Nonprofit Sector

The Hidden Costs of Advocating for Social Change

June 19, 2018

Creating social change requires that organizations adapt and remain responsive to ever-shifting political winds. For advocacy organizations that seek to influence policy as a central part of their mission, nimbleness is imperative to safeguarding human rights, protecting voices of the most vulnerable, and promoting more just and equitable systems. In the face of political change and uncertainty under the new administration, advocacy organizations are being called upon to do more and do it faster while funders scramble to implement strategies that best support them. Yet current operating realities for advocacy organizations pose distinct hurdles to staying adaptable and nimble.

Through NFF’s work with advocacy organizations, from those fighting for the rights of people with disabilities in Maine to those advocating for pedestrian rights in Los Angeles, we have seen three common dynamics emerge, each with implications for how nonprofit leaders and funders can better connect money to mission in service of advocacy.

The fluctuating nature of business models can be destabilizing

Managing to revenues and expenses impacted by political decisions – like the repeal of DACA or expansion of Medicaid – can mean large budget swings from year to year, revenue opportunities that are neither reliable nor repeatable, fluctuations in staffing needs, and difficulty planning beyond the current year (or current month). As one NFF client noted, “Advocacy being a core piece of the work brings an inherent kind of organizational risk. Shifting political environments make it difficult to maintain organizational stability.” What would ordinarily be judged as an unstable business model is simply to be expected from advocacy organizations that are responsive to their constituents, and current politics and policies.

What does this mean for nonprofits and funders? A strong capital structure (i.e., balance sheet) can help smooth the inherent fluctuation of the advocacy business model, shielding against risk during times of change and uncertainty.

  • For nonprofits, sufficient reserves with clear purposes (e.g., facility reserve, opportunity reserve, risk reserve, etc.) can foster stability through times of change. Use tools like scenario planning to define best and worst cases and support informed decision-making amid uncertainty. 
  • For funders, flexible funding and core operating support help organizations manage effectively through unpredictability. Recognize that reserves are essential for stability and should not be judged as an indication of not needing support. Understanding the “why” behind an organization’s budget and balance sheet is necessary to differentiate between a concerning picture and the normal course of business.

Core functions like communications, organizing, and research drive the missions of advocacy organizations

Advocacy organizations often get their work done through functions viewed as infrastructure activities, rather than programs. “We are more than the programs that we operate,” shared one leader. “There’s a lot more going on in our organizations.” For example, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) leads the biannual Bike and Pedestrian Count for the county, a largely research-oriented activity. For other nonprofits, such research might be an activity that supports the organization’s programs, but for LACBC, this is part of their mission work. The data generated informs policies that lead to infrastructure for people walking and biking in LA County. In a sector that too often frowns on administrative expenses, advocacy organizations are actually achieving their missions through what may otherwise be seen as an “overhead” expense.

What does this mean for nonprofits and funders? Clarity around the resources it takes to achieve mission goals and why is imperative in a world where programs are often still seen as the only activities worth funding.

  • For nonprofits, understand and be confident in your organization’s financial story. Knowing your mission architecture and how this relates to your cost structure is key to telling a compelling story of, and advocating for, what it really takes to do your best work. 
  • For funders, take the time to understand programmatic and administrative expenses for advocacy organizations. Conversations that clarify what is being achieved through each expense will provide a more solid understanding of what it takes to “do advocacy.”

Collaborating with others is central to achieving mission goals, yet the time and capacity to collaborate is often underestimated and underfunded

Systems change takes a village, and advocacy organizations are the first to understand this. This is why we often see them partnering with others and acting collectively, both informally and formally. While collaboration is mission-critical, it takes time and capacity that’s rarely factored into an organization’s business model, so it often goes unfunded. Moreover, as one NFF client shared, “Sometimes trying to be a good collaborator leads to a culture of ‘not saying no,’ overcommitting as a leader, and overcommitting staff.”

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What does this mean for leaders and funders? The time, capacity, and expertise required for collaborative efforts can be substantial and must be recognized and valued as such.

  • For leaders, understanding the cost of collaborative activities in time and capacity is important to being an advocate for your organization, and knowing when to say “no.” Ignoring these costs results in overburdened and unhappy staff and high turnover, constraining the ability to achieve your goals in the long-run. 
  • For funders, deeply understanding what it takes to collaborate can better ensure efforts are fully funded and successful. Beyond your dollars, also consider ways in which your networks, skills, and social capital can foster impactful collaboration.

In the words of one leader, “The essence of advocacy requires an organization, regardless of the strategies it adopts, to be able to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and environments. Adaptability needs to be inherent in an organization’s structure and capacity.” 

Strong management and supportive partners can help advocacy organizations weather the constant storms of an unpredictable funding and policy climate. For a recent client, Maine Equal Justice Partners, it’s meant being poised to creatively pivot and pursue new strategies to meet its mission – improving the lives of people with low income – even in a challenging environment. The result? A successful ballot initiative in which Mainers voted to expand healthcare access to tens of thousands of people across the state – a mission win that shows us the immense ability and multiplying effect advocacy organizations have in influencing social change. These mission wins are possible when nonprofits and funders work together to change lives and better communities.

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