Funding Advocacy – the legal, conceptual and anecdotal


Dr Charles Lane

Swinburne Philanthropy Alumni presented a lively session last night on “funding advocacy”.  Dr Charles Lane, former CEO of the Myer Foundation and Sydney Myer Fund, spoke first.  Dr Lane’s view is that advocacy is a crucial component of grantmaking and is important in terms of the conceptual overview of making grants because it is the role of philanthropy to promote social wellbeing and environmental care – money is not enough.  He gave the analogy of homelessness – that we all know that when being confronted by a homeless person in the street, while dropping a coin in their hat or coffee cup might provide some immediate form of relief, it changes very little in their lives (this echoes Julia Unwin‘s talk earlier in the day which I will write about later, in which she said philanthropy should not fund soup kitchens, but discover the reason soup kitchens are needed).

Dr Lane said that donations do not always address the causes of circumstances, and that support for charitable organisations is dwarfed by other agendas (such as those of government and business).  So the lesson is that philanthropic bodies must do more than make donations, and must advocate for change even if we feel threatened by this.

It is legal in Australia for charities to advocate (since the Aidwatch decision of 2010).  It is more difficult now in Britain – since a bill to limit the spending of charities in relation to lobbying was passed in January.

What is important is the public benefit test.  Charities and not for profits here can advocate and this can include political agitation as long as their actions meet the “public benefit test“, and are in line with the core objects of the organisation.  In fact Dr Lane argues that it is the obligation of charities to do this – that we expect them to perform in this way because of their tax exempt status.

Advocacy can be used in several ways – to argue a position, enrich a debate and to be part of the education process.  Dr Lane says that it is the moral responsibility of charitable organisations to advance public debate, and that there is a need for new ideas to feed into the practice of law and policy.  Advocacy can thus advance the funding objectives of a philanthropic grantmaker, and amplify the impact of the grant given to a charitable organisation.

He is in no doubt that advocacy will attract attention, and may attract criticism – it may even be contrary to the personal or business interests of the trustees of a funding body. It is difficult to evaluate and elusive, and it is a challenge to get it right.

Dr Lane’s advice to philanthropic organisations who wish to support advocacy is that they need to gather expertise around the issue they want to advocate for, and it is often best to form partnerships with other charities.  Funders should decide if it is consistent with their objectives, be sure that it meets the public benefit test, decide who will lead, be the face of the advocacy program, speak to the press and politicians.  It needs to be someone who can take on the criticism.

He noted that there are several ways to play an advocacy role.  These include: hosting meetings, commissioning research, publishing reports, soliciting support from others, and engaging prominent people to act as patrons.

He also noted that a tactic to fund advocacy used by some funders was to provide “core” non specific, untied grants – which enable the recipient organisation to use the funds in any way that they see fit (and allowing them to engage in advocacy activities).

In summary, Dr Lane advised: be sure of your facts, ensure funding is consistent with objectives, pick the right partners and ensure that the subjects of advocacy are at centre stage – do things with people, not for them.

Genevieve Timmons photographed by Ian McKenzie 2007

Genevieve Timmons photographed by Ian McKenzie 2007

Genevieve Timmons began her segment by reminding us knowledge is power.  She spoke of asking a Gamillaroy elder what we lack in western  culture.  The answer was about the “responsibility of sharing knowledge” and that knowledge can only be shared when it can be passed on to someone who will use it properly.  In a sense, advocacy is about the appropriate and strategic use of knowledge and information.

Genevieve took us back to the days when it was not legal for philanthropic organisations to fund advocacy and the work of the Reichstein Foundation and their support for Broken Rites in the 1980s. The foundation funded research about abuses in the Catholic Church, and then provided support for programs such as counselling and “community voice building”.  This work moved from the establishment of an inquiry in Victoria to the Royal Commission which is taking place now.

Genevieve says the key to supporting advocacy is to have clear principles, to ensure that money is spent well, and to look at the bigger picture.  She also talked about how advocacy is not always about changing things but can also be about holding ground (for example students protesting about changes to the education system).

Genevieve provided a diagram of the “advocacy chain” which is a progression from 1) an experience or situation to 2) information, 3) research and data analysis, 4) services and programs, 5) community voice, 6) public awareness and education, 7) policy to 8) lobbying.  Which leads to “change” or “holding ground”.

Mary Crooks Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust

Mary Crooks AO says that philanthropic organisations should pick the issues where they are well placed to act to undertake advocacy.  She told the story of meeting with a potential donor who wanted to know what the Victorian Womens Trust  was going to do about an issue of concern in relation to state politics in the early 90s (when the auditor-general was being gagged by the Premier).  When told that VWT was not placed to address that issue, but were starting a new kitchen table model of community consultation, the donor was very interested.  Her support led to the Purple Sage project.  Her support then, has led 16 years later to the Voice for Indi campaign.  Moral of the tale: advocacy can have a slow burn, but this philanthropic investment is still yielding a powerful return.

Mary talked extensively and movingly about the “Paradox of Service” unfunded advocacy program the Victorian Womens Trust runs for former nuns who have left their orders.  Eight years on, this started when a woman came into their office asking for help.  While this was not part of the VWT’s core business, their ethos is to leave no left-of-field contact or query unanswered.  So they took it upon themselves to research what was going on.  Their report was published in 2008.  It gained world-wide press coverage (including the Irish Times) and led to a television story on Compass and now significant change in how the Church deals with former nuns and priests.

Their documentation of the distress, poverty, hardships and emotional pain endured by people who had left religious orders enabled them to form their own independent advocacy program, develop a manual on how to be an effective advocate.  Staff from the Victorian Womens Trust have now spoken to several orders on behalf of the women, to ask for apology, statement of service and monetary compensation.  It was satisfying to hear that so far, they have settled every case they have tackled.  This is becoming even broader, in that they are now intending to distill everything they have learned in the last eight years, to share as a guide for all affected.

Mary says that philanthropic organisations have a freedom to go to the leading edge in what they fund, as they are not subject to the same commercial and government restraints as other donors.  It is no good just going along with the same old same old as this is both wasted power and wasted opportunity.  She also feels that advocacy is not just the preserve of the centre left, but noted significant changes in society which have been brought about by conservative womens’ agencies such as the Country Womens Association and the Womens Christian Temperance Movement.  She agrees with Dr Lane that advocacy is a moral imperative, about word and deed if you have the words “justice”, “fairness” or “disadvantage” on your website.  She concedes that funding advocacy and practicing advocacy is tough and there is huge potential for criticism, but that you need to have stickability – one piece of advocacy can take 20 minutes and involve writing a letter, others, like the Paradox of Service, can take eight years or more.

Mary feels that it is imperative for those who fund advocacy to work with others  to give voice to issues of concern, and she says she is heartened by the response to the Federal Budget as being not a hip pocket knee jerk reaction, but criticism based on the idea of what is fair.  She concluded by stating: The robustness of our democratic culture depends on advocacy – we can all work to find channels to give people voice.

What do you think? How does your organisation support or fund advocacy?

In case of queries as to why I have referred to Charles as Dr Lane but to Ms Timmons and Ms Crooks by their first names – this is not sexist deference, but rather a result of my relationship with the two latter mentioned whom I know personally.

About ozphilanthropy

#Philanthropy. #arts Posts by Sharon Nathani, PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne focussing on philanthropic funders of the arts. Sharon's study is supported through an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
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10 Responses to Funding Advocacy – the legal, conceptual and anecdotal

  1. Michael Liffman says:

    Great report! Thanks…


  2. Indeed!

    Go you good thing Sharon! An excellent job and one that is very much appreciated. Thank you.

  3. Helena Liu says:

    Thank you for this excellent and comprehensive write-up, Sharon. This was the first Maimonides event I’ve missed in over a year, but am pleased to find your blog to keep up to speed on what was clearly a thought-provoking panel.


  4. Adam Smith says:

    Another brilliant post! Thank you for sharing – this was incredibly interesting.

    Kind Regards


  5. givewell says:

    Thanks Sharon for another articulate and concise report on this SPA event. Welll done and thanks to SPA for putting on such a good event. Of course, thanks also the three speakers who gave us all something very important to think about and consider. Carolyn M

  6. Detlev says:

    Many thanks Sharon for yet anther excellent summery.
    It was truly fantastic to hear these three speakers muse over a topic which in my view doesn’t get discussed often enough.

  7. Sophie says:

    This has made great reading – being in WA means access to this kind of presentation is v difficult so your report is invaluable. Thank you.

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