Supporting Advocacy Ecosystems to Build Power

Published: August 2023

Type: Publication

How can funders help to shift power in advocacy ecosystems?

Julia Coffman, Headshot

Much has already been said and written about how funders can support advocacy that builds power. It is clear that philanthropy should support more community organizing, which has as its central purpose building people power. Organizing groups offer community members a political home: a place to build community, a place to envision a different future, and a place to act collectively to build power. Historically, philanthropy has not made it a priority to ensure these groups have the long-term resources they need to scale up and sustain their work, and that needs to change.

However, just providing organizing groups with more funding is not enough. Organizers need the support of other actors—professional advocates, think tanks and policy shops, researchers, communications firms, funders, evaluators, and others—to recognize the critical role of organizing and to share the long-term goal of building people power. Working together, these entities make up the advocacy ecosystem.

In ecosystems equipped to achieve their policy or system-change goals and build people power, organizers and the communities they work with are not only included, but they drive advocacy efforts.

In advocacy ecosystems where power traditionally has been held by non-organizing actors, advocacy funders can leverage their dollars and their influence to help shift these dynamics.

Currently, professional policy advocacy organizations and policy shops hold the most power and generally take a lead role in the advocacy process. They conduct policy analyses and research, lead the development of policy agendas and campaigns, staff formal collaborations, and hold inside relationships with decision-makers. Usually established 501(c)3 organizations with relationships to funders, they are regular recipients of advocacy-related funding.

In contrast, organizers and the communities impacted by the policies or systems that advocates work on tend to have comparatively less power (in part, because philanthropy has not historically supported organizing groups). In addition, the advocacy actors who hold the most power in advocacy ecosystems have not shared it. As a result, professional advocacy organizations may mobilize communities to share their experiences or stories with decision-makers, but those communities have little say in developing the policy agenda. Instead, they are deployed to support an agenda after it has already been decided.

In addition to supporting community organizing groups, funders can strengthen power-building efforts by encouraging non-organizing advocacy actors (including funders themselves) to cede power and change how they relate to communities and organizers.