Finding the Right Balance: Thoughts on Advocacy and Direct Service Funding from Ashley Blanchard

Friday, July 9, 2010

On June 10th, Philanthropy New York held a panel discussion to help funders consider how to strike their own balance between direct services and advocacy in a way that best matches their goals and achieves the greatest impact. We are pleased to have the session’s moderator, Ashley Blanchard, Senior Consultant at TCC Group, share her thoughts with Smart Assets.

As a strategic consultant to foundations, I work with clients to help them clarify what they want to achieve, and how they plan to achieve it. Among the strategies we typically discuss are advocacy and direct services. To some clients, the idea of advocacy is unappealing—it connotes protests and raises IRS concerns. For others, direct services seem too “simple,” merely plugging a hole when the core of the social problem remains unchanged. All too often, these strategies are seen to represent opposing values: you either fundamentally believe in advocacy or direct services, but certainly not both.

For better or worse, the recent economic crisis has changed the way some funders are thinking about their support for advocacy and direct services, providing a more nuanced view of how these strategies can be complementary. I have one client who has historically supported direct services in New York City, including a number of settlement houses. Recognizing that the need for their services is growing more rapidly than they can meet it, many settlement houses have started to engage in advocacy around state budgets and social policy. My client is now making grants to support some of their long-time grantees in these activities.

Conversely, I’m on the board of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, which supports community organizing. We typically fund organizations for their work on campaigns, and expect them to have a clear policy change goal and plan. With the recent economic crisis, a number of our grantees reached out for funding to meet the immediate needs of their members. They were finding it tough to win campaigns when their leaders were getting evicted or were forced to take on second or third jobs to feed their families. At the same time, they found that providing these services was an effective organizing tool, helping get new members in the door. We found that our support for these requests helped sustain the organizations and actually enhanced their campaign work.

At the session on June 10th, three funders discussed their experiences striking the right balance between support for services and organizing. Maria Mottola, Executive Director of the New York Foundation, discussed how NYF has long supported a combination of direct services, organizing, and advocacy. Ann Beeson and Mimi Corcoran of the Open Society Institute discussed how OSI, best known for its advocacy grantmaking, is getting more involved in support for direct services, most notably through the Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation.

Among the key points raised in the discussion by panelists and attendees:

  • Fewer government dollars may mean more latitude for advocacy: As their government support is reduced, a number of social service organizations that have depended on government funding are beginning to engage in advocacy. With less of their budget coming from the government, they have less to lose. And in the face of swelling needs, they recognize the urgency of policies that can provide a safety net for their constituents—healthcare, food programs, housing support. As a result, panelists felt that there are fewer “pure” social service agencies than in the past.
  • Grant dollars can be flexible: Increasingly, funders making grants to social service agencies may find some of their grant dollars being used for those agencies’ advocacy activities. (Private foundations are able to provide some support for direct advocacy activities, and to support indirect advocacy activities like policy research and education. For a more complete discussion of the legal limits of foundation support for advocacy, see the Alliance for Justice website.) Funders supporting advocacy groups may find that some of their funding is used to cover the costs of members’ immediate needs. As an advocate of general support funding, I’d argue that, by and large, this flexibility is a good thing. Funders should find those organizations that are a fit with their mission and goals, then trust them to use their on-the-ground experience to figure out how best to achieve those goals in a constantly changing operating environment.
  • Connect the dots: A clearly articulated, thoughtful connection between direct services and advocacy is critical if they are to be integrated in a complementary manner. Service organizations that frequently engage in advocacy in an ad hoc manner run the risk of over-stretching resources. Large national advocacy organizations that are disconnected from the populations they purport to represent may find that the policy change they’re proposing does not, in the end, solve the most critical problems their constituents face. The same can be said of funders—in an era of diminished endowments, funders need to focus their grantmaking. That doesn’t mean picking advocacy or direct services, but being clear about their goals, and how the right combination of strategies can achieve them.
  • There is no “right” balance between direct services and advocacy:For many funders, the pendulum actively swings between the two as new issues emerge and new ideas are tested. George Soros created OSI’s Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation to focus on meeting immediate needs resulting from the current economic crisis—purposefully distinct from OSI’s other programs working on issues of inequity. Yet over its year-long existence, Soros and OSI staff have recognized the overlap of the Special Fund and many other OSI objectives, most of which are being addressed through advocacy. Today, the Special Fund primarily supports direct services, but also partners with other OSI programs to support advocacy strategies that share its goal of alleviating poverty.

Ultimately, it’s incumbent upon funders to be clear about what they want to accomplish, identify grantees that share those goals, and provide funding that enables those grantees to adapt their work to best achieve them. Advocacy and direct services, when merged thoughtfully and strategically, can accomplish more than either approach would be able to independently achieve. I’d encourage funders to revisit their grantmaking with an eye towards how they can build on their current work with a combination of these strategies.

Ashley Blanchard joined TCC Group in 2004. Her focus at the firm has been strategic planning for foundations, including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the William Penn Foundation, the John R. Oishei Foundation, the Henry H. Kessler Foundation, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, and the Erie Community Foundation. Ms. Blanchard has provided governance and management assistance to a number of family foundations, including the Benton Foundation, the Goldsbury Foundation, the Atlantic Foundation, and the Ohrstrom Foundation. She has conducted governance assessment and planning for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Roosevelt Institute, and the Institute for Advanced Study, and has also worked with a number of nonprofits, including the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Boys and Girls Harbor, and the Arts Council of Silicon Valley. Ms. Blanchard has presented on a range of philanthropy topics at various conferences and workshops. She is the author of “Strategic Philanthropy: Maximizing Family Engagement and Social Impact” (National Center for Family Philanthropy, 2008) and “Funding for Impact: How to Design Effective Grantmaking Programs” (TCC Group, 2005). Ms. Blanchard is a graduate of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, where she completed her Master’s degree in Public Policy. As part of her graduate coursework, she authored a report on the evaluation of public policy grantmaking for Northern California Grantmakers. Prior to her graduate work, Ms. Blanchard developed marketing strategies for the advertising firm of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. She received her B.A. with Honors in Anthropology and Latin American Studies from Stanford University. Ms. Blanchard serves on the board of the Ms. Foundation for Women, is a Co-Chair of the Council on Foundations’ Next Generation Task Force, and is President of the Board of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, which supports social justice efforts throughout the United States.

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