Will the Supreme Court ruling giving greater political voice to corporations have the effect of focusing the minds of those funders who support policy advocacy?
Many foundations now appreciate that the impact of policy advocacy is not as hard to measure as once thought. Less clear, according to papers in the most recent issue of the Foundation Review, is how fully foundations appreciate the importance of their support for advocacy as part of a larger social change strategy, and how much investment they are willing to make in its evaluation. The recent Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations to spend more money on political campaigns may change their perspective.
The latest issue of the Foundation Review offers a number of research papers with insights for foundations working in the public policy realm. In particular, one paper from Innovation Network’s Johanna Morariu and Kathleen Brennan notes that three-quarters of advocacy organizations have not evaluated their work, and more than 80 percent of them have never worked with an outside evaluator. What advocacy strategies are appropriate in what contexts? What combinations of organizational capacities are most important? What are the most meaningful interim indicators in the journey from grassroots organizing to sweeping social change? The authors say these and other critical questions can’t truly be answered without greater support from foundations for advocacy evaluation. Morariu and Brennan go on to identify the key qualities of an effective advocacy funder, which include the usual suspects of offering extended grant cycles, support for program evaluation, and general operating support to enable grantees to respond flexibly to changing circumstances.
Another paper in this issue of the Foundation Review offers specific insights for foundations working to influence policy across the U.S. Ann Whitney Breihan of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland focuses on a multi-state program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that has impacted national policies on care for developmentally disabled adults. Among her suggestions: To build momentum for a particular policy, resist a temptation to fund states scattered across the country and instead focus funding in a region. Her study bears out that states are more likely to “follow the pack” in their own region. She also says funders should focus funding in those states that have already demonstrated interest – by spending their own funds – in a particular policy area. They’re more likely to consider further innovation in the area.
In general, philanthropists may be less hesitant about helping to define the voice of the social sector. Noting the success of highly strategic politically conservative foundations, other funders across the political spectrum have come to believe that nonprofits and foundations need to gain a greater voice when it comes to public policy. Many have taken concrete steps to do so by hiring more communications and policy specialists and more frequently collaborating and engaging with politicians and government agencies. As borne out in the Foundation Review, evaluation of these efforts is necessary in order to gauge how effective the current strategies and programs are and what can be done to improve them. With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the need for these steps has become ever more apparent.
For further reading, the book Seen But Not Heard: Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy (published by the Aspen Institute) presents the findings of a multi-year research project called the Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project (SNAP), conducted by OMB Watch, Tufts University, and the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest and offers specific suggestions that nonprofit leaders can take to strengthen their organization’s advocacy work.