Writing For Systems Change: How to Make the Case for Advocacy

October 28, 2019

Elevate is proud to share that several of our team members were selected to present three different breakout sessions at the upcoming Grant Professionals Association Annual Conference, which was held November 6-9, 2019 in Washington, DC!

Leading up to the conference, we’re sharing previews of these sessions, and some of what our presenters will be teaching. In this post, we’re looking at some of the complexities of fundraising for advocacy activities, particularly as they complement direct services, and how to craft compelling grant proposals that win funding for this type of work.

Many nonprofit organizations that aim to achieve social change by providing services to their communities have begun incorporating advocacy activities alongside their direct services.

But because the results of advocacy work are often long-term, and the context can get complicated very quickly, it can be difficult to write a compelling request for funding.

In this post, we’ll be taking a closer look at what advocacy work is and how it can complement direct service work, some of the challenges involved in fundraising for advocacy, and best practices for preparing compelling requests – all of which will help you find, pursue, and win more grants for your advocacy activities. 

What is Advocacy? And how is it different from direct services?

The Alliance for Justice defines advocacy as any action that speaks in favor of, recommends, argues for a cause, supports or defends, or pleads on behalf of others. Advocacy is a powerful catalyst for change that can improve the laws, policies, and systems that impact entire communities. For the purpose of this article, we think of advocacy as systems change – in particular, policy change.

On the other hand, we define direct service as the provision of resources, programs, and benefits that work to address the symptoms of social problems and meet the immediate needs of your target population. Some common examples of direct services organizations include health clinics, food pantries, soup kitchens, and organizations that provide services like individual skills training or education, mentoring, or case management.

For direct services agencies, the most common types of advocacy are:

  • Organizing – for example, building power at the base;
  • Research – for example, gathering and presenting on-the-ground data;
  • Educating decision makers – for example, meeting with policymakers to educate them about the issues affecting their communities;
  • Educating the public about the legislative process – for example, amplifying the voices of people who benefit directly from an organization’s programs; and
  • Lobbying.


Understanding the Funding Landscape, and the Challenges

There are many funders who recognize the synergies between direct service and advocacy, but there are many more (particularly at the local level) who are not well versed in the relationship between advocacy, direct service, and their own philanthropic goals. For this reason, fundraising for advocacy has several built-in challenges that are helpful to be aware of from the start.

For instance, local funders and foundations that are used to funding direct services may not always have the staff or the bandwidth to discuss specific proposals and advocacy strategies, to learn more about how an organization’s advocacy work aligns with their impact goals. Relatedly, these funders often shy away from funding advocacy because they conflate advocacy work with lobbying.

On the other hand, while there may be fewer funders willing to fund advocacy activities compared to direct services, the good news is that the funders who do fund advocacy often offer larger and/or multi-year grant awards, more general operating support, and a different (and often less-intense) focus on outcomes during the grant period – because they understand the nature of this type of work.

Of course, to win grant awards to support your organization’s advocacy work, you’ll have to prepare a persuasive proposal that makes a strong case for funding.

Best Practices for Crafting a Compelling Request for advocacy

When it comes to drafting a strong proposal, knowing how to frame your outcomes, goals, and objectives in the context of advocacy is often a major stumbling block. It may help to think of them as follows:

  • Outcomes are the overarching changes you are hoping to bring about;
  • Goals are the tangible steps that occur to make this change possible; and
  • Objectives are the measurable activities you will implement to achieve the goal.


If we zoom out one step further, here is an example of how to approach some other key sections of your grant proposal when you’re requesting support for advocacy activities:

  • Needs Statement – Demonstrate the need for advocacy
  • Organizational Summary – Build your organization’s advocacy credibility
  • Program Description – Spell out your key advocacy activities; do they tie in with your direct service?
  • Goals, Objectives, and Outcomes – illustrate the systems change that will occur because of your work


In short, your objective in your grant application should be to clearly illustrate the change you’re hoping to achieve, how you expect that change will play out over time, and the role your organization will play in producing that change.

Written by Noura Hemady and Eric Spioch 

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