Stepping into the Fight: A Funder’s Guide for Understanding and Supporting Legal Advocacy

Published: August 2016

Type: Publication

Jared Raynor
Deepti Sood

What is legal advocacy?

Legal advocacy – also known as advocacy through the courts – uses the judicial system to advance social change goals. This is often done by bringing forward a legal case in court that focuses on improving a situation for a particular group of disadvantaged people.

Brown v. Board of Education – which kick-started the school desegregation movement – is a classic example of legal advocacy. The case argued that separate schools were inherently unequal in an era when legislation on school integration was unlikely to change.

Should I fund legal advocacy?

Funders interested in supporting legal advocacy should ask themselves four questions:

  1. Is the legal environment the appropriate arena for moving this change forward? Have non-legal strategies been tried? Have the necessary legal precursors been met?
  2. Is the advocacy environment ready to take on this issue? Are advocates ready to use strategies to complement legal advocacy such as public awareness and education, media relations, grassroots organizing, and legislative advocacy?
  3. What aspects of legal advocacy need support? Do advocates need funding to conduct preliminary research on a case, to bring on more counsel, to build partnerships with the community, or something entirely different?
  4. Does legal advocacy fit within my foundation’s strategy? Are issues we care about likely to be impacted? How will legal advocacy work complement or harm our other work? Does my foundation have a clear vision for supporting this work?

Philanthropic staff we spoke to noted that a legal background was not necessary to make these grants. Any program officer who has experience working with advocacy groups and coalitions and who is willing to ask thoughtful questions and listen for how the legal strategy connects with non-legal strategies, is suited to make a grant for legal advocacy work.

How can my foundation support legal advocacy?

Funders are sometimes leery of getting involved in the complexities and perceived cost of legal advocacy; however, there are a number of ways foundations can support legal advocacy. These include:

  • Building the capacity of legal advocacy organizations or the capacity of other advocacy organizations to partner with legal advocacy organizations
  • Funding legal advocates researching an issue
  • Facilitating relationships between legal advocates and others, such as non-legal advocates and community organizers
  • Supporting communications or media relations, including testing of messages
  • Supporting various phases of litigation including Supporting implementation of a legal change.

This resource was part of the Atlas Learning Project, an initiative to draw on the considerable experiences and insights of The Atlantic Philanthropies as its grantmaking came to a close. The Atlas Learning Project was a three-year effort coordinated by the Center for Evaluation Innovation to synthesize and share lessons from advocacy and policy change efforts that Atlantic and other funders have supported in the U.S., with the goal of helping push philanthropy and advocacy in bolder and more effective directions.

Other Resources on Legal Advocacy