4 things our foundation learned last year about supporting effective advocacy

Image by Gordon Darrow.

After two decades of environmental grantmaking, our foundation is putting everything we've got into the next five years, and then closing our doors. Our final push is focused on the future: supporting the next generation of conservation philanthropy, leadership, and advocacy.

We've been investing in advocacy since our founding, supporting campaigns and organizations at the forefront of environmental battles in our region. When we started nearly a quarter of a century ago, we helped lots of small scrappy activists buy their first computers and string wires under their kitchen tables to connect to the Internet. A lot has changed since then — not just in technology, but in the way people engage in advocacy and social change.

With our foundation's sunset in sight, we decided to step back and reflect on what it takes to be effective in today's social and political environment. We started asking people:

How can our foundation help advocates in our region adapt to the changing demands of the 21st century?

One of the people we asked was author, blogger, and social media guru Beth Kanter, who suggested we hold a design lab. So over two sunny days last September, we rolled up our sleeves with grantees, colleague funders, and advisors and dug in, exploring what it takes to be effective advocates in today's rapidly changing world. Beth introduced us to the principles of design thinking and guided us through a process aimed at informing our foundation's new advocacy initiative. First we heard from four provocative idea catalysts, then we digested and discussed the implications of their ideas for our work, and finally we developed concepts for our new funding strategy.

Here are four things we learned:

1. We need to understand and leverage "new power."

Our first idea catalyst, Henry Timms, talked to us about the emergence of new power, and how it is transforming our society. To paraphrase: Old power is held by few, like a currency. It is closely guarded and inaccessible. In contrast, new power flows like a current. It is participatory, open, and peer-driven. It surges, like water or electricity. If you haven't read Henry's article, it is well worth your time; or watch this Ted talk by his co-author, Jeremy Heimans.

We are watching an epic collision of old and new power in today's presidential primaries. The insurgent campaigns of both Trump and Sanders are vivid examples of how established old power institutions can be disrupted by an energized base of activists using new power approaches to achieve their goals. Much of the work of conservation advocacy is focused on influencing old power systems and institutions. We need to understand the potential (and perils) of new power and become more adept at leveraging both new and old power to have the impact we desire.

2. Being effective today requires more than simply retrofitting old strategies with new technology.

The way people self-organize and engage in causes has fundamentally changed the way organizations need to operate to be effective in these times. We need to pay attention to culture and structures, as well as strategies. Cheryl Contee did not mince words when she declared "this is an emergency!" She challenged our grantees to periodically reinvent themselves to stay relevant and effective.

3. We need to be movement generous.

The concept of putting "mission before brand" was a powerful theme and Jessy Tolkan asked us to consider what the movement would look like if we weren't duplicating resources inside of organization after organization. She and Jodie Tonita both underscored the importance of leadership development and working across organizations and issues to build more robust and effective campaigns. Letting go of institutional egos can allow truly powerful "ownerless" campaigns to emerge in ways that can be profound.

4. We need to be willing to take risks.

Many of the environmental problems we face feel intractable, and many environmental advocacy efforts are stuck in a previous era. When our foundation decided to invite grantees and colleagues to help design our new advocacy initiative, we took a risk. We realized that we needed new ways of thinking to generate the kinds of ideas that might actually shake things up enough to have an impact. At the end of the design lab we had hundreds of new ideas, some more promising than others. And now we are ready to start making our first investments in our new initiative.

What's next?

Our Advocacy Initiative focuses on this question:

How can we help conservation organizations in our region adopt the cultures, structures, and strategies that will attract the next generation of leaders and advocates?

Here are the four things we're going to focus on as we start awarding grants through this initiative:

Make space for experimentation and innovation.

When we listened to the ideas generated during the design lab, we kept hearing participants asking for flexible funding to support learning, experimentation, and innovation. Our foundation has entrepreneurial roots and a belief in the value of risk capital, but our grantees are usually stretched too thin to try something that may not work. As a first step in our Advocacy Initiative, we are supporting groups to research and test new ideas and conduct experiments in their campaigns and organizations.

Invest in ideas that have the potential to spread.

As we evaluate funding proposals, we are embracing a movement generous mindset. Rather than simply helping one organization get better at what it is doing, we are keenly interested in investments that have the potential to inform the work of others.

Support peer-to-peer learning.

As a foundation, we have the resources to convene, to facilitate learning, and to share stories of what is working through our networks. This is something we have done for decades and intend to do more of as we near our sunset.

Learn out loud.

Over the coming months we will be sharing what we are learning from this initiative and our work with emerging leaders and conservation philanthropists. We don't want to learn alone or behind closed doors.

Do you have ideas you can share with us? How would you increase the impact of conservation advocates?