In an era when government has become less capable of solving problems due to increasing political polarization, dysfunction, and fiscal austerity, philanthropists are recognizing the need to support effective policy reform efforts that can break through the gridlock and make meaningful progress in addressing the issues they care about — whether it’s climate change, education, poverty, racial justice, health, or something else. Historically, many foundations had been reluctant to embrace advocacy, and some would argue that philanthropy — despite some discrete victories, such as the Atlantic Philanthropies’ support for healthcare reform — has had a limited impact on the policy arena.
However, funders are increasingly turning to policy advocacy as a lever for change and, in some cases, experimenting with institutional and staffing structures, or seeking to use their convening power and influence in addition to grants, to advance policy change.
Arabella Advisors recently interviewed a diverse group of 11 philanthropies to learn how they are approaching advocacy. We identified four common threads across these interviews that represent promising funder practices for advancing advocacy.
1. Philanthropists are increasingly willing to spend on lobbying and elections and are creating institutional structures that allow them to do so.
Lobbying and electoral engagement are crucial to achieving meaningful policy change. The ability to influence public policy requires the capacity to petition elected officials to support specific legislation and to hold them accountable for their actions at the voting booth. Yet for decades, philanthropists have largely deployed their capital through private foundations, which are precluded from directly supporting lobbying activities or funding and endorsing political candidates. When private foundations seek to impact policy debates using charitable capital alone through 501(c)3 grantees that have strict lobbying limits, they are often outmatched by politically powerful special interests that have armies of lobbyists and millions in political spending at their disposal. As one advocate has described it, this is akin to “bringing a white paper to a knife fight.”
In recent years, many philanthropists have sought to overcome these limitations by establishing legal structures that give them greater flexibility to invest in lobbying and electoral strategies. Newer philanthropists such as Sean Parker, Laura and John Arnold, and Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg have established LLCs as the primary home for their philanthropies — a legal structure that can support a greater range of political and policy activities than private foundations. Philanthropists are also increasingly partnering with 501(c)(3) and (c)(4) fiscal sponsorship intermediaries capable of deploying capital for lobbying and political activity in ways that private foundations cannot.
2. Foundations are creating advocacy teams with specialized experience to support their program officers and grantees — and that sometimes play a lead role in driving advocacy campaigns.
As advocacy has become an increasing focus for some philanthropies, many have assembled cross-cutting teams of advocacy specialists — people who bring political acumen and advocacy campaign skills to complement the expertise of issue-focused program teams and help program teams develop and execute smart advocacy strategies. For example, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) has created an internal advocacy team (a “horizontal”) that works with three program teams (issue-oriented “verticals” that focus on education, science, and justice and opportunity) to conduct power analyses of their issue areas, identify grantees or policymakers that can help them to advance their policy objectives, and determine what new capacities may be needed in the field to achieve policy change. Members of CZI’s advocacy team bring experience in both issue campaigns and electoral strategies and understand how to use both to influence policy.
Some funders have established policy and advocacy teams that take a proactive approach to leading advocacy campaigns, working independently of their program teams. The Rockefeller Foundation recently established a policy team to advance federal policy work on issues that don’t fit into any of the foundation’s established program areas but that have a broader impact on all the issues the foundation cares about. This policy team has spearheaded a campaign to promote strong U.S. foreign assistance and has its own agenda, budget, and portfolio of grantees separate from those of the foundation’s program teams. While the foundation cannot engage in lobbying or political activity, it is the driving force behind the advocacy campaign strategy — a departure from the role foundations have often played in the past, in which they have deferred to grantees to develop and lead advocacy campaigns.
Funder-led advocacy campaigns can yield more disciplined and focused policy campaigns in cases where grantees may not be strategically coordinated in the field and can capitalize on the foundation’s unique networks and brand of influence. However, an overemphasis on funder-driven advocacy to the exclusion of more open-ended investments in advocacy grantees can weaken the field over the long term. To counteract this, funders should balance their own leadership in advocacy campaigns with investments in grantee-driven advocacy and capacity building.
3. Foundations are investing significant resources into convening and network building to encourage strategic alignment among their advocacy grantees.
No one advocacy organization has the power to drive high-impact state or federal policy change on its own. Funders increasingly recognize that they can play an important role in encouraging collaboration among advocacy organizations that otherwise compete for resources and have incentives to work independently. These efforts are most effective when foundations encourage collaboration through relationship building and networking rather than mandate them through grantmaking.
For example, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Environment Program and its partners, including the Energy Foundation and the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, have invested attention and resources into building connectivity among advocacy organizations in 25 target states. Independent consultants in these states help identify opportunities for organizations to work with one another, host regular convenings to educate advocates, and promote across-the-aisle relationships that can help advance bipartisan policy change. Ford Foundation has also invested heavily in convenings that bring organizations together to share best practices and advance field-level change. It even has dedicated half of the space in its new headquarters for convenings and programs for its grantees. And several foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the California Endowment, and the Orange Door Fund, have pooled funding to support the Farm to Fork Initiative, which convenes a table of advocacy organizations to coordinate joint communications and advocacy efforts to promote federal good food policies and funds advocacy capacity and activities that help build a stronger food policy movement.
4. Funders are investing in long-term field building through multiyear grants, general operating support, and new capacity-building programs for their advocacy grantees.
Even while some funders are taking a more hands-on approach to engaging in advocacy, many also recognize that sustained policy change efforts require long-term investments to build capacity and nurture strategic flexibility in their advocacy grantees. For this reason, Ford has committed to providing multiyear, general operating support to help develop the long-term capacity of its grantees. And many funders, in addition to providing funding, offer training and technical assistance to grantees on topics such as lobbying compliance, media and communications strategies, digital and data tools, and strategies for building bipartisan alliances.
Not all these practices are new. There is, however, significant experimentation among advocacy funders as they become more creative about their approaches to advancing policy change. We expect innovation to continue as philanthropists increasingly recognize that advocacy is an indispensable lever for impact on the issues they care about most.
Loren McArthur is an Arabella Advisors senior director. Follow Arabella on Twitter at @arabellaadvisor.