Finding the Goldilocks Zone in Policy Influence

Celine Coggins

Five Considerations for Funders Seeking to Get It “Just Right”

The coming year will be a critical moment for philanthropy to aggressively fight the myriad threats to equity that have emerged from the COVID-19 crisis. Giving that helps individuals meet basic needs will not be enough. The challenges are structural and funders’ response must include policy.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s new report, Policy Influence: What Foundations Are Doing and Why, is a timely guide that prompts funders to reflect on their own practices in the context of the larger field. To quote one foundation leader in the report, “If foundations do not seek to influence public policy that furthers the goals of their grantmaking, they are undermining their own work.”

In my role as executive director of Grantmakers for Education, I have conversations with many funders as they wrestle with how involved to be in policy, how to assess their investments, and how to balance their vision with grantee autonomy. I come to these discussions with a grantee’s perspective on the pitfalls of power that philanthropic leaders must avoid to do policy work well. For more than a decade, I ran a national nonprofit, Teach Plus, that empowered more than 35,000 teachers to influence policy. I even wrote a book, How to Be Heard, on bridging gaps between the less-powerful and more-powerful in decision-making.

I could not have done this work without philanthropy. But I also feel compelled to speak truth to power, which is that funders vary widely in their ability to strike the “just right” point on accountability and support in policy-focused grantmaking.

Policy influence is difficult to measure, making it vulnerable to pendulum swings in funders’ approaches. At the moment, in most areas of public policy the field is in the process of a swing away from top-down and toward bottom-up practices. I believe there are five dimensions of this swing that funders should consider in their grantmaking. In my view, the aspiration is to be somewhere in the middle — drawing the best from both ends of the spectrum to build a strategy that is both authentic to the voice of communities in need as well as politically pragmatic.

Expertise: The technical-to-proximate continuum.

A positive recent development has been that more foundations are intentionally broadening how they define and value expertise. Too often in the past, a deep understanding of community context and proximity to vulnerable populations was an undervalued form of knowledge. A decade ago, for example, due diligence on a policy nonprofit might have focused most heavily on the credentials of their legislative analysts and their connections in the state house.

Today, instead, the initial question might be, “Did you grow up in a community that this policy will affect?” This recalibration is a good one. It’s the result of funders learning about resilient leaders and effective messengers. Yet, it risks overcorrection. Policy influencers are brokers. They are successful when they can sit between two worlds and serve as a translator between the technical and budgetary demands of policy and the heartfelt and valid demands of people. Proximity and technical expertise are the winning combination.

Issues: The generic-to-specific continuum.

Funders are trending toward listening more carefully to the constraints of nonprofit policy partners and supporting a flexible approach to issues. Yet, if not set within clear boundaries, this flexibility risks both disingenuousness and future conflict with grantees.

When I hear funders say, “The grantee has complete autonomy to determine policy issues,” I worry. What if you your foundation has deep roots with the local school district and the grassroots nonprofit you support decides the city needs a charter school? When foundations talk about flexibility and autonomy, what they often mean is, “We are trying to be less prescriptive and listen better, but we have not codified clear guardrails around what we will and won’t support.” In the school example, the balance between too generic and too specific might be the funder that clarifies their guiding principles on the types of school choice they support, the types they do not, and their rationale. There is a sweet spot between an overly narrow agenda and an “anything goes” approach. It is necessary for foundations to find and articulate that.

Information: The truth-to-propaganda continuum.

As grantmakers have moved to become more issues agnostic, they have developed a corollary theory of change about information. The gist is: “As funders, our information is inherently biased, so we must be careful not to frame the conversation with it. If we empower communities to have greater voice, they will know what to say.”

Much of this is true. However, there are informational roles that funders should play that are not propagandist, but rather that help new advocates find their authentic truth. The first of these is funding research (of all types). A whole-neighborhood survey will better capture community voice than repeatedly hearing from the seven individuals most likely to attend local meetings. The second role for funders is ensuring that would-be policy influencers have information about which issues on the legislative agenda will affect them and how. The community may be focused on reducing class size, yet the state may be contending with a significant tax revenue shortfall. Basic information is needed to harness people’s passions into the context for productive advocacy.

Goals: The immediate-to-generational continuum.

As CEP’s report points out, achieving policy goals is notoriously difficult and can take time. Of late, foundations are increasingly acknowledging that their endowments were grown in part by racist and exploitative practices and, as such, the money is owed to Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. The pendulum is tipping toward giving with “no strings attached,” with an aspiration for societal change across a generational time horizon.

This longer-term thinking is more in line with the pace of policy change and respects the time it takes to achieve community consensus. Yet, it also burdens grantees with a new set of responsibilities, as they must navigate the infinite options on an advocacy path without experienced foundation partners. Shorter-term timelines and metrics can help as tools for rallying new participants, focusing direction, and allowing groups to recognize and celebrate small wins on the longer journey.

Approach: The practitioner-to-wonk continuum.

Funders have the ability to convene stakeholders of varying skillsets and foster their collaboration. The most compelling policy case is one that marries the rigorous research of think tanks or academia with the transformative stories that can only come from direct service providers. There are limitations to either research or storytelling as standalone advocacy strategies, but few organizations can do both well. Funders would be wise to lean into their role as a connector to build networks that can succeed at influencing policy.

Setting a policy agenda is an act of calibration, both for governments and for foundations. As Policy Influence observes, funders are learning the “importance of humility, transparency, and proximity” as they deepen their policy work. A strategy built with these five considerations in mind will allow foundations to foster authentic partnerships best positioned to fend off the immense threats to equity of the coming era.

Celine Coggins, Ph.D. is executive director of Grantmakers for Education and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of How to Be Heard: Ten Lessons Teachers Need to Advocate for Their Students and Profession. Follow her on Twitter at @Celine_Coggins.

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