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Funder Advocacy Collaboratives: Framing Thoughts

Resource type: News

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By Jen Bokoff and Cynthia Gibson

GrantCraft Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a resource series about funder advocacy collaboratives. The series draws on real-world funder experiences to share strategies about anticipating and overcoming prevalent obstacles to success. See Acknowledgements and Methodology and our series content page for more background.

“Funders need to collaborate more.” How many times have we heard that?

The good news: Funders are collaborating more. Today, there are all kinds of learning networks, aligned funding and strategy associations, affinity groups, and other structures that are providing grantmakers with the chance to collaborate.

However, many funders are still apprehensive about funding advocacy. Foundation Center analysis from a sample of the largest funders demonstrates that only 12.8 percent of overall grantmaking explicitly supports policy, advocacy, and systems reform. The Atlantic Philanthropies observes that advocacy funding is too often “the philanthropic road not taken, yet it is a road most likely to lead to the kind of lasting change that philanthropy has long sought through other kinds of grants.”

It’s an easy road to avoid. Publically taking a stand on controversial issues can be vulnerable for foundation leaders, and supporting advocacy can also be complex, time-intensive, and risky. Stir the varied interests, goals, and personalities of a diverse group of funders into the mix, and it becomes even more daunting.

kc_imageWith deepening concerns and increasing activism in the shadow of the recent administration change in the United States, that may be changing. Wherever you stand on the issues, no one can deny there’s been a dramatic upswing in advocacy groups’ activity. There are collaboratives successfully bringing together funders that are helping to advance important issues through public policy campaigns, communications, research, and strategic grantmaking. And they’re getting results, despite all of the obstacles that can get in the way.

To understand how to overcome inevitable concerns about joining an advocacy collaborative, and to dig into what makes them successful—and not—we need to ask: What makes them different from other kinds of collaboratives? We spoke with several stakeholders to such collaboratives and heard:

  • They focus on very specific goals. Advocacy funders are very clear about the policy change, reform, or institution they want to see. “The best policy collaboratives are laser focused on very clear goals that everyone agrees on. They then analyze how and where that needs to happen, figure out what a nonprofit organization can do, and then put their funding behind it. In my opinion, if you don’t do that, you’re not a policy funder.” That focus “creates a sense of urgency about the work that encourages people to leave their organizational hats at the door and all work on the same team.”
  • They flex and adapt nimbly. Many funder advocacy collaboratives allocate at least part of their resources to providing rapid response grants that move money out to groups on the ground in a timely way. “Our foundation had been giving long-term core support to some big national groups that were steeped in our issue. But we wanted to give more reactive, project-oriented money to organizations on the front lines at a much quicker timeline and pace. That’s why we joined this kind of collaborative—it can do that.”Policy advocacy collaboratives also continually tweak their strategies to align with an ever-changing political, economic, and social context. “In advocacy collaboratives, funders have to have a shared vision of what they’re trying to achieve, even if they have to refine their strategies every six months. In other collaboratives with less pressing issues, there’s no deadline, and you can lose focus or drift along. They’re then more likely to become social centers for donors, rather than promoting advocacy for social change.”
  • They offer support for capacity and field building. Campaigns and policy wins are great, but they’re just part of the equation in these kinds of collaboratives. “It’s equally important to build the capacity of the organizations on the ground as it is to build the field overall so there’s a strong infrastructure created that’s not only able to react to policy-related opportunities when they emerge but also anticipate future opportunities.” In short, “You can have a bunch of policy wins, but if there’s no infrastructure to support the work going forward, it won’t have as much impact.”
  • They embrace complexity. Advocacy and organizing cross-cut lots of issues, but foundations are still largely rooted in more siloed program areas. So, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out where or how each funder can make advocacy and organizing work for them and their institution. “An LGBT funder joined our immigration rights collaborative because they understood how immigration reform affects their constituency. That’s not the usual case because most funders work in specific program areas and can’t always see how their policy issues can affect several of their institution’s program areas –not just one.” And even when they do see it, the way their institutions are set up sometimes doesn’t allow for this kind of cross-cutting grantmaking.There are also different kinds of advocacy collaboratives. Some provide efficient vehicles for funders who don’t have the staff capacity to do these kinds of grants and “are a good way to move money out the door and into the field quickly.” Some come together when there’s a crisis, and due diligence needs to be done more efficiently so money can move out quickly to those who need it. Some are just supporting research about issues, rather than organizing around them. And still others operate almost like a foundation by making grants through a pooled fund.
  • They acknowledge and embrace risk. Advocacy collaborative funders accept that this is risky work. “Our collaborative spent years supporting a major federal-level reform policy, and we lost. That was a huge blow that no one saw coming. All this money went into that strategy, and we got it wrong. Fortunately, the funders in the collaborative understood that you win some and you lose some—and their institutions understood that as well.” Part of the risk is that a lot of this work is very long-term. “Policy change takes time, and many foundations aren’t able or willing to stay the course that long. They get nervous when there aren’t immediate ‘outcomes.’”

Those are some ways funder advocacy collaboratives differ from other kinds of collaboratives. But what makes them successful? And how can grantmakers make sure the considerable investments of time and money these efforts require are worth it?

Those were questions GrantCraft posed to several grantmakers and grantees with deep experience in these kinds of collaboratives. We asked them to identify the challenges they typically faced and provide some tips and stories to help their peers navigate and overcome the tough stuff so they can maximize their potential for success.

And they delivered.

Our research suggested solid ways to overcome sticking points that can torpedo even the most well-planned collaborative public policy initiatives—things like groupthink and what to do when there’s disagreement about where and how funds should be allocated. And interviewees offered some frank advice for grantmakers involved in these collaboratives when they get pushback from their institutions about that participation.

Respondents also laid out the benefits of these kinds of collaboratives, as well as insights to what makes them successful. That includes ways to get consensus on strategy—and what to do if that doesn’t happen.

Structural issues are also important, among them, the tensions that can spring up between the big funders and the little ones and whether and how to use intermediaries or other kinds of external support. Respondents were particularly interested in how this work could be done in ways that engage grantees more as partners, rather than beneficiaries, in strategy development, evaluation and grant decisions.

The insights noted above sample some of the practical wisdom and key findings we’ve collected about this topic, and we’re sharing it with you as short pieces that make it easy to learn, reflect, and share. This suite of resources is intended for both seasoned funders looking to troubleshoot and strengthen work they’re doing in an existing advocacy collaborative, and for funders thinking of dipping their toes in the water. We’ve also pulled together what we believe to be some of the most useful publications, research, tools, and other materials on this topic at Combined, these resources can help grantmakers just dipping their toes into this water, as well as experienced policy collaborative funders who want to dig deeper.

As you prepare to dig into this series and its lessons, we want to leave you with two of our most important takeaways from the research:

First, funders who are part of advocacy collaboratives tend to be fierce believers in their collective power, especially in moving the needle on big, potentially controversial issues. Many foundations have historically shied away from these topics, but that tide seems to be turning. Today, we’re seeing more interest by grantmakers in joining these kinds of collaboratives, which can be attributed to growing awareness of the impact this policy work has had on issues as varied as public education, taxes, the death penalty, gay marriage, and gun violence.

Second, a significant number of advocacy collaborative grantmakers said they were becoming more interested in finding ways to engage with grantees as partners, rather than beneficiaries, in strategy development, field building and even grant allocation. This trend not only reflects larger cultural shifts that, through technology, have given people the power to participate more directly in everything from crowdfunding to online organizing but, funders say, is also a powerful and cost-effective way to walk the talk of social justice.

Please click here for information on GrantCraft’s methodology for this research, and dig into the series through the connected content below.

More in This Series

Cynthia Gibson, Ph.D., is a consultant to a wide range of foundations and nonprofits in the areas of strategic planning, program development, evaluation, and communications, as well as a widely published writer on philanthropy and civic engagement. You can follow her on Twitter at @cingib.

Jen Bokoff is Director of Knowledge Services at Foundation Center, and leads GrantCraft. Shoot her an email any time at, or find her on Twitter at @jenbo1 and @grantcraft.