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Funding big picture advocacy

The South African Constitution creates a legal framework in which equality, dignity and non-discrimination are firmly established. In addition to the recognition of civil and political rights, socio-economic rights (such as the right to housing, food, water, health care and social assistance) are also enshrined in the Constitution. Within its available resources the state is legally obliged to take active measures to achieve the progressive realisation of these rights.



Despite the fact that our new democracy and our new government are doing a lot to change the lives of the majority and the poor, the fact remains that there is still a large section of the population that the government has failed to reach. That leaves the space for civil society to assist and support those communities, and to advocate on their behalf.*
Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, Executive Director, Inyathelo


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The Constitution and the Courts: Transforming Lives

Many of the advocacy initiatives led by The Atlantic Philanthropies grantees have aimed to make substantive changes in the quality of life of large numbers of people, particularly those at the social and economic margins. This ‘big picture’ advocacy has left an indelible imprint on the South African landscape in that key rights have been translated into concrete realities in relation to, for example, land ownership, same-sex relationship recognition, and access to education, health care and justice.

NGOs, funders and communities have come together around advocating change in the lives of migrants and refugees, LGBTI people, women, people living with HIV and AIDS, and impoverished people, who bear the brunt of social inequalities. This advocacy – both on the streets and in the courts – has both challenged and changed government’s failures to deliver.

We try to win campaigns firstly through political means, through exercising pressure on government or business to do the right thing, before resorting to legal action. *

Brad Brockman, General Secretary, Equal Education

Most significantly, advocating change has empowered disadvantaged populations to advocate on their own behalves. Through a combination of tactics, including advocacy, grassroots organising, protest action, public interest litigation and communications, Atlantic grantees have advanced a range of critical rights in South Africa.

Some concrete approaches to grantmaking in support of advocacy are presented below.

Research for action

Any advocacy strategy is ideally grounded in a clear understanding of the issues it seeks to tackle. This requires the gathering of existing data and on-the-ground information, and, in some instances, for new research to be undertaken. Building a firm knowledge base about an issue and its impact on communities informs strategy and can be used to generate public awareness about why a particular course of advocacy intervention is necessary.

Building support for advocacy necessitates both pressure and persuasion. The efficacy of both can be enhanced through evidence-based research that is communicated in an accessible and targeted manner.

Information and research are also crucial for making the case as to why, how and by whom a social concern should be addressed. With this firm foundation, and through effective communication strategies, momentum can be built around an advocacy campaign. This momentum and the interest it garners can increase public pressure on decision makers, and others, to act.

In response to xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Atlantic funded a comprehensive research project in order to better understand the scale and scope of the violence. It provided both an analysis of the conditions in which xenophobia occurs, as well as offering practical recommendations as to how it might be addressed.

The research was geared to inform what role civil society should play in responding to xenophobia, as well as how this might be strengthened. Atlantic invested in the production of many reports and evaluations aimed at developing both the quality and quantity of information available to decision-makers on issues related to health, education, land rights and LGBTI discrimination, amongst others.

Atlantic grantees have produced extensive materials based on their direct experiences of advocacy campaigning. One such example is Lessons From A Communications Campaign For South Africa’s Rural Poor, which provides tips on how communications can support advocacy actions. Another is a case study of two successfully national advocacy campaigns: The Gun Free South Africa campaign aimed at reducing the number of firearms in circulation and the historic campaign for the recognition of same-sex marriage in South Africa. This case study highlights key dimensions of a successful advocacy campaign, namely:

  • Clarifying the campaign goal and the issues it tackles
  • Researching the issue and its context
  • Building support through strategic partnerships
  • Mobilising specific constituencies and communities
  • Working with the media
  • Lobbying decision-makers and community leaders
  • Using legislative and judicial processes to advance rights11

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Litigating for change
Atlantic grantees have been at the heart of every important legal challenge to advance social and economic rights in South Africa.*
Gerald Kraak, Programme Executive for Reconciliation and Human Rights in South Africa,
The Atlantic Philanthropies


The law is a powerful tool through which to advocate for change, for example by means of litigation. Litigation uses judicial processes to obligate government, and other centres of power, to proactively respond when a right is undermined, infringed or made inaccessible. The aim of high-impact litigation is to set a precedent by bringing about a change in law in the wider public interest.

Public interest litigation uses the law and the courts to effect change. It is most often activated on behalf of marginalised groups or individuals who, although they may have equal rights under law, have neither the access nor the resources to ensure that those rights are observed.

If funders trust and support grantee organisations and do not impose preconceived notions about what they believe to be the right strategy and tactics on the ground, we can dramatically increase the potential of advocates to make a difference on issues that are most vital to our mission. *

Rebecca Rittgers, The Atlantic Philanthropies


Public interest litigation alone cannot resolve social inequity. It is, however, one of the key contributors to social change, particularly when used in collaboration with broader social campaigns and advocacy to reinforce programmes for change.

The investment of time and energy in the courts is not just a jurisprudence issue, it’s also about really affecting people’s lives.*
Janet Love, National Director, Legal Resources Centre


By taking key cases to the courts, litigation has resulted in government action to advance, amongst others, land rights, LGBTI and women’s rights, access to health, education, water and sanitation. In most instances, public interest litigation has been accompanied by direct protest action and targeted media campaigns, and is strongly linked to wider social movements.

Philanthropy that supports public interest litigation has to be clear in intention, committed to the identified need, and able to bear moments of great uncertainty and the possibility of failure. However, it is also philanthropy that understands that the success of democracy rests on an ability to close the crippling inequality gap, and to uphold the principles of rights and social justice as enshrined in the Constitution. In South Africa limited resources for public interest litigation is a stumbling block. There is room for significant improvement in support to organisations that take up public interest litigation as well as in the development of a diversity of models as to how such litigation can be supported. For some donors case by case support may be the most attractive. However this comes with the caution that potential cases often come about with little warning, and that the turnaround time for providing support is short, requiring decisive commitment. Several of the projects supported by Atlantic necessitated legal action and campaigns for mobilisation, designed to challenge political sluggishness in delivering on constitutional obligations.

One of the most ambitious public interest litigation strategies to be pursued in post-apartheid South Africa was undertaken by LGBTI organisations. This was spearheaded by the then National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, later to become the Equality Project.

Through a number of precedent-setting legal cases that concerned the rights of gays and lesbians, a string of victories were won through the courts. These include the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the extension of immigration rights to same-sex partners, employment equity rights, co-parenting and adoption rights, and, most notably, the right for same-sex couples to marry. These legal achievements, won primarily through public interest litigation, also contributed significantly to the development of equality jurisprudence12 in South Africa.


left-quoteAtlantic allowed us – as a new generation of social justice activists, community organisers, public interest lawyers and researchers – to build a new jurisprudence.*right-quote
Fatima Hassan, Executive Director, Open Society Foundation for South Africa


Other examples of successful public interest litigation include:

  • Housing: In a case brought by the Legal Resources Centre, representing Irene Grootboom and 900 other homeless people, the right to housing was advanced. As a result of the legal case brought, the Constitutional Court compelled the Cape Town local authorities to provide shelter to the homeless.
  • Social security: Black Sash advanced the right to social security by taking legal action against the state in regard to pension payouts. Significant delays in pension payouts had a serious impact on the lives of poor people. In 2001 the court issued an order that gave people the right to back pay from the date of application. A year later, the President made ZAR2.1 million available to all those who had been affected by the delays. The “back pay case” was a huge victory for millions of South Africans. Another case brought by Black Sash resulted in the extension of the Child Support Grant, which brought 10.3 million children into the social safety net. Similarly, Black Sash spearheaded a campaign to increase the number of children eligible for a Foster Care Grant from 40,000 in 1998 to just under half a million in 2011.
  • Education: In 2011 Equal Education mobilised students protests against the conditions of hundreds of schools in the Eastern Cape that were constructed from mud and that lacked running water and toilets. The campaign demanded that government ensure every child’s right to education by guaranteeing a safe, clean learning environment. Alongside direct protest action, Equal Education, supported by the Legal Resources Centre, took the Eastern Cape government to court to replace mud schools with proper infrastructure. The case was a victory in that government made ZAR 8.2 billion available for school improvements. In 2013 Section 27 (formerly the AIDS Law Project) successfully litigated to compel the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provincial governments to provide textbooks for primary schools.
  • Health: Access to health care services is a basic right in the South African Constitution. Through litigation, Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) forced the government to implement the prevention of mother-to-child transmission by introducing anti-retrovirals into the public health sector to reduce the number of HIV-positive babies born to HIV-positive mothers. TAC’s activism resulted in increased public spending on HIV and AIDS, the lowering of the price of anti-retrovirals, and the availability of treatment in low-income settings. As a result, 1.6 million people were receiving treatment in early 2012, up from zero in 2004.
  • Land: In 2010, the Legal Resources Centre, together with local communities, successfully challenged the Communal Land Rights Act, resulting in the securing of land ownership for many rural people, and protecting the equal rights of women living in rural areas.
Atlantic grantees have been at the heart of every important legal challenge to advance social and economic rights in South Africa.*
Gerald Kraak, Programme Executive for Reconciliation and Human Rights in South Africa,
The Atlantic Philanthropies


An evaluation of a number of high impact litigation efforts in South Africa indicates that for public interest litigation to have maximum success, it should be coupled with:

  • Public information and awareness raising
  • Advice and support to rights claimants
  • Mobilisation and advocacy to ensure that the communities whose rights are being infringed are actively engaged13

Of interest to philanthropists who might be considering support to public interest litigation, are a number of factors that Atlantic found to be critical to maximising the success of public interest litigation. They are:

  • Proper organisations of clients: This entails the investigation and assessment of the capability of the clients most likely to lead successful public interest litigation
  • Overall long-term strategy: Most commonly, public interest litigation achieves success through a series of cases rather one single case. Cases form building blocks that will, cumulatively, bring about impact. Funders need to be able to commit to both the immediate and long-term implications of support
  • Co-ordination and information sharing: Public interest litigation invariably attracts several organisations coalescing around the same issue. How information is co-ordinated and shared is a critical factor for success
  • Timing: Litigation should be part of a larger programme of intervention that includes active encounters with decision-makers prior to seeking a remedy through the courts, often as a last resort
  • Research: Public interest litigation requires detailed and exhaustive research both prior to and during litigation
  • Characterisation: It is important that the issues being challenged by public interest litigation are shown to be critical to the assertion of fundamental rights to amend inequality and injustice on the widest possible scale
  • Follow-up: Perhaps the most important factor of public interest litigation is the work that needs to be put in to ensure that litigation victory is put into effect14

Some actions funders can take to support public interest litigation:

  • Provide core funds to organisations to enable their long-term capacity to institutionalise litigation as a strategy
  • Convene gatherings of organisations and lawyers from different jurisdictions to share experiences, strategies and lessons
  • Support dialogues on the assessment and impact of litigation strategies
  • Demonstrate a sustained commitment to the use and development of public interest litigation as a powerful tool for social change15

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Capacity for advocacy

Capacity development is a critical part of any organisational strategy for social change. Advocacy capacity includes growing the knowledge, expertise and potential of both advocates and organisations to identify, design and drive advocacy initiatives. Through core support, alliance-building activities, and specialised skills development, grantmakers can contribute directly to strengthened advocacy leadership. In addition, grantmakers can also support:

  • Organisations to build solid and strong structures to drive advocacy actions
  • Skills development in areas such as communications, campaign planning and lobbying
  • Access to skilled legal expertise
  • The development of a knowledge base of advocacy experience

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Locally-driven impact

Advocacy mobilisation brings together people with a shared stake in a particular issue/s and enables them to collectively express their position on how it should be addressed. By supporting advocacy organisations, grantmakers can assist communities in articulating these positions – both to the public and to those with the power to intervene. Through spurring citizen engagement at the local level, the involvement of those most impacted by human rights violations can be mobilised. Such local organising brings in the voices and visions of people on the ground, and creates the opportunity for solutions to be locally-driven.

In its grantmaking, Atlantic left the formulation of advocacy strategies and tactics over to its grantees. It recognised that local understandings and know-how are key to the development of contextually appropriate advocacy goals, strategies and messaging.

left-quoteWith the help of targeted grantmaking for advocacy to raise the voice of the LGBT community, same-sex marriage in South Africa is now legal – a tangible return on the Foundation’s investment in advocacy.*right-quote
Gerald Kraak, Programme Executive for Reconciliation and Human Rights in South Africa,
The Atlantic Philanthropies

While most advocacy initiatives aim to effect legislative and policy change, they also focus on changing the social environment in which laws and policies operate. Successful advocacy campaigns are able to activate wide networks and coalitions of supporters, thus growing the reach of the message and the actions demanded.

An oft-overlooked impact of advocacy is how, through campaign activities, community participation in public decision-making is stimulated. Direct action by individuals and communities in response to social challenges can deepen democracy by drawing more people into local decision-making processes. This in turn creates possibilities for solutions to be both sought and shaped by people in their local context.

left-quoteright-quoteIf funders trust and support grantee organisations and do not impose preconceived notions about what they believe to be the right strategy and tactics on the ground, we can dramatically increase the potential of advocates to make a difference on issues that are most vital to our mission.*

Rebecca Rittgers, The Atlantic Philanthropies

Advocacy activities directed at those who hold power (such as government and business), often meet with considerable resistance. This opposition is par for the course in advocacy work. It is for this reason that advocacy grantmaking requires a commitment to staying the course. It also necessitates grantee adaptability to changes in the external environment. General support grants can provide advocacy organisations with the flexibility needed to navigate the ever-shifting policy landscape in which advocacy takes place. Making longer-term funding commitments is crucial to seeing advocacy processes through.

There is a perception that advocacy is slow and hard to evaluate, and thus seen to require long-term investments to yield impact. Sometimes quantifying the impact of advocacy can be challenging, particular given the time it requires to achieve demonstrable results. While measuring advocacy processes, outcomes and impacts can be complex, as the examples above illustrate, their effectiveness can be tracked through tangible outcomes.

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