Although a Handful of Bold Philanthropists Are Investing in Advocacy, Americans Expect the Charitable Sector to Do Far More

Americans increasingly look to philanthropic institutions and nonprofits to help solve society’s most critical challenges. However, donors who invest in building and executing campaigns to influence civil society are still the exception.

Boston, May 17, 2018 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- In recent years, just four percent of big philanthropic bets aimed at spurring social change have supported advocacy efforts, according to a new article published in Stanford Social Innovation Review today by The Bridgespan Group and Civitas Public Affairs Group. This, despite the fact that according to a 2016 Independent Sector poll, 78 percent of voters support a bigger role for the charitable sector in working with the federal government and helping to put the country on a path to progress. 

Susan Wolf Ditkoff, article co-author and a partner at Bridgespan said, “Many philanthropists still wish to stay above the fray, even on issues they care about passionately. They are concerned about compromising their charitable status if they get ‘too political.’”  

According to co-author Patrick Guerriero, a Senior Bridgespan Fellow and founding partner of the Civitas Public Affairs Group, “Even though our nation’s capital is engaged in ideological warfare, not all trenches have been dug. There are wide-open opportunities for philanthropists to help grantees step into the public arena, educate lawmakers, and influence legislation that mobilizes their missions.”

He continued, “We have been struck by the uptick in interest from philanthropists who are feeling the pressing need to engage civically, but are unsure of how to take the next step.” 

The article, “When Philanthropy Meets Advocacy,” argues that if philanthropists are to activate advocacy efforts for their causes, they will have to think through five strategic questions:

 • Do you know the rules of engagement? Many nonprofits fail to fully utilize their legal capacity to interact directly with elected leaders, who have the power to work on their behalf. The new rules of engagement challenge charitable organizations to become conversant with the tax code and the full range of legally permissible tools to advocate for issues that matter.

• Who is your opposition? Even seemingly unobjectionable causes have detractors. Autism Speaks was surprised when a 2014 bill to provide North Carolinian families with insurance coverage for a proven treatment failed in the State Senate. Once it dug into lobbying disclosure reports, Autism Speaks discovered the bill’s stealth opponents: “big insurance” had used its financial and political muscle to block the legislation. 

• Have you converted strategy into a map of opportunities? Mapping an advocacy campaign’s features and fissures gives nonprofit leaders, donors, and governing boards a clearer understanding of the logic behind certain investments and priorities. Such was the case with the Trust for Public Land when it took on the challenge of ensuring a park within a 10-minute walk of every person, in every city and town across America. By mapping the 10 Minute Walk Campaign and highlighting its key deliverables, timeline, and target allies and opponents, the Trust was able to align donors, organizational leadership, staff, and partners behind clear goals.”

• Are your messages aimed at winning new allies or just making your base feel good? Common ground can prove fertile for organizations seeking to grow beyond their base, so long as they are willing to shape messaging that resonates with people outside of the echo chamber. 

• Are you using new technologies to educate and advocate? In real time and for little money, apps like and RiteTag can pull data from Twitter and Instagram and generate listening reports, which can reveal opportunities to create targeted messaging aimed at key influencers and winnable audiences. If nonprofits are not using smart technologies to target and test, how will they know if their messages are connecting with the audiences that matter most? 

 “These five questions aim to help donors engage grantees and their boards on how they can advance their core issues and what it will take to get there,” said Guerriero. Ditkoff added, “Even if donors and grantees stay above the political fray, it’s almost guaranteed that their opponents won’t. Strategically, and perhaps even morally, the wisest course of action for donors is to invest in helping grantees champion their missions.”

 The article also cites opportunities for donors to invest in building skillsets, such as academic and policy research, coalition building, and fueling lobbying campaigns.




About The Bridgespan Group

The Bridgespan Group is a global organization that collaborates with mission-driven leaders, organizations, and philanthropists to break cycles of poverty and dramatically improve the quality of life for those in need. We bring a rigorous approach, shared passion, and deep social sector experience. Our services include consulting to nonprofits and philanthropists, leadership development support, and developing and sharing insights.


About Civitas Public Affairs Group

Civitas Public Affairs Group is a values-based public affairs firm that delivers winning public affairs and strategic communications campaigns that touch on some of the most pressing political and public policy issues of our day. The bipartisan team works with leaders from across the political spectrum to forge bold, bipartisan government relations plans and crafts cutting-edge communications and marketing campaigns. 


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