Opinion
December 22, 2015

Big Money for Advocacy Is Needed From Foundations

Philanthropy achieved an incredible victory this year when the Supreme Court allowed same-sex marriage. Without essential financing from grant makers, it’s unlikely that nonprofits could have done what it took to change public opinion and craft sound legal strategies that won muster in the highest court in the land.

Not convinced? Just look at an organization like Freedom to Marry, founded with philanthropic support 12 years ago. It will soon close, after achieving a goal that only a decade ago seemed impossible.

As we face ever-more-divisive debates about the role of Muslims and immigrants in America, the need for federal aid to help Planned Parenthood operate, and police brutality toward citizens in Chicago, Baltimore, New York, and elsewhere, it’s clearer than ever why foundations need to pour money into advocacy.

Despite the crucial role of advocacy in driving progress, foundations rarely take advantage of the many tools that are available to them to help make a difference. Many foundations worry that associating with a high-profile cause will be controversial or that giving money to advocacy groups could be seen as taking a political stance. Still others have been given overly cautious advice from their lawyers. That’s why too many grant makers prohibit the nonprofits they support from using money for advocacy.

But the fact is that most foundations can support advocacy. They can even support lobbying. And they must. After all, the American policy-making environment is now so partisan and divided that it’s no longer enough simply to build a strong case and robust evidence to advance a policy view.

Foundations that want to promote meaningful change must pay for lobbying, finance the groundwork for voters to consider ballot initiatives, and even get involved in electoral politics.

Significant policy successes result from a combination of forces being applied. Philanthropic support to groups like Health Care for America Now financed the ground-level work that changed perceptions about the uninsured — and swayed policy, opening the door for national accessible and affordable health insurance for millions of Americans. Similar efforts can help ensure that we make progress in relaxing immigration policies, improving how the police treat minorities, and promoting true equity regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or economic status.

But we must act fast, and help nonprofits that are effective advocates do the same.

Part of philanthropy’s special role is its ability to take big risks with capital and make the kind of bold investments that business or government cannot or will not do. Foundations don’t need legislative approval to support a new idea; they aren’t beholden to shareholder returns when considering investment in new ideas or approaches. But when it does not take risks, philanthropy neglects what makes it so powerful. We miss real, tangible, potentially game-changing opportunities, depriving the very institutions we’ve helped build of the chance to heat the iron and strike when it’s hot.

That’s something I’m keenly aware of as director of the Civic Participation Action Fund, which aims to promote racial equity, economic security, and democratic participation among disadvantaged and low-income people through advocacy and civic engagement.

To be sure, the seemingly vast resources of philanthropy are small in relation to the scale and complexity of the problems we want to tackle.

After all, we are trying to change large systems that affect millions of people, seeking ways to include the people we serve in the democratic process and create opportunities for them to participate in small but important ways. Advocacy is about encouraging those who don’t have a voice to use it, because they have been systematically prevented or discouraged from doing so. And when those voices are multiplied, we have seen them make a difference.

That is our primary goal. But we also hope we will encourage other grant makers and individual donors to think about how they can channel more of their money and clout into essential advocacy work.

Our fund was created by Atlantic Philanthropies, a limited-life foundation that will complete its grant making in 2016. Because of its commitment to bringing about fundamental change, the philanthropies created Atlantic Advocacy Fund, under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code.

This approach, open to any American donor, allowed Atlantic to support a much wider range of advocacy and electoral activities that are issue-based, nonpartisan, and not coordinated with candidates or political parties than it could have as a foundation required to follow Section 501(c)(3).

On issues like immigration, health care, and revamping the death-penalty system, Atlantic’s resources have been used to advance causes and strengthen the capacity of advocates working tirelessly to influence the policy process and improve the lives of many people who have been systemically denied rights and basic human dignity. The Civic Participation Action Fund will continue some of that work.

Efforts to change policy require a long view. Even if you change a policy or win a legislative battle today, the fight to put a law in place, strengthen it, and sometimes just keep it on the books must continue. The action fund, like Atlantic, will distribute its money in a set period, so it is critical that we be able to collaborate with other grant makers, both to win victories today and to maintain them in the future.

Yes, supporting advocacy may be complex and controversial. But as grant makers, we should decry lack of progress more than we fear the spotlight of controversy.

Even traditional foundations can pay for advocacy; it just takes legal diligence and careful planning. When grant makers find the right methods that suit their structure, they should use them, more frequently and more effectively. Because when done correctly, advocacy among the most powerful tools for lasting change.

Steve McConnell, former U.S. country director at Atlantic Philanthropies, heads the Civic Participation Action Fund, a new grant-making organization created with a grant from the Atlantic Advocacy Fund.