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No More Half Measures: The Case for Bigger, Bolder Advocacy Support

April 2017

Scott Downes, Senior Consultant, Center for Evaluation Innovation

Few issues illustrate the realities of advocacy and policy change as fully as the arc of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). While health reform advocates and supporters hailed the enactment of the ACA as an historic moment seven years ago, its passage into law was not the “cheerful ending point that some might have expected” (Booth 2016). Instead, it was one juncture—albeit an important one—in a years-long policy debate that is yet to be fully resolved. The challenge for philanthropy is that this example is more the rule than the exception. Few if any policy wins are conclusive; it is rare that these efforts simply end with a bill signing or a court decision.

Advocates are accustomed to navigating the short-term ups and downs with the long-term shifts of policy change. Funders, however, often set discrete goals and timeframes for their advocacy support, suspend advocacy investments in the aftermath of what they see as a win, and shift to new goals and strategies, often with a new set of partners and grantees. The consequence is that grantmakers who fund policy campaigns without concurrently thinking about how their funding choices affect long-term advocacy capacity risk leaving policy wins vulnerable to backtracking, or leaving advocates no better prepared for the next policy fight.

These are the central topics addressed in the brief No More Half Measures: Five Ways Foundations Can Better Support Policy Campaigns and Build Lasting Capacity, which was published last fall as part of the Atlas Learning Project, an initiative coordinated by the Center for Evaluation Innovation to synthesize and share lessons from the advocacy and policy change efforts that The Atlantic Philanthropies and other funders have supported in the United States. Based on interviews with foundation staff, advocates, evaluators, and other experts, the brief outlines how and why funders should consider supporting both policy campaigns and advocacy capacity, not just one or the other.

As some funders are prone to risk-averse approaches like relying solely on research support or capacity-building, the findings from No More Half Measures suggest funders should take a fresh look at their strategies and assess whether they are likely to have an impact in today’s political context.

There are several ways for foundations to be more holistic, intentional, aggressive, and adaptive—both in their own approach to advocacy support, and in how they equip and resource advocates to do their work effectively.

The overriding theme from the Atlas Learning Project’s extensive research, which included hundreds of interviews, is that the most successful advocacy funders clearly understand their role in the broader ecosystem of policy change, frequently reassess the impact their strategies are likely to have in various political contexts, and consider incorporating a wide range of approaches in order to increase advocacy effectiveness and promote more lasting policy change.

For example, funders can anticipate the investments necessary to monitor and ensure successful policy implementation, which was recently addressed in a paper from ORS Impact. Funders can explore a range of activities ripe for additional philanthropic support, including legal advocacy, strategic litigation, and the context of social justice issues in today’s court system, as outlined in several briefs from TCC Group and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. Funders can also better engage 501c4 organizations in lifting up marginalized voices in policy debates, strengthening democratic participation, and paying attention to electoral strategies, as explored in a series of publications from Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy Initiative.

To better prepare for the dynamic nature of the policy environment, No More Half Measures suggests that funders consider five key dos and don’ts:

  1. Don’t let short-term or arbitrary timelines shape your approach to advocacy. Be explicit about where your grant support is situated in the longer timeframe needed to achieve a policy goal.
  2. Don’t underestimate your role within the field. Deeply engage so you can understand the players, funding landscape, and the political context. Identify what support advocates need, but are not getting. Be expedient in how you make grant-related choices.
  3. Don’t structure grants in a static way. Make sure your funding is adaptive and durable enough to evolve with advocates’ capacity needs and the demands of the policymaking process.
  4. Don’t just look at either capacity or policy results when considering evaluation approaches. Frame dual goals and outcomes upfront for your board that relate to both increased capacity and to policy progress on a realistic timeline.
  5. Don’t just guess what capacity needs exist, or fund them separately from advocacy work. Make capacity decisions with advocates, and build on them over time.

It is increasingly clear that advocacy and policy change is deeply entrenched in and dependent on political institutions and the political process. This is the perfect time for foundations to furnish themselves with a broad range of tools, helping to ensure that the fights we have always had will not be the fights we always have.


 

References:

Booth, Michael. “Could Foundations Have Mounted A Better Defense of the ACA?” Health Affairs, September 14, 2016, http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2016/09/14/could-foundations-have-mounted-a-better-defense-of-the-aca/