Advocacy that Builds Power: Transforming Policies and Systems for Health and Racial Equity

Published: April 2021

Type: Publication

This report, and the evaluation that informed it, examines what it takes for advocacy to build power in addition to achieving wins.

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Albertina Lopez
Mariah Brothe Gantz

Download the Executive Summary here.

Foundations that support advocacy historically have measured success by whether a policy or systems change “win” has been achieved. Did the campaign succeed in passing Medicaid expansion? Were advocates successful in getting home visiting programs funded?

These are important goals for sure, but we see time and again that wins can be vulnerable and, on their own, insufficient. Once achieved, they often face attacks. When political control shifts, they can be reversed. In addition, wins are only as successful as their implementation. If they are not monitored and implemented effectively, they are just words on paper or empty promises.

While philanthropy generally recognizes that the time required to get to a win can be long term and that there are other important measures of progress along the way, advocacy strategies designed for the sole purpose of winning can come up short when the goal is long-term change and systems transformation. Wins are incremental steps toward a longer-term goal. No single policy or systems change win will solve the complex and systemic problems we currently face.

This point has additional significance for foundations that aim to advance racial equity and justice through their advocacy efforts. If advancing equity through advocacy is the goal, measures of success must include attention to what was won (the win should help address racial disparities and their root causes) and how it was won (communities impacted by the problem advocacy is intended to address should be centered in the work).

Achieving wins that sustain and equitably meet the needs of impacted communities—who also are best positioned to continue advocating for wins after they are achieved—requires an orientation to funding advocacy that is focused on more than just what it takes to achieve a win. It requires advocacy that builds power.

This report, and the evaluation that informed it, examines what it takes for advocacy to build power in addition to achieving wins.

While getting policy wins and systems changes remains a necessary and important objective, what does it mean to center impacted communities as the drivers of change? What does it mean to make building their power the ultimate goal of advocacy work? What does it require of the broader ecosystem of actors—funders, professional advocates, and other allies—who also are involved in the work?

During 2019 and 2020, the Center for Evaluation Innovation (CEI) partnered with The California Endowment (TCE) to examine these questions through an evaluation of the advocacy and systems change work being conducted in communities supported through the Building Healthy Communities (BHC) initiative.

This report begins with background on BHC, describes our evaluation approach, and defines key terms. It then offers the conceptual framework we used to guide data collection and analysis, followed by our findings about advocacy that builds power. The report ends with implications for funders who support advocacy.

This report is a companion to the 2020 report produced by the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), An Ecosystem to Build Power and Advance Health and Racial Equity. The CSSP and CEI evaluation teams collaborated on data collection and shared the same data and conceptual framework.