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You can’t achieve system change without investing in advocacy

Drawing from more than 30 Itad evaluations focused on advocacy, we outline the five big lessons we’ve learnt and that we think any funder of advocacy should be aware of.

A Black women protesting, her arm is raised in the air and she is speaking into a megaphone. She is wearing a yellow jumper. A person behind her is holding a wooden signpost.Policy advocacy is a widely accepted strategy for achieving social and political change. To address the root causes of any social issue – what many call systems change – you need to shift the legal, regulatory and policy environment that perpetuates it. The recent reversal of ozone depletion wouldn’t have happened if governments hadn’t intervened to ban ozone-depleting chemicals. Which in turn, wouldn’t have happened without a concerted effort on the part of a huge number of organisations and individuals clamouring for a solution.

Unsurprisingly therefore, as more funders set systems change ambitions we are seeing greater investment in advocacy. A recent OECD survey of foundations found that 82% now fund advocacy in some form.

But policy change is often slow and messy. What does this mean for how foundations support advocacy?

More than 30 Itad evaluations have focused on advocacy in some way. Below we outline a summary of the five big lessons we’ve learnt and that we think any funder of advocacy should be aware of.

1. Have strategic patience: funding advocacy requires playing a long and short game

Policy change is not linear. Nothing may happen for years, and then a window of opportunity opens, such as a new government coming into power, making progress suddenly seem possible. Or while a policy may be adopted quickly, bringing it to life may be a slow and frustrating process. And as we’ve seen with abortion rights in the US, policy wins can also quickly turn into losses when political winds change.

This requires funders of advocacy to practice strategic patience; to simultaneously hold a short- and long-term view. Be eager and push for change, while keeping an eye on what needs to happen for that change to be sustained.

What does this mean in practice?

First, commit and invest over the long term. One foundation we work with has been investing in advocacy related to HIV and malaria for over twenty years. This allows their grantees the benefit of long-term planning, to enable the kind of strategic patience and horizon scanning required to make and sustain change; it also gives weight to their voice on the issue.

Second, invest in advocates, not just advocacy. The unpredictable nature of policy change, requires strong, effective organisations that can bang the drum to keep an issue on the agenda, mobilize when windows of opportunity emerge, and sustain the pressure needed to ensure policy commitments are implemented.  This requires funders to think invest in strengthening organisations that can conduct advocacy at all stages. Flexible funding that allows them to become more resilient and capable advocates is essential.

2. No silver bullets: influence comes through a range of organisations and tactics working together

We are often asked to identify which organisations and tactics made the critical difference to a policy change. The evidence on this is conclusive: it’s never one organization or tactic that makes a difference. It’s always a combination. There are no silver bullets.

The political context and the nature of the policy issue are the main determining factors. If the political environment is less favorable, ‘outsider’ tactics and the organisations that specialise in them, can be most effective. This might involve grassroots mobilisation or media campaigns. If a policy issue is more technical, such as shaping the details of a country’s nationally determined contributions as part of the Paris Agreement, ‘insider’ tactics such as technical support, evidence, and decision-maker engagement may be most influential.

The right combination of tactics and organisations also changes with the stages of the policy process. What is needed to get the issue on the agenda is unlikely to be what is needed to influence the technical details of what goes in the policy. And monitoring policy implementation requires another set of skills again.

The main lesson for funders is: take the time to understand the context in which they are working, and think carefully about which combinations of organisations and tactics are best suited to the nature of the policy issue, the political context, and stage of the policy process.

3. Invest in coordination: aligned advocacy always has more impact

Good advocacy is collaborative advocacy. If decision makers hear the same ‘policy ask’ from several organisations, it will be more powerful and impactful. And different advocates bring distinct skills and networks. Pooling these resources and building on each other’s strengths is a more effective way of working than everyone trying to do everything.

Collaboration is especially important in moments of political crisis. It provides a bedrock of trust, which enables swift coordinated action. Given crises can open windows of opportunity, being placed to capitalize on these is vital. In the UK, for example, advocates working on funding for global health have been able to effectively navigate Brexit and the ensuing political crises, and still influence levels of funding, because they came together and pooled resources.

Supporting coordination can look like funding networks or coalitions, or directly contributing to coordination through convening advocates. One of our clients played a vital role in coordinating a consistent and compelling civil society response to proposed regressive changes in ODA definitions at the OECD-DAC during 2017.

4. Leverage your voice and contacts: recognize the value you have beyond your funds

Funders have a role to play that extends beyond their financial resources. In the context of advocacy this might be convening power, the ability to open doors to influential actors, or using their own voice to directly influence people in positions of power. This role can add real value. We have seen success come from a situation in which a funder worked closely with grantees in joint advocacy. The funder used its voice to directly engage senior decision-makers, supported by the provision of technical assistance and capacity building by grantees. This joint, strategic effort ultimately supported increased resource flows for health and education in Nigeria.

Playing this active role requires openness with those you fund regarding your strategy. It also requires listening and taking guidance from advocates on where and when to use these powers. As well as positive examples, we have also seen funders attempt to ‘short-cut’ advocacy efforts by using their direct influence to influence outcomes. This can undermine the creation of a strong, representative, grassroots advocacy community.

5. Don’t ask advocates to report on the number of meetings: help the advocacy ecosystem learn

We continue to see a fixation on monitoring and evaluating at the grantee-level, with funders and grantees reaching for indicators that are easy to measure but provide little useful information. Indicators such as ‘number of meetings with decision-makers’ abound – and are meaningless.

Our advice to funders is to take a broader perspective and invest precious monitoring and evaluation resources at the level of the advocacy ecosystem. Don’t commission evaluations of specific advocates (let advocates do this themselves). This helps the entire advocacy ecosystem to learn, by supporting understanding of synergies and overlaps between advocates. And remember to share the results of the evaluation widely to help others benefit from your insights and learning.


We would love to hear from you. If you are involved in the advocacy sector and these lessons resonated with you – or you have something to add to them, please get in touch with us to continue this conversation. Email us at or