Building Better Communities: Why Do Community Foundations Engage in Advocacy?

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Executive Summary

Community foundations are public charities that serve a specific location or geography. They are distinct from private foundations and therefore, have different legal protections and rights, including the legal right to lobby government. However, traditional community foundation activities are apolitical: soliciting donations and awarding funds to nonprofit partners.

Some community foundations have begun to step outside the traditional community foundation role to use advocacy and lobbying to advance their missions. Staff realize that foundation giving, though important, cannot fully meet the ever-growing challenges in their communities. Advocacy with government, the public, and private businesses can multiply the impact of community foundation discretionary spending and work on solving the root causes of problems in their communities. Specifically, advocacy work can raise awareness of a community foundation and its mission, attract favorable media attention, expand government investment in important programs, mobilize the community to act on an issue, and benefit a broader number of community members than a single direct service program.1

In light of this context, Triangle Community Foundation wished to understand the following policy question: Why do some community foundations decide they should be involved in social policy advocacy? What strategies or characteristics make them effective?

To answer this, I interviewed leaders of 13 community foundations across the nation that conduct some form of advocacy work. The interviews revealed how the community foundation sector uses advocacy to accomplish their goals, their divergent strategies, and the lessons that other community foundations could use to build their own advocacy capacities.

Community foundation interviews emphasized the positive impact that advocacy work has had in their communities. For example, the interviewed foundations noted that their advocacy work resulted in the passage of new statewide bills, changed local regulations, stopped harmful city council legislation, and directed more state funding to their communities. Other key findings from the interviews were the following:

Advocacy can be slow and labor-intensive, but the impact can be outsized for the effort;

There are multiple ways to be effective in the advocacy space;

Many community foundations used the same common strategy as the backbone of their advocacy plan;

It is important to tailor specific advocacy strategies to the political context, organizational capacity, and specific issue of interest;

Policies and procedures improve transparency and effectiveness of advocacy;

Risks of advocacy can be managed; and

Some legal protections are required to conduct advocacy.

Interviewees advised community foundations that wish to engage in advocacy to consider the type of advocacy role they are comfortable playing in their community, the issues that are critical to their region, the policies and procedures needed, and how they will measure success. Each foundation should consider how its relationship-building and advocacy activities fit into their unique political context.

This paper explores the methods, strategies, and philosophy of community foundations that advocate for social policy change. Further areas of research could explore the cost-effectiveness and success rate of community foundation advocacy efforts.





Muse, Colleen (2020). Building Better Communities: Why Do Community Foundations Engage in Advocacy?. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from

Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.