Leading the Way on Advocacy

(The following post was authored by Sheila Babb Anderson and originally published on the Funders Together to End Homelessness blog on January 15, 2016)

Advocacy is a powerful tool to utilize in the work to end and prevent homelessness as it can educate, engage, and build essential relationships. And as funders, we can, and should, be a leading example.

If you don’t ask, the answer’s always no.

This is an old community organizing tenet that all nonprofits need to adopt. And one, that as a funder, I continuously remind my grantees on why they need to have bold advocacy plans.

I am relatively new to the foundation world. Prior to my time at the Campion Advocacy Fund, I worked for the United States Senate for over a decade. In that time, I came in contact with hundreds of organizations looking for resources from the federal government to help with needs in their community. Even with federal budgets shrinking during the recession, there were opportunities to identify local projects and match them up with federal grants and other funding.

As funders working to end homelessness, we know that our organizations don’t have the resources to give a home to everyone who needs one, or fix every problem that puts people at risk of experiencing homelessness. We need to partner with governments at the local, state, and federal levels and encourage them to do more if we are going to make homelessness rare, brief and one-time. Our elected leaders are often confronted with the false refrain that homelessness is an inevitable fact of life in our communities. It is our responsibility to encourage them to come to the table with a renewed sense that together, government, philanthropy, service providers, and local communities can get people off the streets, out of shelters, and into permanent and affordable housing.

This is where advocacy comes in. If we ever want to increase the money government is spending on the problem we all want to solve, we need to start encouraging and funding organizations to advocate on behalf of homeless programs. Advocacy is not only an essential function to ensure our grantees have sustainable funding, but it is also a key component to a broader solution and response system in our communities.

YouthCare, a Campion Foundation grantee, is an excellent example of how important it is for nonprofits to participate in advocacy. YouthCare provides a broad range of services to youth ages 16-24 who are experiencing homelessness in Seattle, including shelter, education, job training and counseling. In 2014, 59% of its revenue came from government sources. A strong advocacy agenda allows YouthCare to inform decision makers about the work that they are doing and what else is needed for them to be successful. As a funder, how can I not pay attention to an activity that protects over half of my grantee’s work?

Not only does advocacy help maintain funding for the work YouthCare is already doing, it also leads to new opportunities. Last year, YouthCare’s youth advocates successfully lobbied the City of Seattle to create a preferred hiring program for the graduates of its YouthBuild program, employing alumni in city infrastructure projects. Partnerships like these create better outcomes for our programs and open new pathways for youth to succeed. Without the additional advocacy effort, partnerships like these may have never happened.

As a funder, I want to invest in nonprofits who are both innovative and fiscally sound. Advocacy is a critical tool for organizations to demonstrate both of those traits. However, many nonprofits are afraid to ask for advocacy capacity and don’t want it to interfere with their general operating support. I encourage you to start the conversation with your grantees about their needs to conduct advocacy on behalf of their organizations.

Finally, I challenge other funders to educate themselves about the legal scope of advocacy. The Funder Toolkit on the Funders Together website provides a dedicated section to advocacy for funders, including a resource on Legal Limitations on Lobbying. Furthermore, there are fantastic resources available for foundations and nonprofits from the Alliance for Justice, including those through the Bolder Advocacy Project. They have tools to help us navigate the rules around advocacy and suggestions on how our grantees can effectively incorporate advocacy into their work.

Advocacy is an incredibly important tool for nonprofits and foundations alike. Let’s help lead the way!