What is Advocacy?

The grantmakers we talked to described “advocacy” as a category of activities — usually carried out by grantees, but sometimes undertaken directly by foundations — whose primary purpose is to influence people’s opinions or actions on matters of public policy or concern: 

  • Advancing an idea. When a good idea is too little known and therefore not sufficiently part of the public debate, advocacy can help showcase what that idea could accomplish, build support for it, and encourage policy makers to act on it. 
  • Arguing a position. When a good idea faces opposition, grants to effective advocates can help them clarify their side of the issue, present relevant research, and respond to opposition. 
  • Enriching the debate. When discussion of a public problem seems to lack any clear solution, or when the discussion involves too few of the relevant constituencies, grantmakers can help develop new information, bring more voices to the table, or encourage more effective deliberations — even without endorsing any particular point of view. 

Here’s an example of each, drawn from the experiences of three very different foundations: 

On advancing an idea. One grantmaker who supports poverty reduction in the United States described a concerted effort by his foundation and a group of grantees to introduce the idea of children’s savings accounts – a mechanism by which government would establish a savings account for every child at birth, then provide special assistance and incentives to help low-income families save for their children’s future. As they formulated the research and demonstration project to pilot test the details of the system, they also designed a communications plan that would publicize the idea and highlight its broad appeal. He explained: “The notion that low-income people can save and invest in productive assets has proved to be a popular idea that transcends party lines and ideologies. People setting goals, following through on their plans to achieve their goals, and investing in themselves in productive ways resonates with many traditional values of self-reliance and empowerment. And the notion that this behavior can be facilitated or encouraged by government policies that resemble the various savings incentives provided to middle-income people strikes many people as fair.” 

On arguing a position. A staff member in a national foundation supporting anti-smoking advocacy recalls: “There were enormous numbers of people who wanted [clean indoor-air] legislation, who didn’t want to have to work and eat and do business overcome by smoke. And there was research showing physical harm from secondhand smoke to employees in restaurants and bars who were, in effect, compelled to breathe in other people’s carcinogens or else lose their jobs. But with tobacco companies spending millions of dollars to claim that there was no harm in secondhand smoke, no public- health interest in indoor air quality, and no public support for controls, the desire for clean air was basically drowned out. Our grants made sure that information got out to the public and to decision makers: research grants, public information grants, support to produce public-service advertisements, and state-level campaigns to get the word out.” 

On enriching the debate. A local funder who supports efforts to end homelessness — both direct services and advocacy — pointed out that, in her state, “we have a strong advocacy community, a strong workforce community, a strong low-income housing community, yet we weren’t seeing great success at the policy level, which really requires cross-collaboration among all these groups. A lot of policy debate in the state involves a narrow audience of wonks who speak the same language. And doing antipoverty work, it’s discouraging not having a bigger constituency caring about those issues. So the first thing we tried to do was get more voices around a common table talking about what it would take to end homelessness, and how we would move that agenda once we had it.”"

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.