Foundation support of activism a good investment

[Editor’s note: A longer version of this article appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.]

Pablo Eisenberg
Pablo Eisenberg

Pablo Eisenberg

A new report that documents the dollar benefits that advocacy groups provide to society should put to rest much of the anxiety that foundations have had about supporting activist nonprofit activities.

At a time when the drop in endowment values has prodded foundations to look more carefully than ever at the way they spend money, the findings demonstrate a greater investment in advocacy work will help foundations make every dollar go further.

A tiny fraction of all foundation spending today goes to advocacy activities.

The study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy documents extraordinary accomplishments by 14 New Mexico groups from 2003 through 2007.

The report demonstrates it is possible to measure the difference made by advocacy campaigns and other efforts to mobilize citizens to influence public policies.

The study’s findings are striking: For every $1 of the $16.6 million invested in advocacy work, New Mexico’s citizens received $157 in benefits.

That is true bang for the buck.

For years, most foundations have shied away from supporting activist causes and organizations.

Some foundations worry that financing activism could prompt lawmakers and regulators to go further in restricting foundation activities or taking other steps that could undermine the independence of philanthropic institutions.

Other foundations say that such grantmaking is too risky, and too removed from the interests of their trustees.

Yet others believe organizing and advocacy activities cannot be controlled or held accountable by foundation supporters.

And many have argued that at a time when foundations are increasingly focusing on the effectiveness of their grants, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine the value of public-policy and advocacy efforts, particularly over time.

The New Mexico study seriously undermines that contention.

Moreover, it reveals a broad range of nonprofit, largely grass-roots organizations that have accomplished enormous public-policy successes with the support of government officials, community leaders, coalitions of nonprofit groups, and people who are typically left on the sidelines, especially those who are needy or are minority-group members.

It also shows how a few foundations that were willing to go against the grain and support advocacy made a difference.

By working within the democratic process, the New Mexico advocacy groups have demonstrated what can be done responsibly to widen the channels of civic participation, open leadership opportunities to those previously left out of the system, and bring increased benefits to the public at large as well as to constituencies at risk.

This is in the good old-fashioned American tradition.

So what have foundations been afraid of?

The report also documents that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

The report found that foundation support was crucial to the organizing and advocacy activities of the 14 organizations in the study.

What is surprising is that the bulk of the money provided to 12 of the 14 groups came from national foundations.

No more than eight of New Mexico’s 234 foundations gave the organizations any money.

Perhaps the state’s grantmakers will muster some wisdom and courage to support the advocacy and organizing efforts that have had such an astonishing impact on the state.

And foundations elsewhere should learn the lessons cited in the report:

Spending money on activism can be measured; it can be safe; and for every dollar spent, the return on investment is substantial.

Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and board member at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

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