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.
Our Advocacy Field Guide for Lean Funders illustrates these successes. Consider:
- A foundation in New Mexico worked with the state government to expand home visits to new and expectant mothers, a strategy proven to enhance the health and wellness of children and families, and reduce reliance on expensive emergency care.
- A small family-led foundation in Michigan founded a nonprofit to champion the benefits of quality early education to a wide array of leaders, setting the stage for major public and foundation investment in early education.
- A funder in Connecticut catalyzed reform of the state’s juvenile justice system to provide more counseling and support services to at-risk youth, keep more young people out of prison, and save public dollars.
- The founders of a small foundation in Georgia are building awareness among local residents of the value of workforce housing, in an effort to preserve affordable housing and maintain diversity in their community.
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.
Advocacy activities and strategies
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.
Preparation for advocacy
Success in the advocacy and policy arena depends on knowing who the decision-makers are, what motivates them, the best arguments and supporting data to use, the most effective voices and champions, and the best timing.
These will be specific to every issue and will vary in every town, city or state. Therefore, to apply the principles and practices in this new guide, you first need to choose a focus for your policy work—usually one or two issues you care deeply about—and then you need to learn everything you can about that issue.
This work may take several months but will ultimately position you for success. Exponent’s Field Guide provides you with the roadmap.