the wealthy and powerful, but all our voices.”– AFJ President Nan Aron

Aron spoke about advocacy to amplify community voices as she opened this week’s webinar discussion on “Breakthrough Philanthropy: Providing Leadership to Move Policy.” Joining Aron were Larry Kramer of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Aaron Dorfman of the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, and AFJ’s own Abby Levine.

Kramer explained why America’s broken political process is a problem that merits philanthropy’s attention. Historically, noted Kramer, foundations have relied on a rational political process to pick up the research or program model they were funding and implement it. Thus, foundations did not need to engage in or fund direct advocacy themselves to push those ideas because others would take on that role.

Over the past 30 or 40 years, however, the political system has changed such that evidence alone is not enough. There is a responsibility to do more, Kramer said, if funders believe in the issues they are supporting and want to see change actually happen. Learn more about Hewlett’s interest in tackling political polarization.

Why advocacy can be a response to political dysfunction

Kramer_overlayThe Hewlett Foundation’s experiences with climate change and education policy led it to embrace advocacy.

Without any political or advocacy strategy, Kramer said, the foundation’s efforts to influence policy went nowhere. Hewlett has since shifted to a more assertive and astute effort to engage the local and national community to put pressure on government to act.

“It’s not enough to develop technical, public policy solutions. You have to engage in some kind of advocacy work if you want to see anything actually happen,” said Kramer.

Documenting the ROI in advocacy grantmaking

Foundation funding is extremely limited in comparison to the thorny problems foundations are trying to solve, explained Aaron Dorfman of NCRP. If grantmakers have any hope of making a difference, they have to figure out how to leverage the dollars at their disposal.

Dorfman shared the key findings of NCRP’s landmark study, Leveraging Limited Dollars: How Grantmakers Achieve Tangible Results By Funding Policy & Community Engagement, looking at the effectiveness of advocacy to achieve change. The study found consistently that when foundations invest in grassroots civic participation, it makes a tangible difference.

Specifically, NCRP found a return on investment (ROI) of $115 to every $1 spent. From the 110 nonprofits studied, they documented 400 policy wins. Click here for NCRP’s sortable and searchable directory of wins.

Dorfman noted that not all achievements were easy to quantify. For example, how do you put a dollar amount on campaigns that expands civil and human rights? Dorfman cited as an example of a program that led to the overturn of 100 death penalty convictions due to strong evidence of intentional racial bias.

“We found those harder to quantify and monetize, so we actually think the ROI figure is conservative,” Dorfman said.

Advocacy strategies that contribute most to impact

NCRP’s research indicated that the following strategies were linked to effective policy or civic engagement campaigns:

  • Leadership and mobilization of affected communities
  • Coalitions that unite diverse constituencies and tactical strengths
  • Racial equity lens that addresses disparities in policies and programs
  • Using the courts to achieve policy change
  • Nonpartisan voter engagement

One could delve more deeply into all the above strategies, but one observation Dorfman shared is worth highlighting:

“Groups that register voters and turn them out to vote had greater success than groups that didn’t engage electorally. Our hypothesis about this is that elected officials pay more attention to policy campaigns of groups that they know can help or hurt them at the polls.”

Willing to be in it for the long game

Advocacy takes time and flexibility, Dorfman stressed. This can be a challenge for funders looking to assess the impact of their grants.

In reflecting on why many foundations choose not to fund advocacy work, Kramer suggested that they may be reluctant to accept that many efforts won’t be successful. Funders have to make choices with limited grantmaking dollars. And Kramer believes that, for many, the pay-offs may be too far down the horizon, too few and far between, and too hard to evaluate.

Here is where AFJ’s ACT and COCAT tools can perhaps help funders approach this work with some rationality and way to measure incremental and often ancillary progress (e.g., building nonprofit capacity to do the work effectively).

8 best practices for effective grantmaking

Both Dorfman and AFJ Legal Director Abby Levine talked about what funders can do in their grantmaking to contribute to effective advocacy.

  1. General operating support—allows grants to have the biggest ripple effect
  2. Multiyear funding–commitment of money attracts good staff and enables planning
  3. Minimize application + reporting burdens
  4. Encourage grantees to make the 501(h) election
  5. Remove from grant agreements language restricting public charities from lobbying
  6. Treat grantees as partners + offer assistance beyond the grant both contribute to success
  7. Design sensible evaluation metrics with the goals of campaign in mind
  8. Offer capacity building that is culturally appropriate + specific to grantee needs

Legal rules for foundations

AFJ’s Levine briefly reviewed two aspects of the law that affect foundations that make grants for advocacy, including lobbying:

  1. Know what public versus private foundations can do and what that means for you.
  2. Understand what counts as lobbying.

Related resources from AFJ’s Bolder Advocacy initiative