By Todd Cohen
Advocacy work is fundamental to democracy, can generate a big payoff, and represents a key task for many nonprofits.
But nonprofits also can find it tough to raise money to pay for advocacy work.
Research and watchdog groups that track it report that advocacy funding can produce a big impact on social change, but that it also has suffered during the economic downturn.
The challenge for advocacy groups is to do a better job helping funders and individual donors understand the need for fixing flawed public policies, as well as the difference their support can have on addressing urgent social and global problems.
Overall charitable giving in the U.S. totaled over $290 billion in 2011, according to Giving USA, but advocacy funding represents only a tiny share of those dollars.
In 2009, for example, grantmaking to U.S.-based nonprofits that work for structural change to improve opportunity for the most vulnerable populations totaled just $3.1 billion, according to a report from the Foundation Center.
And the recession simply made it tougher to raise money for advocacy work, a decline that likely will continue, the Foundation Center says.
Yet advocacy funding can make a big impact.
Over three years, for example, at least 321 foundations and other donors gave $231 million to 110 groups in 13 states, according to a recent report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.
The groups that received that funding, it says, leveraged it to generate $26.6 billion in benefits for communities and taxpayers.
Drop in funding
But a separate report, from the Foundation Center, says grants to groups in the U.S. that work for structural change to improve opportunity for the most vulnerable populations fell sharply during the recession, a decline that likely will continue.
And a third report, also from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, says environmental funders do not give enough for advocacy work to protect low-income areas and communities of color from environmental damage.
Many nonprofits, including advocacy groups, tend to rely too heavily on support from foundations, yet those funders account for only 14 percent of overall giving in the U.S.
What’s more, too few foundations are willing to make grants to support basic operations, and that is the kind of support all nonprofits, including advocacy groups need.
In fact, several studies in recent years found, in comparing foundation support for conservative and liberal advocacy groups, that conservative groups tended to be more effective because they received a lot of operating grants, while liberal groups were not so effective because a lot of their grants were tied to specific programs.
In comparison to foundation support, individuals account for nearly 90 percent of all giving, including giving by living donors as well as those who give through wills and family foundations,
And charitable giving for generations has represented roughly 2 percent of gross domestic product, reflecting consistent growth in giving as the economy has grown.
So advocacy groups have a big opportunity to develop better relationships with individual donors and secure more funding for the work they do.
The challenge for all nonprofits, including advocacy groups, is to connect with individual donors, understand what they care about, help them understand critical needs, and show them how their support will help address the problems they care about.