An Introduction to Advocacy "Dos" for Grantmakers

Source: Minnesota Council on Foundations 10/25/2012

When it comes to grantmaking in the area of public policy, the most frequently cited guideline is a negative: "Don't fund lobbying."

But what are the "dos" surrounding grantmakers' involvement in public policy, civic engagement and advocacy?

It's true that private foundations (family and independent) cannot lobby "“ meaning they cannot use their money or other resources to advocate for or against specific legislation with public officials or their staff members. But they can educate, express opinions and mobilize constituencies around public issues. And they can support nonprofits that lobby through general support grants.

Community and public foundations, organized as 501(c)(3) public charities, are freer than private grantmakers to directly fund and engage in lobbying themselves as long as it isn't a "substantial part" of the organization's activities.

Change-oriented Missions Drive Advocacy

The restrictions can be subtle, but in the broad realm of advocacy funding, grantmakers can choose from a long list of effective and legal civic engagement activities.

"If foundations have change-oriented missions, they really must be involved in public policy in order to advance their missions," says Bob Tracy, director of government relations and public policy at MCF. "These foundations must leverage their resources and collaborate with others to address pressing problems and encourage public policy shifts."

According to The Foundation Center's GrantCraft publication, Advocacy Funding: The Philanthropy of Changing Minds, advocacy's primary purpose is to influence people's opinions by advancing an idea, arguing a position or enriching the debate. Legal funding of advocacy can take many forms, a few of which are outlined here.

Make General Support Grants

General support grants "“ cited elsewhere in this issue of Giving Forum as a smart tactic used by grantmakers to strengthen nonprofits "“ are recommended for funding advocacy. Grantmakers who are not directly involved in the day-to-day details of advocacy work often offer core support to proven, effective advocacy organizations to help them carry out their work. The flexibility of general support grants allows grantees to adjust quickly and strategically during fast-moving policy debates.

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, publisher of Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities: Impacts of Advocacy, Organizing and Civic Engagement in Minnesota, concurs. Nonprofits in their research sample said, "Receiving flexible, consistent funding is the grantmaking practice that most allows us to be effective advocates."

MCF's Giving in Minnesota, 2012 Edition, shows opportunities for grantmakers to shift their giving toward general operating support. The analysis of giving trends by the state's top 100 grantmakers showed that only 20 percent of grant dollars were for general support. The bulk of the giving supported programs and capital campaigns.


  Kevin Walker

Fund Nonpartisan Research

Foundations and corporate giving programs can fund studies that objectively analyze pending policy matters as long as the research doesn't take a position on specific legislation. Reporting of results must be non-biased, so a reader can form an independent opinion or conclusion. Research often sheds light on an issue, rather than strictly promoting one point of view.

The Northwest Area Foundation, which makes grants to reduce poverty and build prosperity, supports public policy to help individuals gain access to reasonable opportunities to build assets.

"We support the Minnesota Budget Project and similar efforts in several other states," says Kevin Walker, president and CEO, Northwest Area Foundation. "These organizations do rigorous, credible analysis with an eye toward how state budget decisions affect low-income people."

The Minnesota Budget Project, an initiative of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, provides independent research, analysis and advocacy on budget and tax issues, emphasizing their impact on low- and moderate-income Minnesotans and the organizations that serve them.

Support Education and Coalition Building

Funders can also equip nonprofits that advocate for an issue with the tools to educate and organize the general public and eventually convince elected officials. These activities include public education or media campaigns, coalition building to bring like-minded individuals and organizations together and policymaker education.

Strengthen Civic Engagement

Activities that improve the democratic process such as voter education, voter registration and voter turnout efforts are completely legal for foundations to fund "“ as long as they remain nonpartisan. 

"There is clear consensus that teaching citizens how to be involved in the democratic process "“ especially by encouraging voting "“ is okay," says Tracy. "Just steer clear of telling citizens who or what they should be supporting or opposing with their votes."

Advocacy Resources

Here are just two resources for grantmakers to learn more about funding advocacy.

Beyond the Cause: The Art and Science of Advocacy

This 2012 report summarizes a study identifying five essential approaches to successful advocacy and analyzes the effectiveness of advocacy on issues facing the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.

It presents case studies of organizations and coalitions that consistently achieved their goals over time and identifies activities and characteristics common to these entities. It also examines how charitable organizations deal with broad policy issues common to the sector and reports on perceptions of their effectiveness in achieving their goals. It concludes with recommendations for how the sector can increase its effectiveness in the public policy arena, particularly at the federal level.

Power in Policy: A Funders Guide to Advocacy and Civic Participation

This book, published in 2007 by Fieldstone Alliance and written by and for philanthropic leaders, makes a strong case for why advocacy and civic participation are fundamental roles for foundations. Legal and philanthropic experts share insights on how to talk about and incorporate advocacy into philanthropy, answer frequently asked questions and provide a toolkit for foundations to use to develop the capacity to engage in advocacy at their own speed.

MCF Welcomes Bob Tracy

Bob Tracy has joined MCF as director of government relations and public policy. In this new position, Bob will head up MCF's commitment to public policy as a leadership strategy to expand and strengthen philanthropy in Minnesota.

Bob brings a long-time commitment to promoting the impact of grantmakers and nonprofits in Minnesota communities. His work has included government relations, nonprofit management and grantmaking.

He has provided government relations leadership for groups such as the Minnesota AIDS Project, Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, at state and national levels. 

Contact Bob: or 612.465.0179.

Categories: Grantmaking,MCF News,News,Public Policy
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