Will Your Nonprofit Sink or Swim in the Advocacy Pool?

Three panelists discuss advocacy support at FC Cleveland

This guest post first appeared in Philanthropy Front and Center Cleveland.

At a panel recently hosted by Foundation Center Cleveland Office, John Corlett, Executive Director of the nonpartisan think tank, The Center for Community Solutions, and Marcia Egbert, Senior Program Officer at the George Gund Foundation, discussed the relationship between advocacy and philanthropy, why and how foundations support advocacy, and how to determine whether the time is right for your organization to start making an advocacy splash. Below are some helpful takeaways from this enlightening discussion.

1. An Educated Coin Flip

The good news: These two highly seasoned professionals – a longstanding public policy expert and advocacy funder, respectively – agreed on the most critical points for determining when and how organizations should wade into advocacy waters that novices may find murky.

In fact, organizations and funders are often on two sides of the same coin with respect to identifying issues ripe for advocacy. While community organizations that know their target populations intimately are well-positioned to discern and document unmet needs that funders can help them to address, funders are also apt to recognize emerging unmet needs, by detecting trends and making connections across funding requests.

Egbert cited realigning juvenile corrections in Ohio as an advocacy issue where the Gund Foundation is out front. Even before the latest high-profile local and national news stories shined a glaring spotlight on the need for systemic justice reform, the Foundation was already on it, because program officers like Egbert were paying attention as these issues bubbled up, and were already marshaling the resources, relationships and expertise to work toward major reforms.

2. Timing is Everything

Corlett emphasized the critical importance of assessing the advocacy landscape to determine whether the time is right for a labor-intensive, deep-dive advocacy investment. Both highly recommend the Alliance for Justice’s extensive advocacy website, www.bolderadvocacy.org, as a top-notch resource – specifically its Advocacy Capacity Assessment and Evaluating Advocacy tools – thorough pre-advocacy planning primers that push organizations to take an honest 360° look at their timing, resources and relationships, to determine their readiness to dive into the advocacy pool. Some considerations include:

  • Are the right elected officials in office now to support/advance our efforts? Do we have relationships with them and how can we build and/or strengthen those relationships? 
     
  • Do we have, or can we create, a clear, best-practices based advocacy and communications plan?
     
  • Do we have the resources to fully implement the plan, to maximize our impact on key decision-makers?
     
  • Which organizations, public officials and other stakeholders are our best allies and how do we strengthen those relationships, collaborate effectively, and leverage our combined efforts and resources?

After answering these questions, Egbert advises working backwards from your goal and identifying the best strategies to achieve it. A well-conceived and articulated plan reflects the organization’s commitment of time and resources, indicating that advocacy is a priority. This shows the funder that your organization is focused on working efficiently and effectively, to measure and maximize its impact –rather than ad hoc, which typically achieves neither the organization’s goals, nor the funder’s investment return.

3. Learn the Rules

Websites like bolderadvocacy.org are user friendly to help organizations demystify, navigate and comply with the maze of complex nonprofit regulations. Two key intertwined areas where this arises are the legal distinction between advocating and lobbying, and how such activities are reported on the organization’s tax return.

One of many topics bolderadvocacy.org clarifies is the 501(h) election on the nonprofit tax return – which both Egbert and Corlett encouraged nonprofits to utilize. As blogger Daren Garshelis sums it up, the 501(h) election gives charities the reassurance of a straightforward way to measure their lobbying efforts and expenses, without losing their exempt status. Garshelis concludes that the clear definitions and limits of 501(h) free nonprofits to better spend their energies on effective advocacy and lobby confidently within the law’s generous limits.

4. Evaluation Tools Aren’t ‘One Size Fits All’

Organizations and funders must both recognize that measuring advocacy impact is inherently different from measuring direct service. Whereas direct service can be calculated as units delivered to a target population, advocacy efforts must be measured relative to a clearly articulated advocacy goal and plan (mentioned above under item 2), including interim benchmarks and/or other progress indicators. Benchmarks can often be quantified too, such as partners recruited, advocacy materials produced/distributed, coalitions built, bipartisan legislative support, etc.

It’s also worth noting that while the initial goal may be to achieve a specific policy change, permanent program or funding stream, that goal may morph with time, as the legislative climate and other factors shift. This gives the organization an opportunity to revisit the funder with an adjusted plan and tactics, reflecting the organization’s understanding of the altered advocacy environment. Here too, the Alliance for Justice’s evaluation tools and resources are helpful and instructive.

5. Patience (and Persistence)  is a Virtue

Corlett and Egbert cited the case study of the Ohio Housing Trust Fund to illustrate that advocacy can be a painfully slow process, requiring long term commitment to achieve the payoff of lasting change. In this case, it took 10 years and five budget cycles to establish a permanent, flexible, statewide funding source for affordable, expanded and improved housing options and conditions for low-income Ohioans.

Still, during each budget cycle, interim benchmarks measured progress in the form of a continually expanding support network, built from new relationships, unlikely allies, key decision-makers and incrementally increased funding, all indicating that advocacy efforts were indeed advancing steadily in the right direction. The Trust Fund ultimately became law in 1991 and has since served the critical housing needs of more than one million Ohioans, including military veterans, senior citizens, people with disabilities, and working families.

In conclusion, while advocacy can certainly be a powerful tool to help organizations achieve meaningful change, there are many factors to consider before deciding to take the plunge and ask funders to support your efforts – so it’s worth doing your homework and consulting the expert resources available, before committing to much more than you bargained for.

Lauren Steiner

LAUREN STEINER is President of Grants Plus, an Ohio-based consulting firm that has secured more than $20 million for organizations nationwide since she founded it in 2007. Lauren is president of the Grant Professionals Association Ohio–Northern Chapter as well as an active member and former board member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Cleveland Chapter. 

Advocacy