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New Insights From The Atlantic Philanthropies Show Foundations and Nonprofits How to Adapt in a Changing Political Climate

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Julia Coffman and Tanya Beer, Center for Evaluation Innovation

As The Atlantic Philanthropies’ grantmaking comes to a close, new insights across key advocacy topics will help to ensure that learning from Atlantic’s past work can be applied in today’s rapidly changing environment.

The Atlas Learning Project, led by the Center for Evaluation Innovation in partnership with other advocacy and policy experts, was conceived as an initiative to draw on Atlantic’s grantmaking – and that of other funders – over the last decade, spanning several high-profile campaigns and issues.

Today, after more than two years of research and nearly 200 interviews, Atlas is a resource for lessons from advocacy and policy change efforts that Atlantic and other funders have supported in the U.S., with the goal of helping to push philanthropy and advocacy in bolder and more effective directions.

At the Center, we work with many foundations that engage in public policy advocacy as a means for scaling the solutions they support. After reflecting on our own experiences evaluating philanthropic advocacy strategies over the last 15 years, we keep coming back to the same conclusion – philanthropy needs a reality check.

Specifically, foundations need to consider, develop and deploy a wider and bolder set of approaches to how they support advocacy and policy change.

In Philanthropy in a Time of Polarization, political scientists Steven Teles, Heather Hurlburt, and Mark Schmitt warn that the policy strategies foundations have historically used are no longer effective during this time of political polarization and hyper-partisanship. Foundations can no longer rely on traditional, risk-averse advocacy strategies to achieve policy change. In this current political landscape, funders must learn from each other so that they can become effective advocates on the issues they care about.

To help funders adapt to this changing political climate, the Atlas Learning Project recently published a suite of resources on 501(c)(4) engagement, legal advocacy, policy advocacy and capacity building, policy implementation, advocacy funder collaboratives, communications support in advocacy strategies, and more. Access these resources in order to:

Understand the role of 501(c)(4) organizations and engaging them effectively. 501(c)(4) organizations can engage in a broader range of lobbying and electoral activities than their 501(c)(3) counterparts. They also can provide disenfranchised communities and constituencies with a louder voice in the political process. Even foundations that cannot support 501(c)(4) efforts directly can shape their advocacy strategies and supports in ways that better consider 501(c)(4) organizations and their important role in the political mix.

Utilize legal advocacy approaches and strategic litigation as another pathway for change. Funders can be leery of getting involved in the perceived risks and costs of legal advocacy. They see high-profile court cases as the only option. But going to court is not the only way to engage. There are many ways to support legal advocacy, including funding legal education, research, communications, collaboration and community organizing, along with actual litigation or the implementation of a legal change.

Learn how theory and tactics change when moving from a policy win to implementation. Foundation strategies tend to focus on getting a new policy adopted, often legislatively. Once the win happens, victory is claimed in board rooms and funders move on to other priorities. But typically that win is just the start of a new advocacy battle. Once a policy moves to implementation, new decisions arise – with new players, obstacles and challenges. Advocates must shore up policies and mitigate possible threats through rulemaking processes, regulatory structures and administrative advocacy.

Navigate the sticking points that often bog down collaboration among advocacy funders. Funders are always being told to collaborate in order to increase their chances of success. There is good logic in this given the frequency with which advocates need to pivot in order to succeed. Still, funder collaboratives can seem easier to avoid, especially in the advocacy space. They’re time consuming and complex, and can raise risks given the varied interests, goals and public profiles of participating foundations. There is strength in numbers, however, and collaboration enables advocates to prepare for and pursue different but coordinated pathways to change instead of placing all of their bets on one approach.

Integrate effective communications supports for advocacy initiatives. Many foundations – including some of the largest funders with dedicated communications staff – still struggle to integrate smart communications support into their grant strategies, particularly with advocacy initiatives. Lessons from select case studies can show funders how to better incorporate effective, adaptive communications support for advocacy work from the start.

Strategize about how to support policy campaigns while also building lasting advocacy capacity. Unlike most advocates, funders have the luxury of setting discrete goals and timeframes for their advocacy support. When those timelines are over, new goals and strategies typically follow, often with a new set of partners and grantees. Grantmakers who fund policy campaigns without also thinking about how their funding choices affect long-term advocacy capacity risk leaving policy progress vulnerable to backtracking, or leave advocates no better prepared for the next battle. A better approach is to support policy campaigns and advocacy capacity in tandem.

To learn more about Atlas Learning Project, please visit atlaslearning.org


Julia Coffman founded the Center for Evaluation Innovation. She has more than 20 years of experience as an evaluator, and now specializes in the evaluation of advocacy, public policy, and systems change efforts.

Tanya Beer is Associate Director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation, where she helps to lead the Center’s work, with a particular focus in the areas of systems change and advocacy evaluation.

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