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Real Funding for Advocacy: What Is Sorely Needed

The simple fact is that funding for arts education advocacy has been fractional. The state alliances have historically been funded on a marginal basis and local advocacy has for the most part been nascent. Underdeveloped advocacy efforts and little funding to support anything better. That’s arts education in 2011.

AdvocacyGraphic-full.jpgThink good ideas for an engine, but little gas in the tank.

The vast majority of arts and arts education funders don’t fund advocacy and remain leery of it. Side-by-side with the discomfort remains a lack of understanding of what is allowed by law and what is not. The fact of the matter is that the law allows for just about everything, except partisan politics. You cannot campaign for a candidate. Otherwise, you can lobby, print materials, train, communicate, organize, pursue judicial solutions, and more. And, while there are legal limits to some of this work, particularly lobbying, that limit has a fair amount of head room.

The trepidation here is certainly not limited to the funders. Endemic to the non-profit arts sector is a fear of advocacy. It’s okay with most boards as long as it’s a soft email campaign or soft public service campaign, maybe.

I guess the skepticism is understandable, after all, since much of what makes for the stuff of fundraising is about making nice to people. Tough advocacy, the sort we see relatively little of,  usually involves some sort of tension. The act of speaking out raises conflict, as a matter of course, and that has been difficult to incorporate into the identity most organizations have developed appropriate to the need to raise substantial amounts of money.

That being said, I do believe that if funders were to put more money out there for advocacy, that more would be done, a lot more.

So, it was with great interest, and a bit of sadness that I read this piece in The New York Times: Behind Grass Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates.

This past year, I watched in amazement as a brand spanking new advocacy organization emerged in New York City: Educators  4 Excellence. Here, a small group of young New York City school teachers create an advocacy organization around “education reform” issues such as seniority and “choice,” and the next thing you know, they have a campaign on local TV and are accorded a sort of elite status among many of the local education reporters.

It was one of those head scratching moments. How do a few relatively young teachers come from out of nowhere and then launch a very expensive TV campaign promoting their vision of “school reform”?

Well, the answer, in essence, is in the the Times piece. Funding, and plenty of it. And Educators 4 Excellence is just the tip of the iceberg.

The foundation spent $373 million on education in 2009, the latest year
for which its tax returns are available, and devoted $78 million to
advocacy — quadruple the amount spent on advocacy in 2005. Over the next
five or six years, Mr. Golston said, the foundation expects to pour
$3.5 billion more into education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy.

Unfortunately, arts education does not appear to be on the Gates Foundation, nor many of the other big-league school reform funder agendas. So, it is up to the many smaller foundations and individuals that support arts education

While arts and arts education funders debate whether or not they want to take any money away from direct service funding, and whether or not they are comfortable with funding advocacy, Gates will flood advocacy organizations they like with $3.5 billion of the next five years. And guess what else, much of what the flood of money will bring will do little to nothing about whether or not kids get the arts. In fact, I predict it will have a negative effect on the arts, as more and more of the public debate will be about charters, unions, and value-added measurements, throwing in a turnaround school here and there.

Many in arts education still think that program equals policy. In other words, there is still a lot of confusion between the definition of practice and that of policy.

In The Center for Arts Education’s 2006 strategic plan, advocacy was pushed to the forefront. After 130 whole school partnership, $40 million in direct funding of schools, helping to establish a $75 million a year categorical funding line in the local school district budget that returned over 1,000 arts teachers to the schools, and more, the organization recognized that programs is not policy and programs do not make policy.

I will say it again: programs do not equal policy.

I know that we need more support to do advocacy the right way, and I know that we are not alone.

I hope that the funding community is reading the article mentioned above, and while they do not have the resources of Gates, that they will recognize the fundamental nature of advocacy. It is not peripheral. It is not secondary to direct service. It is something which this field has been attempting to undertake for a number of years while being woefully under-capitalized.

The time is now.

And, here are two interesting resources, from the Atlantic Philanthropies, which urge foundations to become engaged in supporting advocacy and what some of that support could  target:

Confronting Systemic Inequities in Education

Advocacy Capacity Training Assessment: An Overview of the Field


  1. If I’m reading you right, the Gates Foundation is putting roughly 15% of its education spending toward “advocacy”, which they seem to define as championing a particular set of at least internally-agreed-upon educational practices. Does the non-profit arts community have a similar set of agreed-upon educational approaches to advocate for, and solid data to back them up?
    It seems to me that part of the problem is the diversity of our approaches and our reluctance to use quantitative data methods when it comes to measuring arts learning. It’s difficult to advocate without selecting a narrow band of practices to advocate FOR. What do we really want happening in every school? We need a shared set of answers to that. A second part of the problem is that we suspect that “drop-in arts”–single visits to theatres and one-time dance and music performances–don’t really affect learning all that much, but that’s what many if not most non-profit arts companies devote time and resources to doing. Most would rather make art for adults, and do “the education show” because that’s where the grant money is; arts education advocacy would benefit them only very peripherally in the short term, where budget decisions lie.

  2. I think that there is more than enough out there on arts education friendly policies to support a national, and regional advocacy agendas.
    Just as Gates does with the proposal development work with each grantee, if more funders were to support arts education advocacy, it would be easy to develop an agenda that is concrete, actionable, and well supported across various constituents.
    It’s about funders stepping up to the plate, as Gates has done, to influence policy. There’s more than enough work that has been done on policy issues, just not enough funders who see the importance of such work relative to funding direct arts instructional services.

  3. John Abodeely says

    AMEN, Richard. I had the same thoughts after reading that NYT article on Gates. More and more funders are getting in on it, it seems, but not quickly enough. And Gates’ work seems to be making a huge difference in advancing the type of education those wonks envision.
    Thanks for writing this. I’m going to share it broadly in the hopes more of us will see things as you see them.

  4. A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The Elusive Craft of of Evaluating Advocacy” (May 18) would agree with you that funders are often wary of supporting advocacy efforts. Beyond the worry of political fall-out, the authors posit that it is the difficulty in evaluating advocacy that has kept funders at bay. Unlike direct service programs, advocacy and work of changing public policy is not a linear “if/then” process. In their words:
    “Rather than focusing on an organization’s logic model (which can only say what they will do if the most likely scenarios come to pass), funders need to determine whether the organization can nimbly and creatively react to unanticipated challenges or opportunities. The key is not strategy so much as strategic capacity: the ability to read the shifting environment of politics for subtle signals of change, to understand the opposition, and to adapt deftly.”

  5. It’s a great opportunity to provide support not only for the work of advocacy, but also for the capacities necessary. Laurie, you’ve made a perfect point for some of the key capacities related to being in constant touch with the field/work, and the requirement that the organization be able to assess the changing landscape and recalibrate strategies when necessary.

  6. Kristen Engebretsen says

    @Habeas: Various groups have put out vision statements for arts education. Although delivery approaches differ greatly, there are some sound educational principles that many agree on in the arts ed world. Here are two samples:
    National example:
    Local example:

  7. Michael Wilkerson says

    The need for advocacy — ongoing, systemic, sophisticated, and not confined to once a year “arts advocacy days” is critical. Hooray for the blog post. One of the sector’s more interesting ironies is the disconnect between arts education advocates and experts, who see themselves losing the war for a place at the table in public education nationally, and the nonprofit arts sector, which has undergone a dramatic transformation in the direction of education in the past twenty years. The strengthening of education as a central function of museums, galleries, theaters, orchestras, etc, is the greatest single change in the nonprofit arts sector in the past generation, yet the practical alliances between that sector and arts education professionals are not strong enough. We could do so much more with a unified effort.

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