04/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Foundations and Advocacy: New Focus in the Wake of Supreme Court Ruling?

Will the Supreme Court ruling giving corporations a greater political voice focus the minds of funders who support policy advocacy?

Many foundations now see the impact of policy advocacy. What is less clear, according to the most recent issue of the Foundation Review, is if foundations appreciate the importance of supporting advocacy for a larger social change strategy. Foundations also seem unsure how much of an investment they are willing to make in a policy advocacy's evaluation. The recent Supreme Court ruling which allows corporations to spend more money on political campaigns may change this perspective.

The latest issue of the Foundation Review offers a number of research papers with instructions for foundations working in the public policy realm. In particular, a paper from Innovation Network's Johanna Morariu and Kathleen Brennan notes that three-quarters of advocacy organizations have not evaluated their work, and more than 80 percent of them have never worked with an outside evaluator. What advocacy strategies are appropriate in what contexts? What combination of organizational capacities are most important? What are the most meaningful interim indicators in the journey from grassroots organizations to sweeping social change? The authors say these question can't be completely answered without greater support from foundations for advocacy evaluation. Morariu and Brennan go on to identify the key qualities of an effective advocacy funder, which include the usual suspects of offering extended grant cycles, support for program evaluation, and general operating support to enable grantees to respond flexibly to changing circumstances.

Another paper in the Foundation Review offers specific insights for foundations working to influence policy across the U.S. Ann Whitney Breihan of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland focus on a multi-state program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation which has impacted national policies regarding the care for developmentally disabled adults. Among her suggestions: To build momentum for a particular policy, resist temptation to fund states scattered across the country and instead focus on regional funding. Her study shows that states are more likely to "follow the pack" in their own region. She also says funders should focus on giving money to states that have already demonstrated interest -- by spending their own funds -- in a particular policy area. These states are more likely to consider further innovation in policy.

In general, philanthropists may be less hesitant to help define the voice of the social sector. Noting the success of highly strategic politically conservative foundations, other funders across the political spectrum have come to believe that nonprofits and foundations need to gain a greater voice when it comes to public policy. Many have taken concrete steps to do so by hiring more communications and policy specialists and collaborating with politicians and government agencies. In the Foundation Review evaluation, one can see how necessary it is to gauge the current strategies effectiveness and what can be done to improve them. With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the need for these steps has become ever more apparent.

For further reading, the book Seen but Not Heard: Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy (published by the Aspen Institute) presents the findings of a multi-year research project called the Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project (SNAP), conducted by OMB Watch, Tufts University, and the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest. The book offers specific suggestions for nonprofit leaders to strengthen their organization's advocacy work.