Collaborative Funding of an Advocacy Organization

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Honesty. Communication. Trust. Dedication. Patience. All form the foundation upon which relationships are built. Like any relationship, funding an organization as a collaborative effort—particularly an advocacy organization—requires a solid foundation.

An example of collaborative funding that continues to reach new peaks on the philanthropic horizon is that of Colorado Children’s Campaign (CCC). Created in 1985 as Colorado’s major children’s advocacy organization, CCC found itself struggling to secure foundation support for its advocacy efforts.

“With very few foundations willing to underwrite advocacy, we were lurching from grant cycle to grant cycle. In the meantime, demands were growing,” says Barbara O’Brien, executive director of CCC. “After 10 years of developing and managing project-specific work, the only funding available from foundations, I was burned out. I was in a room with our two strongest funders, my head in my hands, and I said, ‘I don’t know what to do.’”

CCC’s two strongest funders were Rose Community Foundation and Chambers Family Fund. Working toward the needs of at-risk children—particularly at the state level—both organizations stood firmly behind CCC. “I started working with Letty Bass of Chambers Family Fund on systemic change efforts for children and CCC was doing just that,” says Elsa Holguìn, Rose Community Foundation’s senior program officer in child and family development. “The organization was doing great work, but wasn’t getting individual or philanthropic support, in large part because it was doing advocacy work. So it was in our own self-interest to help—if CCC wasn’t there, we’d have to invent it.”

Holguìn and Bass spoke with Greater Denver’s foundation community to educate potential funders about CCC and its work. But first, the two foundations had to hold up a mirror for O’Brien. “First, we had to identify the problems, so that meant having brutally honest conversations,” says Holguìn. “It was a leap of faith on Barbara’s part—she had to trust us and put out all her dirty laundry for us to look at.”

“I can’t tell you how scary this was,” says O’Brien. “I had to show all my warts. It took an incredible amount of trust. Elsa and Letty said to me, ‘We’re not going to let you go under.’ The three of us formed this amazing partnership.”  Beginning in January 2000, Chambers Family Fund and Rose Community Foundation helped CCC reach both organizational and funding goals by funding a needs assessment, providing general support grants during the process, hiring a third-party consultant to do an organizational analysis, and bringing local foundations interested in children’s issues to a series of meetings on CCC’s future and advocacy funding.

With an honest assessment of the situation, Holguìn and Bass served as resources for the other foundations as they met to learn more about CCC. As discussions evolved, larger issues such as the role of advocacy in funding portfolios and barriers to funding advocacy surfaced. It was soon apparent that this experiment with CCC promised to change funding in Colorado if it reached fruition. More foundations would be open to providing general operating support for advocacy.

“Even funders that hadn’t funded CCC before recognized the importance of their work,” says Bass, executive director of Chambers Family Fund. With near unanimous buy-in from the other foundations that were gathered and after agreeing to the need for a strategic plan, Bass and Holguìn next addressed logistics and legal concerns by inviting an attorney to clarify foundations’ guidelines for funding advocacy. What resulted was a powerful collaboration of funders. “A nonprofit couldn’t have built a collaboration like this,” says Bass. “It had to be funder to funder.”

“The first infusion from the funders for general operating allowed us to increase our effectiveness, which put us on the radar screen for a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant and a Ford Foundation initiative,” says O’Brien. “Suddenly, we were able to participate in national projects, which was an unintended consequence.”

In 2000, an additional $80 million was added to the Colorado state budget for children’s issues, largely because of CCC’s efforts. The organization’s success was also highlighted in the 2000 Kids Count Data Book, a publication from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which found that Colorado was ranked 20th in the nation in the overall well-being of its children—up from 28th when CCC began its focus on systems change.

As a result of this funding collaborative, Colorado Children’s Campaign raised over $1 million in multi-year general support and has appreciably strengthened its staff, its board of directors, and its ability to serve children. The process concluded when funders converged for a common evaluation of CCC’s progress in September of 2001.

“You need to have such a strong, trusting relationship with funders and a base of support so that you can dream bigger dreams about what is possible to accomplish,” says O’Brien. “It was just wonderful on our end. The process was stressful, but it was like delivering a baby—you forget the pain.”