Guest Blogger

Small Foundations Embrace Advocacy to Catalyze Change

Andy Carroll is Senior Program Manager of the Association of Small Foundations.

People who believe in advocacy as a strategy for change wonder: “How can we encourage more foundations to use it?’”

The experiences of small-staff philanthropists offer new ways of thinking about this challenge, and can spark ideas and inspiration. The defining characteristic of small foundations is their unique approach to philanthropy, which is agile, responsive, passionate, and grounded in their communities. 

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Some small-staff foundations arrive at advocacy after years of frustration funding direct services and not seeing progress. They shift to advocacy because they’re passionate about their chosen issue, have followed it upstream to understand the role of policy, and feel a sense of urgency to make impact. Funding organizations that advocate and lobby becomes a natural next step.

But to better understand small-staff foundations and advocacy, I will focus on a particular kind of foundation. This is the foundation that focuses its work locally, is highly engaged, uses all the resources at its disposal, and becomes a catalyst for change in its community. My organization, the Association of Small Foundations (ASF), is learning more about these funders through our initiative to understand and empower leadership.

The unique perspective of small-staff foundations

What does the advocacy and catalytic work of small-staff foundations look like? Here are some examples.

  • A funder in California is building a network to engage parents in decision making about the public school system’s budget. The network is making the school system more accountable to the needs of students and their families.
  • A small public foundation in Kansas spearheaded a campaign to pass a smoking ban by the state legislature, long supported by the public but blocked by powerful interests. The foundation commissioned a public poll and developed innovative ways of delivering the results to legislators.
  • A funder in Connecticut catalyzed reform of the state’s juvenile justice system, to provide more counseling and support services to at-risk youth, keep more young people out of prison, and save public dollars.

The path to advocacy for these and other small-staff foundations begins with passion for an issue in their own town, city, or state. The issue could be an epidemic of children dropping out of school; a lack of early education options for working families; a river devastated by pollution; a risk to health in the community; or one of many other urgent issues.

For the foundation benefactors, board members, family, and staff who reside in the community, these issues are tangible, immediate, and personal.


“Making change is hard to do by parachuting into a community. We try to do it by burrowing in.”

President of a small-staff family foundation


Since tough issues and problems are complex, changemaking requires understanding the ecosystem of the issue. Few institutions in our society have the perspective and freedom to see across a community and make sense of a complex problem. Foundations have this unique capacity, and small-staff foundations are especially good at developing insight into tough issues at the city or state level.

A dynamic small-staff foundation working in one city or state can catalyze the momentum needed to create a critical mass for change, and have impact on thousands or millions of people.

What does the path to advocacy look like?

ASF’s research on leadership offers some insights. We’ve learned that a passionate and engaged small-staff foundation gets deeply involved in a local issue, dedicating not only grants but time and skills. By volunteering, researching, and listening, the foundation accumulates a huge amount of knowledge about the issue—knowledge about obstacles, what’s been tried, key players, funding streams, and opportunities to make impact. It’s not uncommon for a small-staff foundation to leverage its connections to engage practically every person knowledgeable about an issue in a city or state.

As the foundation listens and learns, it builds relationships, connects the dots, and develops a vision for change. It identifies major gaps or disconnects that no one is paying attention to. The foundation’s knowledge, insight, and networks lay the groundwork for advocacy.

The foundation begins convening people, nonprofits, government agencies, and businesses to focus attention and mobilize partners. It commissions research and publicizes the results; helps form and fund coalitions; spotlights nonprofit grantees and partners; and raises the profile of the issue and its urgency. Sometimes the funder reframes the issue so it can be addressed in new ways. All these actions are a form of advocacy.

At a certain juncture, the foundation and its partners decide that influencing public policy themselves is essential to achieving their goal. They educate themselves about the rules and the freedom the law allows, with the expert resources of the Alliance for Justice, for example. They may seek to:

  • Persuade local or state legislators, or government agencies or schools, to adopt a different or innovative approach that is more promising at delivering results—often at savings to the public.
  • Partner with local government to make services more efficient and effective by funding research and evaluation.
  • Give voice to citizens affected by a problem to participate in the policy arena, to make government more accountable and effective.
  • Fund coalitions that advocate to preserve or expand funding for education, human services, or other needs.

To empower advocacy and leadership, a story we need to tell more often is that small-staff philanthropists are perfectly positioned to be changemakers.