DC Appleseed Illustrates the Power of Funding Advocacy

September 15, 2014
Karen FitzGerald

One of my high school English teachers introduced a unit on poetry with a drawing on the blackboard: a large carton of orange juice, standing tall next to a small can of frozen orange juice concentrate. “Which provides more juice?” he asked, and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that the small can of concentrate produces several more cups of orange juice than the large carton, so long as you added several cans of water to the concentrate. More discussion ensued, and it soon became clear that this teacher (himself a poet, and later an Oprah-featured novelist) saw poetry as  the can of orange juice concentrate  – seemingly small and inconsequential next to a hefty novel, but able to deliver a more transcendent payoff  for readers willing to put in the work.

This week, as long-time Meyer Foundation grantee DC Appleseed celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s fitting to apply this concentrate vs. carton analogy to debates within philanthropy over the merits of funding advocacy work.   Faced with intense competition for limited grant dollars, many foundations choose to fund direct service organizations – where the “who” and the “how” and the “how many” are straightforward.   It’s clear who benefits, for example, from an afterschool program aimed at helping middle school students improve their grades and it’s possible to know, through report cards and test results, whether the program is helping.

But what if there aren’t enough spots in these afterschool programs for all the students who need them and the solution is to push the school district to fund expansion? In the current theory-of-change philanthropic firmament where logic models and outcomes are the guiding stars, advocacy seems like an uncertain bet. The hoped-for outcomes – more funding for more spots — are not guaranteed: any number of political obstacles can derail even the soundest policy idea. Success could be several years away, long after a one-year grant cycle ends. Measuring progress as an advocacy campaign gains ground isn’t easy and assigning credit where it’s due is even harder.

The impressive accomplishments of DC Appleseed over the past 20 years show not only that advocacy is effective, but that a grant to support advocacy has the potential to improve many more lives than a similarly-sized grant to support direct services. Testing and treatment for the more than 14,000 DC residents with HIV/ AIDS has dramatically improved, in part because of the steady scrutiny Appleseed has applied to District government policies through its HIV/ AIDS Report Card over the past nine years. The District of Columbia now has a workforce intermediary, designed to match DC job seekers with employers in the construction and hospitality industries, thanks to more than five years of sustained work on DC Appleseed’s part. The groundwork for the District of Columbia Community College, which stands to benefit thousands  and is still a work in progress, was laid by research that Appleseed’s outstanding executive director, Walter Smith, did together with long-time DC champion Alice Rivlin.

The common thread running through these and DC Appleseed’s other accomplishments is the length of time the organization devotes to both understanding a problem and developing a solution. Appleseed’s freedom to take the long view is due in part to funders who understand that the organization’s careful approach to problem-solving – which involves enlisting the help of pro-bono attorneys, accountants, and other experts – takes time and patience. They also understand that it’s possible  to evaluate the effectiveness of advocacy work, even while acknowledging it’s not easy to do so.

Advocacy organizations are the philanthropic equivalent of cans of concentrate on our dockets. They have the potential to improve the lives of many thousands of people, but they need patient funders who are willing to invest for the long haul.

Congratulations to the exceptional staff and board of DC Appleseed, for 20 years of sustained work and solutions on some of the DC’s toughest problems, and for providing an example of how focused and concentrated advocacy work can produce big changes and improved direct services in our communities.

Karen FitzGerald is a senior program officer at the Meyer Foundation.