Time to demystify, democratise and embrace advocacy

Opinion

European foundations have a role to play in nurturing a thriving nonprofit advocacy ecosystem. Every day that passes without nonprofits advocating for the most vulnerable, underrepresented and minority interests, the more we lose as a society. Time has come to break the lobbying taboo.

by Alberto Alemanno, HEC Paris and The Good Lobby

European foundations increasingly view themselves as change agents, prioritising systemic change over service delivery through their work. Yet a closer look reveals a more sobering reality.

While there is growing awareness that it is only by engaging with policies that systemic and structural change may occur, many foundations tend to stay away from policy work and funding advocacy.

This may not only lead their grantees to fail in their own mission – sometimes by being ‘de-politicised’ – but also curtail the foundations’ ability to maximise their investment and overall social impact.

Amid the ongoing efforts at revamping European philanthropy’s own advocacy as a sector, there is a need for a broader and deeper debate around the role and value of doing or funding advocacy within the European space. Despite the different cultural, political, social, economic and legal contexts that make up Europe, it is submitted that it is possible and urgent to establish a common understanding of the value of advocacy among European foundations and the role they can play in nurturing a thriving nonprofit advocacy ecosystem.

There is a role for European foundations to play in nurturing a thriving nonprofit advocacy ecosystem.

This essay briefly identifies the obstacles for philanthropies to embrace nonprofit advocacy and proposes a few ideas on how to overcome them so as to turn advocacy from an overlooked instrument into a privileged tool, which can  drive social and political change across Europe.

Obstacles to philanthropy-powered advocacy

The use of advocacy to inform public policy or systemic change is an important grantmaking strategy for foundations dedicated to achieving sustainable social change. However, many obstacles prevent foundations from fully embracing such a strategy.

First, the meaning and public understanding of the very concept of advocacy varies greatly between foundations across Europe. The semantic confusion surrounding the terms advocacy and lobbying, which carry different meanings for different stakeholders depending on various cultural, political, social, economic and legal contexts, does not help to overcome such tension. As a result, there is no common, shared understanding of what advocacy means and entails among foundations, even when active in the same field.

Second, there exists a widespread cultural reticence vis-à-vis the advocacy phenomenon, which is generally perceived as too ‘political’ by most foundations.

Third, philanthropies often perceive the existence of legal impediments to engaging in advocacy by sometimes misinterpreting nonprofit law to the point of dissuading their own grantees from using their funding in a way that might be construed as lobbying. Examples include grant agreements containing clauses that prohibit lobbying, or the types of advocacy the nonprofit may not engage in.

Fourth, reputational risks may be involved, especially for foundations with strong links to commercial companies whose area of work may conflict with the advocacy work supported by the mother company.

How to attribute the success of an advocacy project to a particular organisation or network of organisations? Foundations might look at nonprofit advocacy not as an activity for their grantees to deliver on but rather as a capacity they must have and develop.

Fifth, at the bottom of foundations’ defiance towards advocacy one may detect an inherent tension between the time horizon of grants and donations, which is medium to short, and the long-term nature of advocacy. From this perspective, supporting advocacy-related projects might be perceived as ‘too’ risky for many philanthropic organisations whose grant-making officers are expected to prove impact. This appears all the more so when one considers the methodological difficulty of measuring ‘success’ in the lobbying space. The chaotic, non-linear character of political change makes it almost impossible to evaluate advocacy and lobbying actions against reliable metrics. Thus, how to establish causality between a lobbying effort and a lobbying outcome? How to attribute the success of an advocacy project to a particular organisation or network of organisations? Or how to qualify the preservation of the status quo when this is the ultimate aim pursued by the lobbying effort? A more promising and fitting approach to pursue might be for foundations to look at nonprofit advocacy not as an activity for their grantees to deliver on but rather as a capacity they must have and develop.

Philanthropy-powered advocacy and the democratic concern

In addition, there might be legitimate reasons to disfavour advocacy, lobbying and, more broadly, policy-related agendas, from a philanthropic perspective. Being aware of the democratic implications of channeling personal funding towards a given policy change, a philanthropist might deliberately exercise self-restraint. Yet, this an extremely exceptional attitude in a philanthropic world limited in self-awareness when it comes to the realisation of the major democratic implications stemming from its actions. As was acutely observed, ‘philantrocapitalists see a world full of big problems that they, and perhaps only they, can and must put right’ [1]. More critically, even among the foundations supporting politically active nonprofits, such as the Open Society Foundations (OSF), there is a well-entrenched restraint in building lobbying capacity. This has been predominantly motivated by the legitimate – often perceived as sacrosanct – concern of protecting the agency of the grantee. Under this approach, policy-focused foundations let the grantee experiment its advocacy game without any interference. This approach, however, recently proved self-defeating. After building over the last four decades an entire civic society space in Hungary, not only OSF-sponsored nonprofits have been silenced by the government of Viktor Orbán, but also OSF itself has been forced to leave the country. This shows that when nonprofits are no longer able to advocate for policy change due to a major attack on the field they have built over time, their mother foundation might be called upon to advocate for and in defence of that very field it contributed to make emerge in the first place.

Time to demystify and democratise advocacy

In sum, the dominant cultural defiance towards the lobbying phenomenon combined with the legal uncertainties surrounding its exercise and impact measurability currently generates a self-reinforcing dynamic that is weakening nonprofits’ ability to make the changes they want to see in the world. This is also affecting philanthropies’ mission to accelerate those changes. Ultimately, this aversion to nonprofit lobbying suggests that both philanthropies and their grantees may be underperforming today.

Yet it does not have to be this way.

There are wide-open, legally-permissible opportunities for more nonprofits to step into the public arena and embrace advocacy. Philanthropy has a well-established history of supporting advocacy-oriented nonprofits that made a significant difference [2].

Every day that passes without nonprofits advocating for the most vulnerable, underrepresented and minority interests, the more we lose as a society. Not only will lobbying continue to be monopolised by the few, but it will be further demonized as a phenomenon in an endless, self-reinforcing and self-defeating dynamic.

Time has come to break the lobbying taboo. To do so, we must demystify the predominantly negative public understanding of lobbying, democratise its access and ultimately level it up via new forms of funding and support [3].

In particular, if foundations embraced advocacy as the privileged tool to achieve system change, the benefits will be profound. Not only for society, but also for themselves.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of Law at HEC Paris and the founder of The Good Lobby, a nonprofit civic start-up committed to equalising access to power for a more democratic and inclusive Europe. He is an Ashoka Fellow and Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.


[1] Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, Philanthrocapitalism, New York: Bloombsbury Press, 2008, 3.

[2] William Foster, Gail Perreault, Alison Powell and Chris Addy, Making Big Bets for Social Change, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2016.

[3] Alberto Alemanno, Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society, Iconbooks 2017.