Talking About Advocacy Goals: How Foundations and Nonprofits Should Navigate a Sticky Conversation

Pitching your latest advocacy campaign to a foundation* can make for some frustrating conversations. Some of that results from necessary but tedious back and forth in search of alignment, particularly in a new relationship. But as a person who has been on both sides of the table over the last several years, I’ve come to believe we can all do better, particularly when discussing campaign goals. This may seem counterintuitive as many advocates can rattle off a wishlist of policy ideas at a moment’s notice. Identifying achievable measurable wins that could happen over a typical grant period, though, is much harder. In fact, it is the thing I have seen grantees struggle with most while developing grant proposals. I did too as a grantee. The legal limits on private foundation support for lobbying complicate things further and we program officers could do a better job communicating about these rules. In this post, I’ll explain a little more about the challenges then take a foundation and grantee perspective separately to talk about how we can better manage them.   

Goal Setting, Advocacy, and Lobbying

Identifying goals always takes work because it requires imagining how the world might be different from the one we live in. It is usually easier to focus on what steps we want to take, rather than where we want to be. In advocacy terms, I know I can host an event or write a policy report, so I’m happy to talk to a potential funder about that. But drawing the connection to how exactly those actions will change policy? Much harder. The policy context makes it harder still. I’ve written elsewhere on the factors that make setting advocacy goals difficult. When dozens of actors are trying to influence the same few decision-makers, identifying a specific measurable policy change that you can take credit for is a tall order. Moreover, policy change can take years, making it essential to pick out measurable intermediate goals. Intermediate goals may include things like putting your issue on the agenda of policymakers, shifting the narrative among media or key influencers, or changing corporate practices. If anything, they are even harder than long-term policy goals to infuse with trackable outcomes. 

On top of all this, real legal barriers around foundation funding complicate everything. Private foundations cannot earmark dollars to be used for direct or grassroots lobbying.** Yet many advocacy goals, whether broad policy change goals or in the intermediate category noted above, explicitly or implicitly require lobbying elected officials. To be clear, lots of research, community organizing, and advocacy activities are totally within bounds for foundation-funded project grants. Nevertheless, a nervous jump by a program officer at any mention of legislative change can scare off a grantee from bringing up even non-lobbying advocacy plans.

The difficulty in talking about outcomes generally and abundance of caution around legal limitations can make for frustrating communication. I think there are more effective and efficient conversations to be had in this context. Given the power dynamic, more responsibility rests with a program officer to set the tone and move the discussion in a productive direction while also following the law. 

Program Officers, Lobbying Limits, and Advocacy Goals

Program officers should approach these discussions with a three-pronged strategy. First, always be clear about the legal constraints on what you can and can’t fund, particularly when getting specific about the grant. I highly recommend checking out Bolder Advocacy by Equal Justice Works for funders and grantees interested in understanding lobbying rules. ***

Second, as a program officer you must also make clear that sharing additional information on projects you cannot fund is welcome and encouraged. A lawyer I have previously worked with once made an important point to a foundation official who was skittish about an advocacy project: a funder may support an organization because of the relationships and influence they have with policymakers, some of which they developed through other more flexible funding. In other words understanding what else the grantee is doing is perfectly fine and can help you make better decisions about what to fund as long as foundation dollars go toward legally appropriate parts of the work. Third is to ask good questions. This is, of course, part of the job, but there are helpful queries to have in your pocket around advocacy campaigns. These may vary depending on the stage or relationship with the grantee or potential grantee. If you freeze up at the first discussion of lobbying, you’re going to hear a lot less information and understand less well what the grantee or potential grantee is hoping to accomplish. 

An initial question to ask a prospective grantee might look something like this: 

While we do not directly support direct or indirect lobbying, we also understand that many of the organizations we fund do engage in these activities appropriately with other funds. Can you share with us broadly how you think about changing policy and the full range of tools/strategies/activities your organization uses? How do you think about goal setting in an advocacy context? 

If you are further along in the conversation and talking about a prospective campaign with some chance of funding for a new or previous grantee, you could frame a question like this: 

As you know, we do not earmark dollars for direct or indirect lobbying. We also understand that part of the campaign may involve some of those tools supported by other sources of funding. Can you share with us broadly all the pieces of the campaign? What do you hope to achieve with the full range of strategies? 

When moving to the written proposal phase however, things can get more complicated. Technically your grantee can describe parts of a project that are not funded by your dollars, but many legal teams are not comfortable including additional information if it includes lobbying activities. Ideally you’ll have a sense of what works for your organization and communicate that to the grantee. For example, it may be OK that grantees note that there are lobbying elements to a project so long as they make it exceedingly clear that your dollars would not be earmarked for those activities. You’ll need to make sure your discussion of outcomes on the non-lobbying part of the project has its own set of goals. Most foundations have a template section dedicated to this. To refine goals further, you can ask questions like:

What do you hope to accomplish through the funded activities here? In other words, what will change as a result of what you’re doing? And how will you know whether you’ve achieved this goal? 

Ideally, by setting the tone, providing information up front, and asking good questions you can get the information you need and move the process along efficiently. 

Grantees Should Come Ready to Talk About Goals

Although grantees and potential grantees will need to follow the program officer’s lead around particular foundation requirements, there are a lot of reciprocal tactics you as a grantee can use to take an active approach to the conversation. First off, as a fundraiser you can show that you understand a program officer’s limitations. For example, you might might kick off a conversation about your organizational strategy with: 

While we recognize your resources can only be earmarked for fund non-lobbying work, we’d love to talk about the full range of our advocacy tools and where our non-lobbying work fits into our broader advocacy objectives. 

If a program officer shows discomfort in discussing lobbying at all, then you should heed the concern, even if it is mistaken or requires holding back full information about your organization or campaign. In some cases, the individual may know the rules quite well, but must abide by a more conservative internal board that wants little to do with advocacy. Here’s a link to a post on levels of foundation comfort with advocacy that might help you determine how to frame your pitch. 

Assuming you’re in a conversation where you have the flexibility to do so, it is incumbent on a grantee to be able to talk about project goals. You may have some natural hesitation to articulate these up front as you seek to understand a foundation’s strategy and where what you want to do most overlaps with where the foundation’s priorities are. Once you have a sense of where the shared direction is, then the sooner you are able to articulate clear outcomes, the better. As noted above, among the most common mistakes around goal setting is focusing too much on activities and outputs like releasing a statement, writing a fact sheet, or holding an event. Sometimes there’s no good goal to articulate and activities are what you need to describe, but in general you should push as much as possible to articulate outcomes. 

This gets hardest, I believe, when you actually have to write something down that identifies what you’re trying to accomplish in an advocacy campaign. In general, legislative goals are going to be out of bounds because they imply direct or indirect lobbying. You need to be able to articulate the influence of your non-lobbying policy, organizing, communications, and digital activities. Here are a couple ideas to get your started:

Support from Key Audiences: You can talk about how more people will publicly support your ideas thanks to the work you’re going to do in the grant. This can be targeted to a variety of audiences. For example: “We want to get to a point where when lawmakers are talking about our idea in interviews, on the assembly floor, and in public statements. When we have 5 members including one committee chair on record we will know we’ve made progress.” You can alternatively focus on coalition partners, media, or targeted digital influencers and try to measure changes in the broader narrative on your issue.

Trainings vs. lobby visits: On the organizing front, a foundation may not be able to support lobby meetings, but you may be able to measure the degree of engagement or number of people trained. For example, you can train 100 activists on telling their personal story related to a specific policy that impacts them. Using a survey response after the training can be a good way to try to get beyond outputs like the number of people trained and try to measure the quality of the material. For example, it may enable you to report that 90% of respondents said they learned something and 75% used the skills in the training over the following month.  While I won’t provide a full list here, you can check out the post on goals for additional ideas (though some will not work in a foundation proposal) as well as this Bolder Advocacy guide for useful framing tips.  If you are able to bring concrete goals to an early concept note, it can help your program officer help you navigate the proposal process much better. 

Ideally, both sides–program officer and grantee alike–understand the ground rules, make room for sharing information about the overall advocacy environment, and work to set specific aligned goals. While the proposal process will still take time, applying the tips above should reduce frustration and increase efficiency. Moreover, focusing energy on developing great goals produces helpful side effects including stronger alignment among funders and grantees and, most importantly, better advocacy campaigns. Forcing ourselves to think about where we want to be inevitably makes us more thoughtful about how we get there. In this case, that means adjusting advocacy tactics to reach the desired campaign goal, thereby improving overall impact.

* Note: I’m going to use foundation to refer to private foundations here. This includes many of large ones you’ve heard about. Public foundations like community foundations face fewer lobbying constraints.

** “Earmark” is a key word. As you can read more about in this link, there are two safe harbors where private foundation dollars could end up being spent on lobbying as long as they are not directed toward that purpose.

*** Also, while I do have a legal background, you should not take this blog as legal advice.