Fall 2011

Breaking the Wall Between Funding Direct Services and Advocacy


Written by: Kathleen Baca and Cheryl Milloy

Date: October 26, 2011

Editor’s note: We’ve heard many grantmakers say that the reason they don’t fund advocacy and community organizing is because they fund direct services. They seem to be under the assumption that funding one precludes funding the other. We hope to dispel this myth by featuring two foundations that fund important social services their communities need as well as policy and civic engagement efforts that seek to address the root causes of critical social issues. May their stories inspire other foundations to break the imagined silos.

Marguerite Casey Foundation: Supporting Families, Leading Change

Marguerite Casey Foundation is dedicated to creating a movement of working families advocating on their own behalf for change. We fund cornerstone community-based organizations that train leaders, advocates and organizers to work for changes in public policy. We ask grantee organizations to work across issues, regions, ethnicities and egos in support of all families. Our grantmaking and communications support movement building in an effort to bring about much needed change in policy and public attitudes that negatively affect poor and low-income families.

We do not fund direct services but rather provide general support to community organizations, some of which provide direct services along with engaging families in organizing and advocacy. We know from experience that providing unrestricted, long-term grants is a direct and efficient way to effect change at the grassroots level. Since its inception, Marguerite Casey Foundation has provided long-term general support grants to community organizations. We find these organizations not by soliciting proposals, but by relying on community members to point us toward specific groups already successfully engaging low-income families in policy solutions. We believe that unless poor families are leading the efforts for policy change, their issues will never be addressed.

Cornerstone direct-service providers have a natural base of families that can be empowered and engaged. Marguerite Casey Foundation has learned that long-term general support grants give direct service providers the operational flexibility to turn their attention to organizing and advocacy – critical components of social justice. It takes time, however, to incorporate movement building principles into direct service organizations; thus, multi-year grants are crucial. We also have learned that direct service organizations sometimes are unable to incorporate movement building into their operations. It requires staff and board commitment, as well as funding.

After nearly 10 years, the results are in. Our approach has created networks of low-income communities that rolled back payday loans in New Mexico, provided improved support for ex-felons reentering society in Illinois and, in 2010, increased voter participation by 246 percent in two of the poorest precincts in South Texas. In addition, our grantees have developed hundreds of thousands of community leaders, both youth and adults. Overall, our approach to philanthropy is to create strong organizations on the ground, engaged and informed families that can advocate on their own behalf, and networks of organizations working to ensure the well-being of all of America’s families.

The advice we would give to other funders interested in supporting direct service as well as organizing and advocacy is that long-term general operating support is a critical grantmaking strategy. Such support allows community organizations to incorporate organizing and advocacy into their service programming. Direct services can empower as well as stabilize families when they are provided with tools for systems analysis, organizing and policy advocacy. Working together across issues, geographies race and ethnicity, families and organizations then can advance a common agenda to achieve prosperity for all America’s families.

Kathleen Baca is director of communications, and Cheryl Milloy is evaluation and research officer of Marguerite Casey Foundation. For more information about the foundation’s programs, visit