Earlier this year, we announced the first-ever group of grantees for Washington Women’s Foundation’s (WaWF) new Advocacy Grant. As the co-chair for the Advocacy Grant committee, I was grateful that we had an opportunity to recognize nonprofits whose impactful advocacy work strengthens their communities.
As a grantmaking committee, we were most interested in understanding community needs and how organizations are addressing those needs through advocacy. We wanted to support and collectively invest in organizations that are reflective of and embedded in the communities they serve, draw on the strengths and assets of these communities, and are accountable to these communities in order to achieve the long-term goals of increasing equity and reducing disparities. We wanted to focus on funding organizations that:
- Advocate for people affected by inequity due to race and/or gender identity;
- Are accountable to the people being served; and
- Address systemic racial and/or gender inequities in the areas of school-to-prison pipeline; mental health and housing, and community cultural preservation.
The Advocacy Grant committee comprised both WaWF members, as well as community members who work with or for nonprofit organizations engaging in advocacy work. The perspectives the community members shared from their learned experiences challenged the rest of us to think differently about how we define advocacy and evaluate grantees.
Our biggest challenge as a committee was aligning on a definition of advocacy. Prior to the grant cycle, WaWF had defined advocacy as “work that seeks to advance an idea, argue a position, and/or enrich the debate about an issue of public concern. This could include education, research, litigation, campaigning, or nonpartisan political work.” As we started to review Letters of Inquiry (LOIs), we quickly realized that this definition wasn’t expansive enough—for example, it didn’t cover community organizing, a more grassroots form of advocacy work that many organizations who had submitted LOIs were doing.
From my time working at a nonprofit, I had come to think of lobbying as a “dirty word”—something that most foundations wouldn’t fund. Through our training with Bolder Advocacy, we learned that WaWF could absolutely (and definitely should!) fund nonprofits that advocate and lobby. Lobbying can be a really strategic part of their advocacy work—since, as Bolder Advocacy pointed out, government can achieve scale that philanthropy alone cannot.
We learned that, while 501(c)3 public foundations and charities can’t engage in partisan activities like backing specific candidates, they can engage in lobbying (subject to IRS limits) and they can engage in other nonpartisan forms of activity without any limits. Bolder Advocacy also helped us understand what does and doesn’t constitute as lobbying under the IRS definition—for example, in order to be considered grassroots lobbying, the nonprofit must be issuing a communication to the general public that expresses a view about specific legislation and includes a direct call to action. If it doesn’t have all of those components, then it isn’t necessarily lobbying.
- Provide more clarity to grantees. We expanded our definition of advocacy during the grant cycle; next year, we need to ensure that grantees clearly understand the types of activities we think about as advocacy. We don’t want to force grantees to fit into our definition of advocacy (see point #3 below!), but we do want to make sure we clearly define how we will be evaluating LOIs so that every organization has an equitable playing field when applying for a grant.
- Ensure our committee reflects the diversity we see among our grantees. This is absolutely critical both to foster inclusiveness and a sense of belonging for everyone on our committee, as well as to have a variety of perspectives in how we fund advocacy work.
- Continue to learn and expand our definition of advocacy. As every organization has their own definition and methods of advocating for their communities, we know that we may need to keep expanding our own lens of what advocacy is. We intend to stay open and learn from the organizations we fund about how they define advocacy.
Congratulations again to all of the grantees who received an Advocacy Grant this past September—Native Action Network, Para Los Niños, New Connections, Open Doors for Multicultural Families, South King County Discipline Coalition, and Powerful Voices. These organizations do incredible and impactful work, and we are so proud to support their ongoing work to advocate for their communities.