How to Tailor Your Ask for Advocacy Funding to a Foundation

One of the initial questions advocacy organizations need to ask when approaching a foundation is whether the foundation will support policy work. Many do not support policy related activities at all. Part of this results from fear about overstepping legal limitations on lobbying with foundation resources. Although there are a wide variety of non-lobbying advocacy tactics, the serious consequences associated with using foundation dollars for lobbying casts a pall over appropriate activity as wekk. In other cases, philanthropists may not understand policy as a viable path to social change. It’s easier to see tangible progress supporting individuals directly, say by sheltering the homeless, rather than changing laws that lower housing costs. Understanding whether your targeted funder is willing to explore policy work is a critical threshold question to pursue a deeper partnership. 

The answer is rarely a binary yes or no. A foundation’s openness to advocacy falls on a spectrum from funding direct service programs only to full throated support for policy change. Understanding some of the opportunities at different points on the scale can help you tailor your ask to whoever you’re talking to and build partnerships with funders hesitant about advocacy. I’ll start with the direct service and move to progressively more open approaches, and thus easier pitches for advocacy groups. 

Direct Service Only – If a foundation only supports direct service, you should generally not spend time soliciting advocacy funding from them. It’s not something the program officer is likely to be able to do and has the potential to waste both their time and yours. Over the long run, there may be room for education, but the decision to support advocacy is often made at the board level and well outside of a program officer’s control. However, it may still be helpful keeping up a relationship. Since program officers typically talk to a wide variety of people, they may be able to connect advocacy leaders with potential partners. For example, if the foundation supports a particularly successful pilot program, you may want to use it to incorporate into your policy agenda. You may also be able to provide the foundation information about how the policy environment could impact their programs.

Research Only– Some foundations hesitant to support advocacy are comfortable with research that may or may not have policy implications. For example, a literature review about what works and does not for nonprofits supporting young people to find quality jobs. The results may help inform your advocacy organization’s policy agenda while also supporting youth serving organizations looking to improve their programs. The required rigor will matter in determining whether you organization is a good fit for a research project. Few advocacy organizations or think tanks, for example, have the capacity to evaluate randomized control trials – the gold standard for determining whether a program works. However, qualitative research, literature reviews, and some quantitative analysis may be well within your capability.

Policy Research – A variation on the above. Certain foundations may be comfortable with developing research that has specific policy implications, though not much more than that. This is obviously more helpful for an advocacy organization that would like to make explicit connections with its policy products.

Timid Advocates – The next step up for foundations are those that want to fund advocacy work, but simultaneously display hesitation. It may mean that the foundation wants to support policy change, but out of an abundance of caution, wants to avoid activities that are “too close” to the legal definition of lobbying. In other cases, the foundation’s leadership may not want to appear too political or may have some discomfort with certain tactics (e.g. foundation leaders typically have attained personal success through working within systems, so funding a policy report feels more comfortable than funding a protest).

When pitching this type of foundation, it may help to focus on policy development and dissemination of research, media outreach, and events with other organizations where ideas are discussed. Avoiding tactics that involve specific mentions of policymakers and describing a vague campaign strategy to sway public opinion will go down easier than identifying particular legislative targets and setting clear goals for policy change.

Full Advocacy Support – This is generally the easiest of all where a foundation explicitly seeks to change policy outcomes and is willing to fund tactics as far as the law permits.  In this case, you should have a broader range of tactics available that may include explicit technical assistance to lawmakers, as well as media or policy tactics more clearly designed to influence policymaker opinion. For example, op-eds in papers likely to sway opinions of key constituents. You should work with lawyers at your organization and the foundation to ensure both sides are confident of complying with the law. Over time, as you’ve built trust with a foundation, they may be open to switching to general operating support which provides much more flexibility on where to spend the funds. There are other organizations such as Bolder Advocacy with strong introductory resources on the topic [Important to note here that you should not take the above as official legal advice].

Finally, while foundations typically are more conservative than they need to be on lobbying, not all of them are. I’ve been on the phone with a program officer that explicitly wanted to fund policy outcomes without regard for lobbying rules. Going down this path can bring serious consequences for your nonprofit including loss of its legal status so you should make sure you understand the rules and abide by them independent of what other actors may believe.