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Help Sheet - Advocacy: is it for you?

The Takeaway: Many people think that the most effective way to assist the disadvantaged and achieve social change is through the reform of public policy rather than the provision of services. For grantmakers, this means undertaking advocacy, or funding others to undertake advocacy. Either approach carries certain risks and challenges.


What is it?

Different people and organisations have different concepts of advocacy: some are particularly concerned with the difference between advocacy and lobbying, for example, while others see lobbying as one of many types of advocacy. You will have to decide which definition is right for you, but here are some to consider:

  • Advocacy as the pursuit of public-benefit-related issues within a public policy framework (where lobbying, in contrast, is seen as driven by private/commercial/political party agendas) - as outlined by Grantcraft in Speaking Up! Foundations and Advocacy in Europe
  • Advocacy as lobbying for a general and public interest (where traditional lobbying, in contrast, is for a private interest)
  • Advocacy taking any of these nine forms: research and dissemination; raising awareness; community organising; building capacity; policy development; litigation; grassroots mobilisation; lobbying; or electoral activity (as suggested by Atlantic Philanthropies in Investing in Change: Why Supporting Advocacy Makes Sense for Foundations)
  • Advocacy as advancing an idea, arguing a position, or enriching a debate (as suggested by GrantCraft in Advocacy Funding: The Philanthropy of Changing Minds).

    While some may question whether advocacy is a legitimate charitable activity, the Australian High Court's 2010 Aid Watch decision made it clear that it is legitimate for charities to advocate as a means of meeting their objectives and that philanthropy can fund charities' advocacy. An entity can be charitable if it has a purpose of generating public debate with a view to influencing legislation, government activities or government policies.

What does it take?

When deciding whether advocacy is right for your organisation, consider:

  • Long-term and effective change usually takes significant time and resources.
  • You need to be prepared to be criticised.
  • You need to be prepared to take risks.
  • You need to understand your organisation's philosophy, which will help you determine which issues you want to support.

Why bother?

Many people think that the most effective way to assist the disadvantaged and achieve social change is through the reform of public policy rather than the provision of services.

  • A study by the US National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), Leveraging Limited Dollars, found that every dollar invested in advocacy provided a $115 return in benefit.
  • Another NCRP report, Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities, calculated $157 in benefits per dollar invested in advocacy and organising groups.
  • The GrantCraft report Speaking Up! Foundations and Advocacy in Europe suggests a number of strengths grantmakers can bring to advocacy:
    • Substance (acquired through having worked directly with stakeholders)
    • Independent opinion (independent from governments and political parties)
    • Independent resources (and the ability to gather funds quickly if necessary)
    • Bridge-building capacities (the ability to build bridges between grass-roots organisations and policy makers)
    • Impartial reality checks (again, as intermediaries between grass-roots organisations and policy makers)
    • Diverse networks (often with direct access to decision makers).

The challenges and risks

  • You might feel strongly that by funding others' advocacy you are keeping issues at arm's length, but it is likely that there will be at least some critics out there who won't see you as impartial. You risk being perceived as biased.
  • You may face opposition or resistance to your message and to your organisation. Grantcraft's Advocacy Funding outlines strategies for dealing with this, including acknowledging the possibility of controversy; balancing confrontation and negotiation (sometimes it is best to confront opposition head-on); bracing yourself in advance; gathering allies who understand the territory and will stand by you; and persistence in educating and engaging.
  • The impact of advocacy-related grants tends to be difficult to assess. You are faced with the challenge of measuring intangible outcomes. However, it is still important to evaluate advocacy work. In A User's Guide to Advocacy Evaluation Planning, the Harvard Family Research Project proposes some guidelines for evaluating advocacy and policy change grantmaking:
    • See the value in real-time reporting (advocates regularly adapt their strategies in response to changing conditions)
    • Give interim outcomes the respect they deserve
    • Design evaluations that advocates can and actually want to do
    • Be creative and forward-looking.

How to approach it

  • As a grantmaker you can engage in advocacy yourself, or you can fund other groups engaged in advocacy. GrantCraft's Advocacy Funding: The Philanthropy of Changing Minds suggests some considerations to help decide which approach is right for you:
    • Whether the grantmaker or the grantee has better knowledge of the issues/processes/means of influencing public decisions
    • Whether the legal restrictions on grantee and funder differ
    • Whether the funder or the grantee is better able to devote the staff, time and stamina to take on a public role
    • Whether the funder or the grantee would bring a greater weight or authority to the role
    • Whether the funder or the grantee is willing and able to accept the publicity (and controversy) that can result from advocacy work.
  • There is a temptation to favour the funding of direct aid because the rules covering "acceptable" forms of advocacy can be confusing. Changemakers Australia produced a guide called Funding Advocacy for Social Change: Clarifying the Rules for Grantmakers to help.
  • GrantCraft's Advocacy Funding: The Philanthropy of Changing Minds suggests seven methods of advocacy that can be used by grantees or grantmakers or both: research; constituency organising and mobilisation; making current advocates more effective; forming and sustaining coalitions; using media to reach the right audiences; litigation; and direct approaches to policymakers.
  • You don't need to limit yourself to providing funds. See the capacity building help sheet for suggestions.
  • You need to ensure that your grantees and staff are prepared for advocacy work. In Investing in Change: Why Supporting Advocacy Makes Sense for Foundations, Atlantic Philanthropies suggests asking the following questions:
    • Do grantee staff have the experience and judgement required to understand when an advocacy effort is likely to succeed, and be an effective investment of time and funds?
    • Do staff skills reflect the range needed (including involvement in politics, community organising, etc)?
    • Does the organisation educate its staff and grantees about advocacy, and develop their skills?
    • Is there or can there be a person clearly responsible for making decisions regarding advocacy?
    • Do staff understand how to provide advocates with quick feedback and data to advance their efforts?
    • Is the organisation prepared to defend its reputation should it be criticised publicly?
    • Does the organisation have relationships with change foundations and organisations?
    • Do staff and grantees have the ability and support needed to act quickly and nimbly?
    • Do they have the strategic and tactical knowledge needed to move forward?
    • Does the organisation challenge grantees and reward those who take risks?
    • How does the organisation balance investing in the long-term needs of advocacy organisations with meeting the same organisations' needs for short-term support for unexpected opportunities?
    • How should grantmaking staff structure support for advocacy efforts?

Further reading