Greater Good Blog

Why Strategic Philanthropy (Almost) Always Involves Advocacy

Scott Nielsen
Why Strategic Philanthropy (Almost) Always Involves Advocacy

To scale up their impact in the coming decade, philanthropists will benefit from working closely with, and employing the tools of, advocates. Their efforts to do so are already creating new opportunities.


When pursued strategically, philanthropy and advocacy are like two sides of the same coin. Their practitioners both take action in service of needed social change, seeking to realize visions of a better world, and it’s rare that either set can achieve the goals it seeks without the other, at least at scale. Advocates are typically well aware how much they need donors to accomplish their goals. For their part, donors increasingly understand that the inverse is true as well: they need advocates—or at least the tools of advocacy—to achieve the ends they seek. Why?

Current Events Are Conspiring to Push Philanthropy and Advocacy Closer Together

As governments become ever more paralyzed by ideological polarization and fiscal restrictions, civil society institutions are playing an increasingly large role in asserting public-interest values and driving policy reform. In an environment where even childhood hunger gets caught up in partisan clashes, funders and their grantees are seeing the need to renew their theories of change and ways of doing business. They are engaging larger and more diverse sets of stakeholders, and are knitting together strategies that will mobilize adequate public and political will to accomplish their goals at scale. In other words, they are advocating (even if, in some cases, they don’t identify it as such).

In many respects, philanthropy has always mirrored advocacy. When donors design and implement grant-making programs that endeavor to improve the status quo in some way, they have to answer many of the same questions advocates face: What are the available avenues to change? What are the obstacles? And, crucially, who must be enrolled to overcome those obstacles and arrive at a new and improved status quo?

Increasingly, the tactics they use to address such questions overlap with advocates’ tactics as well. More than ever, funders need to educate diverse stakeholders, build consensus, and achieve influence at multiple levels—including the sort of influence that can lead to policy change. They draw upon (or should draw upon), the advocacy “supply chain”—the sets of ideas, strategies, and methods advocates use, including:

  • Issue research and outreach
  • Policy development and analysis
  • Litigation
  • Polling and public opinion research
  • Community education and grassroots organizing
  • Leadership development
  • Base mobilization and issue campaigns
  • Education of government and public officials
  • Strategic communications and use of diverse media
  • Voter engagement and mobilization
  • Lobbying

Because most advocacy efforts require some combination of these, donors and advocacy groups are increasingly developing shared issue landscapes, coordinated strategic plans, and common assessment protocols. And working together is multiplying their potential effectiveness.

Collaboration Is Creating New Opportunities

More and more, donors are engaging in collaborative efforts that aggregate their expertise and divvy up the work to fit their various interests and capacities. In some cases, donors are forming collaboratives for the express purpose of advocating more effectively. Such advocacy funding collaboratives can create dynamic partnerships between individual donors and foundations. Individual donors typically bring flexibility: they can move money quickly and are less restricted in what they can fund, so they can seize sudden opportunities in ways that are sometimes more difficult for large institutional donors. For their part, institutional donors have deep knowledge of the issues and trusted relationships with relevant leaders, groups, and networks. Such foundations tend to fund on a longer time horizon and invest in building the capacity of the groups and leaders with which they work. Partnerships between such donors are already changing the culture of the nonprofit sector by incentivizing greater coordination and sophistication among advocacy donors, capacity builders, and grantees.

The team I just joined at Arabella Advisors manages several nonprofits through which donors collaborate to learn from one another, align and pool funding, commission strategy analyses and evaluations, and otherwise work together. One of these nonprofits is a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which hosts advocacy and lobbying initiatives that are a crucial piece of the policy change puzzle. Over the last decade, innovative funders have used this platform—and the team at Arabella—to help secure an open internet, make health care more affordable and accessible for all Americans, expand child nutrition policy, and more.

I’m thrilled to have joined the team at Arabella, which is uniquely positioned to help donors deepen and extend their social impact using the tools from the advocacy supply chain—from strategy, research, and design through implementation and evaluation of advocacy investments. As philanthropy and advocacy continue to come together, a remarkable opportunity to advance social change is emerging. Over the coming months, we’ll share stories about some of the most innovative and successful practices we’re seeing, and what funders can learn from them. We hope you’ll join the conversation and share your own insights.


Scott Nielsen is Arabella’s managing director of advocacy. He leads the advocacy team in helping foundation, family, and individual clients use their resources to effectively pursue the social and political goals that matter to them. Prior to joining Arabella, Scott founded Alexander Nielsen Consulting, a philanthropic strategy firm, and he spent 13 years as a program officer at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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