Greater Good Blog

Advocacy in the New World of Policy Influence

Shelley Whelpton and Andrew Schulz

Foundations and philanthropists need to find new ways to advocate in the post-Citizens United world—or risk ceding influence to those who do.


The rules of policy influence have changed, and the philanthropic sector needs to adapt accordingly. Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United, which removed many restrictions on spending in political campaigns. In the wake of that ruling, high-risk, high-reward players—most notably high-net-worth individuals—were the first to test the new boundaries of money in politics. Meeting little resistance, they have pushed further than ever before. As more resources pour in, foundations and nonprofits will have to find new ways to have a voice in policymaking or risk ceding influence over national policy to those who are willing and eager to play by the new rules.

Simply put: to effect change, more philanthropists need to advocate. And philanthropists need to advocate more, working both harder and smarter. Investment in advocacy can deliver exponential return on investment, but only if donors do it well—if they incorporate best practices, learn from each other, and ask tough questions about the political landscape of their issue and what’s needed to overcome resistance to the change they want to see. To achieve greater impact with limited resources, donors also need to be smart, creative, and brave. They will need to take risks, support innovative strategies, forge unlikely alliances, amplify the voices of vast numbers of people, and adjust expectations with regard to the timelines and measures of success.

At Arabella, we have long worked with philanthropists on a range of advocacy strategies. Philanthropy’s role in advocacy has evolved considerably over the last few years, as funders have begun taking advantage of tools beyond grant making to address issues from multiple angles. While we’ve found many campaigns exciting, the two described below illustrate strategies many funders could employ to increase their impact.

Using Multiple Vehicles to Protect the Public’s Rights in a Digital Age

Over the last year, we have worked closely with the Media Democracy Fund (MDF), an initiative that strives to advance internet openness, access to information, and expression through digital networks. MDF engages with issues that encompass policies and practices across sectors and that bridge partisan divides. It accomplishes its goals by supporting a diverse but networked set of grantees. Last year, MDF selected the New Venture Fund (NVF), a 501(c)(3) public charity managed by Arabella Advisors, as its organizational home. By housing MDF at a nonprofit with a well-developed operational infrastructure that provides strong back-office, human-resources, and financial-management support, MDF is able to focus its own staff resources on the work at which it excels: strategy development, campaign management, field monitoring, and strategic grant making. Working together, MDF and NVF can quickly conduct due diligence, ensure compliance, and disburse grants. This collaborative infrastructure allows MDF’s Rapid Response Fund and other grant-making initiatives to quickly address both opportunities and threats as the policy environment shifts.

In addition to incubating MDF at NVF, the project’s donors also set up an affiliated 501(c)(4), the Media Democracy Action Fund. Running a (c)(4) campaign aligned to its policy objectives gives the project the ability to amplify MDF’s work through lobbying and political activities targeted at policies that support equal access.

The flexibility of MDF’s approach, and the capacity provided by NVF, enable MDF to execute a highly effective funding strategy. Many MDF-supported campaigns follow a disaggregated, networked model, rather than the traditional, centralized command and control model used in many policy advocacy campaigns. MDF grantees are geographically dispersed and represent a broad and diverse range of issues, strategies, organizing tactics, and communities. Through MDF, participating donors are able to easily support and explore a variety of tactics aimed at equal access: grassroots organizing, field building, public education, research, litigation, lobbying, and legislative and regulatory reform efforts. MDF donors understand that these tactics extend the impact of their existing grant investments in areas ranging from civic engagement to arts and culture, environment, and more. They entrust MDF’s staff to manage and support its diverse network of grantees and to fuel support for the entire ecology of efforts that make access to information just and equitable.

MDF has deployed these strategies on many successful advocacy campaigns, including the effort to pass the Local Community Radio Act in 2010, reform of exorbitant prison phone rates, and the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act in 2012, which threatened free speech on the internet. Most recently, the campaign to protect and preserve net neutrality won a major victory when, in November, President Obama publicly urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reclassify broadband under Title II of the Telecommunications Act and thereby protect net neutrality. Just this week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed this reclassification, and the commission is set to vote on it at the end of this month.

Using a Spectrum of Approaches to Build Power in the Latino Community

Funders increasingly recognize that transformative change requires thinking creatively about the models they can develop to achieve it. Just over a year ago, a group of donors and changemakers enlisted our support to launch the Latino Victory (LV) initiative, which aims to amplify Latino voices in policy and to bridge the gap between the size of the country’s Latino population and the number of elected Latino officials. While the project’s funders know the importance of traditional grant making, they also recognize its limitations when it comes to ambitious civic engagement agendas. As such, they support LV in making smart, aligned investments through a range of funding vehicles: not only a 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4), but also a PAC and Super PAC. As a result, the project is able to deploy a multi-level strategy that includes short- and long-term efforts: swift and targeted actions to support legislation or candidates that further Latino values (through (c)(4), PAC, and Super PAC dollars) as well as ongoing voter outreach and education (through (c)(3) dollars).

Some of the investments the project made in the last year show how its flexible funding enables it to promote long-term change even as it takes advantage of immediate opportunities. Prior to last year’s elections, LV surveyed the landscape and made a series of strategic decisions about where, how, and why to invest. In a Congressional race in California’s Thirty-First District, a Latino candidate, Pete Aguilar, was in a close race with rivals. LV used (c)(4) and PAC funding on lobbying and election-related activities, helping Aguilar win a seat in Congress. In other races, the project and its donors made significant investments in races where Latino candidates lost but where the investments were designed to increase Latino participation over the long term and begin to develop a political bench for future election cycles.

In states such as Florida and California, LV partnered with other groups to talk about issues that mattered to Latinos—such as education, the economy, and the environment—in order to raise awareness within the community. In addition to voter engagement, LV also supported important ballot initiatives, scoring a major win in Anaheim, California to move that city from at-large districts to local districts, thus creating the opportunity to increase Latino political participation in a city that is majority Latino but has no Latinos serving on the city council. Considering, among other factors, the critical long-term significance of the redistricting that will happen in 2020, building a political pipeline, supporting candidates, and engaging voters are important steps forward—and funders increasingly understand that acting now can reap rich rewards down the line.

Funders who support projects such as MDF and LV understand that the playing field of impact has changed. Traditional grants-only approaches can’t always achieve the sustained change they seek, leaving funders looking at a wider-than-ever spectrum of tools, vehicles, strategies, and talent to find ways to increase the impact of their resources. Social change takes a long time and will require taking risks, learning from mistakes, and occasionally losing a fight in the path to progress. It will also, crucially, require engaging in advocacy.


Shelley Whelpton is a managing director in Arabella’s Washington, DC office. Shelley has over 20 years of experience working across sectors to assess organizational assets, identify investment opportunities, develop key alliances, and chart strategic paths to meet ambitious objectives. Shelley’s work at Arabella focuses on leading teams of specialists to build customized plans for clients that integrate and maximize all aspects of their charitable assets, including grants, investments, relationships, and time.

As general counsel, Andrew Schulz manages Arabella’s legal affairs, provides legal advice to the firm’s leadership and staff, and ensures that the foundations and independent nonprofits Arabella helps to manage, such as the New Venture Fund, are in compliance with the law. He has expertise in a broad cross-section of tax, legislative, and regulatory issues, including tax-exempt organizations, charitable giving, fiscal sponsorship, lobbying, political activity, and international grant making.

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