Purpose – This paper seeks to examine executive directors’ perceptions of the relationship between access to funding and an organization’s programmatic and advocacy activities. Design/methodology/approach – This study is based on data from a national survey of executive directors of non-profit advocacy organizations in the USA. The organizations were selected because they served minority and disadvantaged groups, and were heavily reliant on public funding. Findings – The findings indicate that several factors are associated with how organizations balance their programmatic and advocacy activities. They include dependence on public funding, constituencies served, and perception of funders. Despite evidence for institutional pressures to reduce advocacy activities, the results indicate that such activities are sustainable in organizations with a strong individual donor base. In essence, a stable source of grassroots resources can counter institutional pressures to reduce advocacy. Research limitations/implications – This study focuses on a specific subgroup of advocacy organizations. Although it offers insights into their perceptions, the findings do not necessarily reflect more general perceptions. Social implications – The findings enhance understanding of impediments to non-profit advocacy that stem from trends in public funding and regulations related to non-profit lobbying and advocacy activities. The findings also enhance understanding of the extent to which the influences of the emerging non-profit industrial complex are offset by traditional grassroots support for non-profit advocacy. Originality/value – This paper adds to the body of research on non-profit decision making in relation to the balance between programmatic and advocacy work. It adds to the understanding of how organizations interface with larger institutions in society and the constraints that institutional ties entail.