Friday, May 27, 2011

Advocacy and Collaboration—The Two Secret Ingredients for Leveraging Your Philanthropy

Part II of a three part series about "Philanthropy and Policy"

By Lea M. Johnson, Grant Writer and Advisor, LMJ Consulting

Imagine the difference it would make if you could bring the best and brightest people together who are committed to your issue to create lasting social change. Advocacy does exactly that. Advocacy has the power to change people’s lives and the course of entire communities. It should be one strategy you employ to leverage your philanthropy.

The examples of advocacy that inspire me are the ones that take seemingly basic issues, drill down to examine root causes and barriers, and then work to remove those barriers. The following two stories of philanthropic advocacy come from Minnesota grantmakers—the Northwest Area Foundation and the Blandin Foundation. The success of these projects can be attributed to the unique collaboration that brought donors, nonprofit agencies, community organizations, and policy makers to the same conversation to find solutions to a community problem. By bringing multiple voices to the table, these philanthropic organizations found that their funding efforts went further to achieve innovative, large-scale, and lasting solutions.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, Kevin Walker, president of the Northwest Area Foundation, shared stories with me about his organization’s work. I also chatted with several other community leaders to further explore the topic of “convening conversations.” I am excited to share my conversations with you.

“We Help Bring Them to the Table”
Last year in Montana, advocacy groups and policy makers collaborated to rid the state of predatory lenders—makers of “payday” loans. Payday loans ensnare poor people in a cycle of high-interest borrowing, where interest rates can reach 400%. The average payday borrower pays about $800 for a $300 short-term loan.

Attempts to cap the interest rates payday lenders could charge had previously failed in Montana’s legislature four times—2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009. In 2010, the strategy was
different. Grassroots organizations obtained the nearly 25,000 signatures needed to put the Payday Lending Ballot Initiative before the general electorate. The initiative passed with overwhelming bipartisan voter support, with 75% of voters casting in its favor. A month later, payday lenders from Billings to Butte had shuttered their storefronts and left the state.

Montana State Representative Michele Reinhart (D- MT 97th District) explains how the collaboration worked: “There were many groups and individuals who came together to hold predatory lenders accountable via a ballot initiative, including the Montana Women’s Foundation, Montana Women Vote, and M&R Strategic Services. They asked community leaders to do our part. I joined Rep. Sue Malek (D-MT 98th District) in a guest opinion piece in support of the initiative, and I encouraged voters to support the initiative as I campaigned door to door. While my role was small, every bit helps. All it takes is reaching out to people, including elected officials, educating them, and asking them to help advance the cause.”

The Northwest Area Foundation was one of the resources the coalition sought to support its effort. Walker describes the foundation’s role in supporting the conversation: “We gave general operating grants to nonprofits involved in the coalition. It provided organizational capacity to do the work. . . . We didn’t set the agenda, but we did help bring them to the table so they could have the conversation. Our approach is to fund local groups who are working on the ground. It’s effective because it’s grassroots.”

Representative Reinhart encourages people working on such issues to bring as much brain
power to the table as possible, and, when it’s time to engage policy makers, “to use your network of colleagues to set a meeting. Or, if you don’t have a connection, just pick up the phone and reach out. It’s as simple as that.”

“The Elephant in the Room”
The Blandin Foundation also subscribes to “bringing people to the table” and participates actively in community conversations.

Ten years ago, Blandin began leading the charge to improve early childhood education in its northern Minnesota community. The foundation convened a community group with representatives from every sector—from educators, doctors, and business leaders to preachers, parents, and pregnant teens—to determine barriers for educational readiness and success.

According to Mary Kosak, Blandin program officer, “It took us awhile, but in examining the issues with community members and nonprofit partners, we finally began to talk about the Elephant in the Room. The families and kids that we want to help need more than just early childhood education. They need healthcare, transportation, adult education services. They need, well, everything.” While there were state and county funding streams to support several of these services, they were all siloed, requiring families to submit multiple application forms to access each support service. The process was just too cumbersome.

From these conversations, Invest Early initiative was born. Invest Early blends public and private resources to deliver wrap around support to children and families. It is composed of
seemingly disparate partners, including Kootasca Head Start, four school districts, public health services, and Itasca Community College. However, together they create comprehensive services for their families and kids.

To make access easier, the Blandin Foundation’s partners worked closely with staff at Itasca County to problem-solve the application process. Now, a single screening process and streamlined application bring children and families into the program. Working with the county on an administrative level has reduced barriers to accessing services.

Invest Early shows potential for being a model for early childhood education improvement. The Blandin Foundation has committed to a longitudinal study that will monitor the outcomes for Invest Early children over the next 30 years. Blandin anticipates not just better school readiness and graduation rates, but reduced incarceration, stronger families, and a more vibrant cultural, social, and business community. As they continue to tweak the program and monitor its results, the Invest Early model shows promise that could benefit children far beyond northern Minnesota.

Blandin’s Invest Early project has gained interest at the state legislature. This legislative session, the School Readiness Coalition (another collaboration that brings together philanthropic and nonprofit partners) invited Invest Early leadership to testify before the Education Finance Committee. Frank Forsberg of the Twin Cities United Way, a leader in the coalition, explains that a state office of Early Learning would align resources within three Minnesota Departments:
Education, Health, and Human Service. Streamlining the offices will create greater efficiency and stronger outcomes in early learning, in much the same way that Invest Early does. The coalition continues to have conversations with the commissioners of those departments. Long-term, this type of conversation has the potential to improve early learning outcomes for children across Minnesota.

“Look at the Return on Investment”
Bringing people together, convening conversations, and mutually engaging in policy improvement can change the course of entire communities. It’s powerful stuff. According to Marcia Avner, a nationally respected public policy expert, “Advocacy and policy work should be one strategy for meeting [philanthropic] mission.” Why? “Look at the return on investment.” It is exponentially higher than funding direct service alone.

Marcia offered a slew of resources on public policy and advocacy strategies, which I will share in my next blog. In the meantime, consider this: The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy recently analyzed the return on investment of public policy and civic engagement work in our state. The committee tracked Minnesota foundations that invested $16.5 million in grants to 15 Minnesota nonprofits engaged in advocacy and collaboration from 2004 to 2008. According to its measurements, those investments had a net $2.28 billion impact on the state. Since we can’t plan on that kind of exponential return on investment in the stock market, it is smart money to invest in the two secret ingredients—advocacy and collaboration.

Coming up next, a closer look at the IRS rules on advocacy and lobbying, as well as strategies for employing advocacy as a tactic for meeting mission.

About Lea:

Lea M. Johnson has two decades of experience as both a grantmaker and grantseeker. For seven years, she served as a program officer and manager for a $42 million family foundation. Over the last fourteen years, she has raised millions of dollars in corporate and foundation grants for nonprofit organizations.

She serves as Principal at LMJ Consulting and can contacted at

1 comment:

Kate said...

Thanks for the great advice!