Better together? A user’s guide to funding advocacy coalitions

David Devlin-Foltz

Caroline Hartnell, editor of Alliance, asked me to suggest some guidelines for funding advocacy coalitions, drawing on our work as planning and evaluation advisers to foundations and their advocacy grantees – who often work through coalitions of groups that join forces to promote policy changes. How can funders help such advocacy coalitions reach their potential? How can they help their advocacy grantees be ‘better together’? And how can they avoid doing harm?

If the suggestion that funders might do harm seems far-fetched, consider the following: members of a funder-driven coalition may not have initially chosen to work together, and they are likely also to be competitors for resources.

Why support advocacy coalitions?

The first question is why should funders support advocacy coalitions at all? The conventional wisdom in response is, well, wise – coalitions offer the potential for outreach to more constituencies; a greater range of tactical strengths; more diverse perspectives on the issue; and greater credibility with decision-makers.

Advocates need to know who can make the desired change happen – this is their target audience. Members of this target audience may work in town halls, provincial governments, parliaments or UN agencies; they may sit in corporate boardrooms and executive suites; they may be elected or appointed. Sometimes a single advocate or advocacy group can provide all the persuasion needed. But coalitions can bring the diversity of voices that convinces policymakers or business leaders to accept changes in laws, regulations or specific behaviours.

It may require a full range of voices and tactics to put an ignored issue on the radar screen – a necessary first step to build political will for change, develop a well-crafted policy response, recruit an influential champion, or create pressure for the funding and attention needed to implement an existing law. Each of these policy objectives requires successful outreach to different audiences, with a different set of tools and tactics: protest rallies, product boycotts, letters, emails, visits from a delegation representing an influential constituency, a quiet call from a major donor. Decision-makers may change course after reading an editorial in a well-regarded publication or seeing a skilfully placed television commercial. Most often, successful advocacy relies on a combination of many tactics, carefully orchestrated.

Few organizations can single-handedly address this bewildering variety of policy objectives, audiences and tactics. For advocates and funders alike, the advantages of working through coalitions appear obvious. Coalitions can bring together groups with strong connections to a range of policymakers. Member groups may be rooted in a variety of constituencies, and they may each have mastered distinct tactics.

Some suggestions for successfully supporting advocacy coalitions

So making grants to coalitions to achieve policy change seems to be good policy for foundations. But funding an advocacy coalition has its own special risks and challenges. Here are a few suggestions about how to mitigate those risks, based on our experience as strategists, funders and evaluators of advocacy coalitions – and as victims of funding done badly.

Do no harm
Funders can inadvertently damage the internal coherence of coalitions if they fail to think through how funds will be distributed to coalition members. If the foundation plans to award its grant to a single group serving as secretariat to a coalition, the programme officer should clarify the basis on which funds will be allocated to other members. If the grantee is providing services to the coalition as a whole – like maintaining a website or conducting research on policy options – funders should make sure that other coalition members have had authentic opportunities to identify activities that will add value to their collective work. Check back with members periodically, and do so transparently.

Remember as well that a funder-driven, funder-arranged coalition resembles an arranged marriage. It may work out beautifully, but there is a good chance that the parties themselves might have chosen different partners – and lived more happily ever after. One funder we know brought grantees with the same advocacy goal together, but told them they had the option to go their own ways.

Value contribution, not attribution

Coalition members may collaborate – such at least is our hope – but they are probably also competitors for resources. Resources are never adequate, nor is credit for a job well done. Everyone will want their name on the press release trumpeting passage of the new law or withdrawal of a harmful product. Everyone will want to serve as the media contact or stand at the podium. An experienced coalition leader told us that failing to acknowledge and address competition for funding and public recognition is the number one killer of coalitions. We have seen it happen, and it’s sad. As a funder, suggest that the coalition create norms for addressing competition when it arises.

Most importantly, do your part. When funders attempt to attribute change to one grantee among many members of a coalition, they are probably mistaken.  As we know, much successful advocacy work relies on many strategies, skilfully deployed. Seeking to attribute success to just one party deepens competition. It can lead to claims and counter-claims, followed by a family feud that undercuts future collaboration. Funders can help by dropping attribution as their standard of grantee success. They can instead ask grantees for a credible, defensible claim to have contributed to positive change. When grantmakers value contributions, so will grantees. Coalitions will be less likely to suffer from this particular brand of destructive competition.

Understand the wild, uncontrollable context
Policy change is a messy, complex process. Even the best-designed strategy can be knocked sideways by unpredictable external changes. Imagine, for example, a coalition of gay marriage opponents in the United States who might have built a state-level campaign around the expected support of a socially conservative male Senator who loudly championed their cause – until he was accused by an undercover male detective of propositioning the officer for sex in the men’s bathroom at an airport. Imagine the plight of a labour union coalition marshalling an expensive media and grassroots campaign to push for an increase in the minimum wage, just as the economy falters and companies lay off thousands of low-wage workers. Both coalitions’ strategies might have appeared perfectly sound when the proposals and strategic plans were developed, but factors beyond their control put their policy objective out of reach.

Funders who simply dismiss these projects as failures miss an opportunity to assess something quite different – did the grantees develop better networks of contacts in the Capitol? Did they attract new allies useful for future efforts? Can the campaign materials be recycled for a future effort when the policy window opens again?

Learn with your grantees
The gloriously complex process of policy change will rarely go as planned. Even the smartest, most strategic philanthropists may be surprised by the twists and turns that advocacy campaigns take. Advocates in the trenches may understand better how to adapt to changes in context than a funder far away from the action. The most evolved philanthropoids are smart enough to listen and learn with their grantees as they adapt their strategies to new conditions. For programme officers, directors and their trustees, such ‘strategic learning’ requires some humility. That is a virtue much to be prized.

Measure what is meaningful
The most useful strategic learning processes begin before the advocacy campaign. Careful planning can lay out the coalition’s assumptions about what needs to be done, by whom, when, and to what desired effect. The coalition’s efforts to build their capacity and execute their tactics usually lend themselves to clearly measurable objectives: we can see how many new e-advocates have signed on, for example; we can count how many new legislative sponsors have been added; we can count the number of blog postings that include the message points the coalition sought to underscore in its press releases.

Progress towards actual policy change is harder to capture. Harder – but not impossible. The planning process should include identifying a few meaningful landmarks that are within the coalition’s capacity to measure, and that can permit us to learn and adjust strategy. Uncertainty will remain, of course, and accepting this uncertainty requires, again, some humility – from grantmaker and coalition members alike.

Build trust
The power relationship between funders and grantees is unequal – it is ever thus. Funders who are willing to practise a little humility and listen to coalition members as they plan, assess and adjust their strategy can build up the kind of trust between grantmaker and grantee that facilitates honest exchange. When funders and advocates approach advocacy projects as an opportunity to learn as they go, grantees are far more likely to admit when the going gets tough. Heightened trust between funder and grantee can carry over to relationships within the coalition. When coalition members know that they can count on the funder to understand the complexity of their task, they are less likely to claim ‘attribution’ for what is in fact a contribution to the shared outcome. That heightens trust within the coalition – and its effectiveness.

In sum, if you are a funder of advocacy coalitions, you must remember that you – and they – are in it together. Listen well. Learn well. Fund well.

David Devlin-Foltz directs the Advocacy Planning and Evaluation Program at The Aspen Institute and its affiliate, Continuous Progress Strategic Services. Email

Further reading

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Analysis to read

Civil society vs markets – a false dichotomy?

David Bonbright