Diversifying Revenue as an Advocacy Strategy

How three Partnership members are leveraging new revenue streams to make bolder campaign choices


Photo by @PatrickPerkins via Unsplash

Three Partnership members share creative strategies they’re using to build financial independence and weather the frequent storms of nonprofit funding cycles. One feature that all three members have in common: their revenue-generating strategies are also program strategies that further the advocacy agenda for kids and families.

Hawai’i: Financial independence

Hawai’i is a state with a strong traditional culture of consensus and cooperation, says  Hawai’i Children’s Action Network Executive Director Deborah Zysman. But that beautiful tradition can sometimes pose a serious problem for policy advocacy organizations: Many partners shy away from advocacy choices perceived to be “controversial,” even in a politically progressive state.

In such a climate, there is a real danger in being too dependent on a small number of philanthropic sources: the organization could put itself at risk by taking an advocacy stance that funders may perceive as controversial, or too aggressive. Pursuing independent revenue streams allows Hawai’i Children’s Action Network to take a bolder stance for children – without risking the organization’s financial stability.

Zysman and her team bring strong fiscal management and administrative operations to the table. The organization’s strategies to generate unrestricted revenues are built around that particular area of strength:  

  • Fee-for-service: The organization provides project management services for mission-aligned partners, both in government and nonprofit sectors. 
  • Fiscal sponsorship: The organization is currently managing finance, administration, and back-end operations for seven mission-aligned nonprofit organizations. 
  • Strong investment portfolio: Investing is an inherently risk-taking strategy, but it is rewarding the organization with funds that are 100% unrestricted. 

Texas: Geographic reach

“Texas is just such a huge state, and there are many funders across the state,” says Chief Strategy Officer Charanya Ravikumar of Children at Risk. “But most of them are very regionally-focused, and the funding is typically directed towards their own communities.”

Building on their strengths as a convener and network-builder in a very large state, Children at Risk is developing a regional strategy to tap into new partnerships and funders. The organization has opened two regional offices in El Paso and North Texas. Each office has a regional director whose specific mission is both building program partnerships and fund development for the advocacy work. The strategy allows the organization to build authentic relationships with partners in areas of the state that were not previously accessible from their main office in Houston.

Ravikumar stresses the importance of being able to tell potential funders and other partners: “‘We’re doing statewide work, but it’s going to help the kids in your community. And this is how.’ We can only do that by being in the community.”

A regional strategy strengthens the organization’s base of support in many ways. “As an advocacy organization, having those voices and partnerships across the state, it’s just extra helpful for us as we develop our own advocacy agenda,” says Ravikumar.

Oklahoma: Political capital

Facing a loss of grant funding, Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy decided to develop a 365-page Desktop Calendar several years ago to feature their data advocacy. The Desktop Calendar has become a sought-after tool for legislators, capitol reporters, and other leaders in the state. Each page highlights relevant data about children and families, and shouts out a local child-serving program or organization (not to mention legislators’ birthdays and other key dates of note).

In creating the Desktop Calendar, OICA built on their strengths in actionable data analysis, and relationships with policy-makers and journalists, to create a new revenue opportunity for the organization. Every legislator, capitol reporter, and policy-maker in the state gets a copy of the Desktop Calendar – making it a prime sponsorship opportunity.

The calendar is much more than a vehicle for sponsorships, however. Executive Director Joe Dorman shares that OICA amplifies the calendar with hand delivery to legislative offices, daily social media shout -outs and highlights, and a reception for sponsors and partners. As a result, the project brings huge return on investment for advocacy programs as well.

The calendar’s content is highly mission-centric, and its high-touch distribution strategy encourages action for kids and families in Oklahoma. The funds generated by the calendar are totally unrestricted, allowing OICA to use them for whatever strategic choices best serve kids and families in their state.

Keeping it mission-driven

To be sure, every fundraising strategy comes with trade-offs. While a great new project idea may bring in new dollars, it can also soak up significant amounts of staff time that could be better spent on mission work to support children and their families.

The key for each of these Partnership members is to lean into their relative strengths as organizations. Each strategy they execute has the benefit of generating unrestricted revenue — but at the end of the day, they are strategies that above all promote the organization’s mission and advocacy agenda.

Many thanks to Deborah Zysman of Hawaiʻi Children’s Action Network, Charanya Ravikumar of Children at Risk, and Joe Dorman of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy,  for generously sharing their expertise and insights.