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Here are 5 questions designed to improve nonprofits’ advocacy work

A new report looks at what’s necessary for philanthropic organizations to successfully push policy changes.

Here are 5 questions designed to improve nonprofits’ advocacy work
[Source Image: Weenee/iStock]

Every year, people donate roughly $60 billion to foundations. But only about $2.5 billion (just 4%) goes toward advocacy work. But historically, many major nonprofits’ successes–from increasing LGBT rights to ending apartheid in South Africa–have hinged on major financial backing that raised public awareness of injustices, while working in tandem with the government to create change.

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“If you are aiming for breakthrough change on things like climate change, poverty, education, then you really do need to find a way to engage with government funding or policies or else what you end up doing is funding a lot of really good social services programs, which is just terrific, but that may not be adding up to the big ambitious changes that some of the larger philanthropists are looking for,” says Susan Wolf Ditkoff, a partner at Bridgespan, a nonprofit consultancy, and co-author of a recent report called “When Philanthropy Meets Advocacy” that closely catalogues this problem in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

[Source Image: Weenee/iStock]

The reason that donors aren’t contributing appears to be twofold. “In addition to kind of the reputational risk and uncertainty, there’s still the legal question of just not being sure how to do it,” Wolf Ditkoff says. The answer to the first part is easy if unglamorous: Donations can be made anonymously. As for the second part, typical charities—those with 501c3 status—have some restrictions but they’re actually pretty minor. “There certainly are things that you can’t do through charitable dollars or tax-advantaged dollars, but there are many many things you can do,” she says.

To help donors understand the difference, Ditkoff and her co-author Patrick Guerriero, a senior fellow at Bridgespan and partner at Civitas Public Affairs Group, have come up with a sort of guidebook centered around answering (often with deep case studies) five main questions philanthropists aren’t but should be asking.

  • Do you know the rules of engagement?
  • Who is your opposition?
  • Have you converted strategy into a map of opportunities?
  • Are your messages aimed at winning new allies or just making your base feel good? 
  • Are you using new technologies to educate and advocate?

The first question is really about who can fund what. “For example, you actually can do this mix of lobbying, grassroots mobilization, developing doing research to develop policies, getting out the vote, and candidate forums. What you can’t do is endorse or give money to a specific political candidate and there are different rules around ballot initiatives, but the restrictions are much more narrow than people assume.”

When it comes to recognizing opposition, Wolf Ditkoff says many philanthropists don’t realize just what kinds of pushback their seemingly selfless effort will encounter. The report references how Autism Speaks supporters were surprised when legislation that would expand medical services in North Carolina got pushback from some insurance providers because it made some companies less profitable.

[Source Image: Weenee/iStock]
Wolf Ditkoff says one great example of better strategic mapping is The Trust for Public Land, a group that had a goal to ensure there was a park within a 10-minute walk for every city resident. The initial concept seemed like it would take a lot of individual efforts, until the group realized it could work directly with mayors through the United States Conference of Mayors, a non-partisan group of city leaders. “It turned out that over the course of their approach they got more than 100 mayors from red states and blue states to engage on this question by making this powerful to them and their goals,” she adds.

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The report shares other solutions that have worked well for groups to grow their bases versus just placating them. “Language matters a lot,” Wolf Ditkoff says, noting that while the term climate change has become almost toxic to conservatives, the idea of conservation, preservation, and stewardship are classic Republican ideals. The gay rights movement recognized a similar unifier in its battle for marriage equality by finding a universal sentiment that became a slogan: “Love is Love.” “There are so many places where there is common ground to be gained and the people who are tapping into that are finding far more success.”

At the same time, groups looking for that common ground have a host of new online sentiment measuring tools available (The researchers examine Hashtagify.me and RiteTag, for instance).

The report also includes a chart of different specific tactics that many groups have tried, from conducting agenda-empowering research, to building coalition, and mobilizing that base, along with examples of who has had success with them.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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