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Advocacy – Often the Most Direct Route to Social Change

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |


Supporting advocates who work to persuade members of the U.S. Congress of the necessity of allocating more federal money for children’s health programmes…

Backing public interest lawyers whose arguments convince the U.S. Supreme Court that capital punishment for youth is unconstitutional….

Convincing lawmakers to raise taxes on tobacco in the U.S.and thus reduce teen smoking….

Mobilizing older adults in the Republic of Ireland to press for a national strategy on ageing, and a voice at the highest levels of government….

Building the organisational strength of groups allied in the fight to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the U.S….

These are examples of public policy advocacy backed by Atlantic or our colleague foundations in the recognition that it is often the most direct and effective route to enduring social change for the poor, the disenfranchised and the most vulnerable among us.

I’ve been an advocate all my working life in the social justice and human rights arena, and still think of myself as one, but with the particular toolkit that foundations are privileged to have – funds, convening power and technical assistance to put the wind in the sails of those on the frontlines seeking change.

It’s something Atlantic is paying increasing attention to, across our programme areas and in all the countries where our grantees work. Given our limited lifetime, we increasingly find ourselves supporting advocacy, because it has the capacity to bring about systemic changes that will have more enduring impact in the fields we have chosen.

This especially appropriate first issue of Atlantic Reports marks a stepped-up effort to share information about our work not only with the philanthropic community, but also all of you who are interested in the work our grantees do in all our programme areas and geographies – who are interested in better outcomes for kids, more engaged and supported older adults, stronger protections for human rights, and improved public health.

These publications, which will be available on our website, will in the months to come focus on case studies, including a look at advocacy to benefit rural farmworkers in South Africa and efforts to support reconciliation among ex-combatants in Northern Ireland and South Africa. Others will make the case for investments in certain areas, like civic engagement of older people, or explore key policy questions like the challenges and opportunities Atlantic faces in spending down our endowment in the next ten years.

“Investing in Change” highlights forms of advocacy that a foundation can support, including:

  • Research and Dissemination: Credible research is an excellent tool for raising the profile of a problem that deserves attention, as well as for explaining the ongoing impact of a policy or condition on individuals, communities and nations.Many foundations do this well, and are comfortable with it.
  • Raising Awareness: Increasing public consciousness is important when action on an issue is required, but important constituencies are often not fully aware of the problem or its dimensions.Raising awareness can take many forms, including communications campaigns, media placement and advertising, speeches to influential audiences and other public events, as well as public testimony before legislative bodies, regulatory boards and commissions.
  • Community Organising: Supporting communities who are taking the steps to organise on their own behalf is a critical component of funding advocacy, enabling those most to voice their concerns and promote their interests with those who have the power to make change. The work of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, fighting for HIV treatment and the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS is an example of the importance of this kind of work.
  • Grassroots Mobilisation: Demonstrating broad-based public support for specific policy change is crucial to success. Mobilising membership organisations, coalitions and others to contact and visit elected officials and their staffs – or to generate greater public awareness of an issue – can be a highly powerful component of the effort to bring about policy change. We’ve recently made a grant to the Center for Community Change that will help that organisation, celebrating its 40th anniversary today, to build a national coalition of grassroots organisations that will help low-income families benefit from federal, state and local policy change.
  • Building Capacity: Supporting the development of the staff, infrastructure and, where relevant, membership of advocacy organisations is one way to enable long-term change, and a key tool of Atlantic’s U.S. effort to challenge the Bush Administration’s incursions on civil liberties.
  • Policy Development: Developing policy options can aid change by providing advocates, legislators and others with credible suggestions for solving problems.A specific policy suggestion can provide focus for a campaign for change and provide supporters with a goal to rally around. Atlantic’s support for this type of advocacy includes a grant to the Center for Law and Social Policy, which is aimed at strengthening the center’s ability to influence and inform federal and state government policy affecting disadvantaged children and their families.
  • Lobbying: Some funders may be interested in efforts to develop, refine or amend legislative language or to support proposed legislation or ballot initiatives on the local, state or federal level. This activity is regulated differently under law in different countries, so both foundation staff and grantees should confer with legal counsel about the best approach for each organisation. Atlantic’s work to advance comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S., which faced a setback last summer when the Senate voted it down, but which is gearing up for the next stage, is a good example of this.
  • Litigation: Taking legal action to achieve desired changes or fight undesired policies and practices is a tool that advocates have long used effectively. This is how Atlantic grantees brought about same-sex marriage in South Africa and an end to the juvenile death penalty in the U.S.

There are all kinds of foundations with all kinds of valuable missions. The comfort that Atlantic has with support of advocacy may never be achieved by some other funders, and that’s fine. But we hope that the examples we have mustered, from our own work and that of colleague foundations, in the U.S.and abroad, will help build a stronger case with foundation staffs and trustees. In fact, the more you look at it, the remarkable thing is not how often appropriate support of targeted advocacy can make a difference, but how little enduring change can take place without it.

Gara LaMarche

To read more about these initiatives, please visit their web sites: