NPF TIG Week: Building Capacity and Trust: Lessons Learned from The Healing Trust’s Advocacy Grantmaking Practice by Meredith Benton and Shannon Williams

We are Meredith Benton, Senior Program Officer at The Healing Trust, a private foundation in Middle Tennessee, and Shannon Williams, Advocacy Evaluation Manager for the Bolder Advocacy program at Alliance for Justice. Today, we want to share lessons we’ve learned through our experience using the Advocacy Capacity Tool (ACT) to foster interaction and understanding between the foundation and its grantees.

Meredith Benton
Meredith S. Benton

One-third of The Trust’s grants provide three-year unrestricted operating support to strengthen nonprofit advocacy capacity. Funding advocacy capacity is critical because we know we cannot serve our way out of the problems we face. Change at the systems level is necessary – and we trust that our nonprofit grantees know what systems need to change and will advocate for those changes.

Shannon Williams
Shannon Williams

The ACT tool plays a key role in The Healing Trust’s advocacy grantmaking practice. Each grantee completes the tool at the beginning of each grant cycle, then repeats it again every 12 months. This not only provides a way for us to monitor changes in organizational capacity over time, but more importantly creates an opportunity for ongoing conversation and learning around what is needed to sustain advocacy over the long haul.

Lessons Learned:

  • Be an addition, not an imposition. Capacity assessment should be something that is “done with” grantees, rather than “done to” grantees. Always strive to minimize the negative effects of the inherent power dynamics between funders, evaluators, and grantees by asking grantees what their goals are – and what role you can play as a funder/evaluator in supporting the advancement of these goals.
  • Use measurement and learning as a way to build common ground. Using the ACT tool helps The Healing Trust create a shared language with its grantees around advocacy. We encourage our grantees to compare their results and determine where there are opportunities to collaborate with one another to compliment each other’s strengths. The Trust also uses results from the ACT to make better decisions about what types of technical assistance and support our grantees may need to be successful.
  • Be nimble and flexible.  The political environment in which policy decisions are made can change quickly. What may have been important six months ago may be less important today. We trust grantees to pivot when the political and/or policy environment changes without any permission or oversight from us.  

Rad Resources:

  • Philanthropy Advocacy Playbook: This publication from the Bolder Advocacy team is designed to equip foundations with the information they need to both fund and conduct advocacy to generate meaningful policy change. This guide is also a useful resource for evaluators who may want to brush up on the legal rules for funding advocacy.
  • When the Best Offense is a Good Defense: This brief published by ORS Impact and the Center for Evaluation Innovation earlier this year provides great insight and tips on how to understand and evaluate types of “defensive advocacy,” from reactive to proactive approaches.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Nonprofits and Foundations Topical Interest Group (NPFTIG) Week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our NPFTIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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