Advice from Grantseekers

  • It's not necessary - and it's often counterproductive - to expressly forbid lobbying in grant letters. Unless a particular grant specifically requires "expenditure responsibility" or the grant might appear to have funds "earmarked" for lobbying, there is no reason why grant letters should forbid activities that are perfectly legal for the grantee and that are not the responsibility of the funder. In many cases, communication with policymakers is a useful (sometimes unavoidable) activity in pursuit of the grantmaker's and grantee's real objectives. Ruling such contacts out not only needlessly constrains the grantee and weakens the efficacy of the grant, but it imposes an administrative burden on the funder: policing activities that actually need no such monitoring.
  • General support grants are a useful way to support public policy work while minimizing legal risk to the foundation. Foundations that support social change organizations often find it best, for both practical and legal reasons, to make at least some grants to those organizations as general operating support. One obvious reason is that a general support grant can be used for any legal activity by the grantee, and the foundation need have no concern about what part of it may be used for lobbying. Another, equally strong, rationale for general support is that it provides the flexibility for the grantee to adjust strategy and reallocate funds during the course of what is almost always a fast-changing policy effort. When the goal is to change the terms of a public debate, as one grantee put it, "the targets of opportunity usually arise all of a sudden, and they're changing all the time." Research, press relations, meetings with lawmakers or legislative staff, constituency mobilization - any of these activities "may be useful at a given moment, and not much use when that moment has passed." General support grants allow grantees to make these tactical decisions quickly and effectively, without seeking permission at every step.
  • Support for local organizing is a key first step toward higher level advocacy. "Funding the giant national advocacy groups is important," one grantee said, "but funders shouldn't think that those groups, by themselves, actually bring new voices and new constituencies into the debate. Those groups amplify and fight for the voices that are already organized, which is indispensable. But if you want to bring new people and groups in, if you want to really expand the policy debate and enlarge democracy, you have to start locally, at the neighborhood and community levels. People who aren't involved [in public affairs] don't suddenly become involved just because a big organization has the same name as their ethnic group."
  • Have a frank discussion with grantees about their advocacy plans. Grantees widely regret the tendency of some grantmakers to cloister themselves or their foundations from any discussion of public policy and politics. The effect, said one grantee, "isn't just that we end up playing a little rhetorical game with each other - a kind of don't-ask don't-tell, where we both know we're not being fully honest. The real problem is that we [the grantee] feel we're supposed to be playing by rules that haven't been fully discussed, that may not be necessary, and that we would argue against if we had the chance. In the worst case, it just makes us rein ourselves in, which means we're not doing what we would consider the most effective work to fulfill the purposes of the grant."
  • Don't demand more collaboration among grantees than funders can manage among themselves. "The first thing every funder wants" in an advocacy program, one grantee lamented, "is for every organization with a policy agenda in that field to come to a single table, hammer out a single advocacy plan, coordinate all our communications and activity with one another, and never do anything that might look like duplication. That's not always the best way to approach the public policy arena, which is inherently messy and sometimes thrives on redundancy. But the main thing wrong with it is, it's extremely hard to pull off. And the proof of that is: How often do funders ever do such a thing? Yes, it happens. But it's pretty rare. It's just not human nature." Experienced grantees do acknowledge the value of a coordinated advocacy campaign among many active organizations. And some of the more successful episodes of philanthropic advocacy have in fact depended on just such coordination. Grantees rarely opposed funders' attempts to build coalitions; they merely asked that goals be realistic.
  • Stick with it. People experienced with advocacy - both grantees and grantmakers - routinely tell stories of successful public policy efforts that took years, sometimes decades, to have an effect. "We obviously welcome a one- or two-year grant," one former advocacy grantee said, "because we're not going to turn down the support. We'd take a six-month grant, if it came to that. But don't have any illusion that you can have a major effect on public policy in that amount of time, unless all the stars just happen to be lined up in your favor. And even when that happens, it's usually because some other funder, or group of funders, spent years helping us get them in line first."
  • Know the game. Foundations need public policy veterans on their staffs or among their close advisers, many grantees say. The procedures of advocacy, as one grantee put it, "seem kind of goofy to people who don't know how these processes work. If you don't know the inside rules, you'll have a hard time knowing what's worth funding and what's just good-government posturing." Grantees also welcome funders as strategic advisers and even critics - provided they have the relevant experience. "Hanging out day after day in the state capitol, testifying at meetings where two thirds of the committee doesn't show up, doing policy briefings for people who already agree with us - some funders might look at that and say, 'You’re crazy.' You know what? We might be crazy - sometimes that's exactly what we need to hear. But those same activities can be essential parts of the process. We need to hear feedback from people who really know the ropes, and who can distinguish between the usual, necessary craziness of the system and any strategic mistakes we might be making."
  • Don't expect instant "metrics," - but recognize the value of advancing the process. It's possible, given a sufficient amount of time, to quantify the impact of some forms of advocacy work. But grantees caution that (a) sometimes "it may never be possible to say exactly what any given set of grants accomplished, in and of themselves," and (b) it's rarely possible to make that determination in just a few years. That doesn't mean that funders shouldn't try to assess the effectiveness of their grants or of grantees' work. But it does mean, as one grantee put it, "that they should recognize the importance of moving the "debate along, building support, getting the message out - even when no laws or regs have been written, no actual change in policy has taken place, but there's at least some debate going on that wasn't happening before. That's impact. It's just not easy to measure."

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Advocacy Funding.