Advisers’ perspectives – Philanthropy, advocacy and systemic change

Judith Symonds

If the principal goals of philanthropy are to help resolve societal problems, serve the ‘public good’ and bring about sustainable systemic change, then advocacy is an essential element in achieving these goals. Indeed, Gara La Marche, former president of Atlantic Philanthropies, believes that ‘funding advocacy and advocates is the most direct route to supporting enduring social change for the poor, the disenfranchised and the most vulnerable among us, including the youngest and oldest in our communities.’[1]

This is not to say that all philanthropists and all foundations should support or engage in advocacy, but that advocacy is a necessary part of a comprehensive strategy addressing most challenges facing society today. Helping their clients decide whether to support advocacy – and if so, how – is an important role for philanthropy advisers.

There is increasing recognition in the philanthropy sector that public resources far exceed philanthropic ones and that the best use of philanthropic assets is to change public policy and help public sector investment be more effective. This shifting paradigm is in part the influence of the more engaged entrepreneurial and venture philanthropists, anxious to effect change, and in part due to heightened awareness of the connectedness of global issues.

Advocacy is not a new field for philanthropists, but it is growing in practice and understanding, in Europe as well as in the US. On the global stage, high-profile campaigns around disease pandemics, vaccination, climate change, debt relief, ocean fishing moratoriums, Zero Mercury and reducing hunger are seeing impressive, lasting and measurable results. Foundations such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Robert Wood Johnson, Oak, Atlantic Philanthropies and Sigrid Rausing Trust have invested significantly in the advocacy aspects of these initiatives. As an adviser I am seeing that others, particularly in Europe, are considering shifting a significant part of their portfolios to advocacy in hopes of accelerating change, bringing it to scale and making it more lasting.

The adviser has a distinct role to play both in laying out the strategic options and in ensuring that the donor is aware of the risks and rewards and chooses the most appropriate advocacy option, whether it’s as an extension of an existing programme investment, designed to enhance its impact by improving the policy environment, or an investment in public policy change to help bring an approach to national or global scale.

Of course there are risks and rewards. The measurements, returns and expectations are necessarily different from those associated with service delivery. Affecting the public policy arena involves many unpredictable factors so the risk of failure or only partial achievement is very real. Evaluation is possible (changed legislation, re-allocation of public funds), but outcomes take longer to materialize. There are also reputational risks, as every advocacy campaign involves opposition.

On the other hand, changing a policy environment can end a disease, a health risk or a human rights violation forever. On-the-ground projects and research cannot achieve this alone. Advisers who have experience in the advocacy field can help a foundation evaluate these risks and rewards and judge how advocacy might or might not help fulfil their mission.

As advisers, we help clients understand the decision-making landscape and environment of a policy issue; guide them as they think through the best approach to take (from policy research to public education and direct lobbying); highlight legal constraints in any jurisdiction and the best advocacy organizations and advisers to use; discuss how to prepare their brief, set monitoring and evaluation milestones, and determine what degree of involvement to have.

The involvement of trustees is an important consideration. The success of an advocacy initiative can derive great additional impetus from the credibility and distinction of its supporters, who in turn attract other philanthropic investment and political (small and large ‘p’) support. Indeed, advocacy initiatives are most successfully undertaken by coalitions of funders.

Of course, not all advocacy efforts work, but when they do they can help affect systemic change. Encouraging donors to support advocacy is among the most rewarding aspects of being a philanthropy adviser.

1 Investing in Change: Why supporting advocacy makes sense for foundations, Atlantic Philanthropies, 2008.

Judith Symonds is director of JCS International, philanthropy and strategy advisors, and a former lobbyist. Email

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