Amid a devastating pandemic, civic turmoil, and the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression, it might be tempting for small funders to turn away from engaging policymakers. But that’s a mistake. Now more than ever, funders with few or no staff should engage in or double down on advocacy.
For far too long, foundations and other 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. There is a cost to this silence.
Why lean funders make perfect advocates
Funders with few or no staff are perfectly positioned to fund and engage in advocacy. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s not. Smaller funders have deep ties to their communities, can be nimble and respond to emerging opportunities, and can focus in a laser-like way. Small funders have more flexibility to act quickly to changing conditions than their bigger and better funded counterparts. They are perfect for the times in which we live.
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.
- The ability 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.
- The ability to be 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
Discover the many powerful ways you can play needed roles such as convening, capacity building, commissioning research, and spotlighting issues. Get started on a plan to determine what role you might play. This program highlights actionable steps from the new Advocacy Field Guide for Lean Funders by Exponent Philanthropy and Frontera Strategy. Register Today >>
The core of the guide is a set of 7 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 >>
Jason Sabo is the founder of Frontera Strategy.
Andy Carroll is senior advisor at Exponent Philanthropy.