3 Keys to Unlocking Foundation Funding for Advocacy.

At my last job as a Vice President of Policy for an association I was able to increase our funding for advocacy by 300% through a multi year foundation grant. Over the course of 6 years we went from a budget of $150,000 a year to receiving $375,000 a year for a total of just over $2 million in funding. And this was from a foundation that had not previously funded advocacy.

Unfortunately, there is pretty negative mindset around fundraising for advocacy from foundations. Like any other professional relationship, I learned that how you show up and what you communicate is the key to achieving the results you desire. Instead of focusing on what’s not possible we need to think expansively and shift our mindsets to what might be possible.

In the example I shared, the funder was willing to invest in us, in part because of these 3 mindset shifts that my team and me were able to consistently put into practice:

1. Put Yourself in Their Shoes. A lot of the skittishness over advocacy comes from foundation boards and the conservative culture of foundations that still largely insists on quantifiable outcomes. In my experience an increasing number of program officers understand advocacy and why it is important and they have their own internal politics and challenges to deal with. It helps if you are aware of the rules that govern foundation investment in advocacy. It’s perfectly legal for foundations to support advocacy and even to support a project that has lobbying as part of it, with certain important restrictions.

So before you approach or even think about meeting with a funder, do your homework. Know whether they fund “advocacy “ and whether they call it “education” or “communication” or by some other strategy. Yes, it’s annoying to have to play the name game and hop around the word advocacy (more on that later), but in the short term if you want to get your foot in the door then its important to know the culture and the rules. Talk to other grantees, go online and read their guidelines and get really clear on what they are looking for. If possible, see if you can have a preliminary meeting to assess whether you might be a good fit. And make sure you are educated on what foundations can and can’t do under the IRS rules. Don’t be afraid to convey this knowledge during a meeting, if they indicate otherwise. You will be helping educate them.

2. Show Them How You Can Help Them Achieve Their Mission
Foundations like nonprofits are mission driven. It’s your job to be able to persuasively tell the story of how your project helps them fulfill their mission. Unfortunately, our own myopia can sometimes limit the expansiveness and generative nature of conversations with funders. Aligning your outcomes with theirs is the key to getting a foundation excited about how you might partner together. It’s also important to identify realistic short, medium and long-term goals since advocacy is an iterative, nonlinear strategy that usually requires longer term time frames. Connecting the dots between each set of outcomes is also important. For example when we were seeking funding for the project I mentioned above, the foundation’s long term goal was to change the funding environment in our state for a particular subset of nonprofits, whose primary funding stream came from the State. We were able to convince them that simply gathering foundations together wasn’t going to produce the result they were seeking. It was a short terms outcome and a starting point but not an ending point. Instead we showed them how their were multiple audiences that also needed to be targeted, including educating state decision makers and bringing them to the table and developing a new framework for contracting. By showing how our Theory of Change aligned with theirs and where adjustment needed to be made, we persuaded them to fund a much bigger project.

3. Know Your Worth Finally, it’s important to know the value of the work you’re doing and to somehow quantify it. Regarding the value, too often I’ve seen nonprofits become intimidated out of demonstrating their value when meeting with foundations. We’re all guilty of buying too strongly into the firm belief that there is a hierarchy between foundations and nonprofits. This is turn contributes to a mindset that undervalues our work.

While it’s true foundations hold the purse strings, it is equally true that they dislike being seen as the check writers. Focus your interactions instead on envisioning what a truly effective collaboration could look like, and approach it as a partnership. The foundation will be stronger and the dividends higher. It also helps if you can quantify in some way the impact of your advocacy efforts. For example, an advocate for the mentally ill might show state policymakers how a proposal to limit coverage will actually cost the state more in the long term or a prison reform advocate might make the case for reducing mandatory minimum sentencing as a way of reducing taxpayer costs. And if you’re thinking—“that all costs money we don’t have to acquire those numbers”, then make the best back-of-the-envelope case you can but the point is to demonstrate some type of a causal chain between the action you are proposing to take and what they care about.

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