Funders Need to Advocate for Policy Change Right Now

Naomi Orensten

Amid multiple pandemics in the United States that are disproportionately harming communities of color — and a colossal failure in government response — we need philanthropy to pursue policy changes that dismantle the structural inequities plaguing the nation.

Foundations are uniquely positioned to contribute to systems change. Without the constraints of election cycles or quarterly reports, they have the freedom to plan and act over a long-term horizon — and to take swift action when needed. Foundations can experiment and take risks without external pressures that other sectors face, freeing them to address the thorny problems that have defied government or market solutions.

For these reasons — and especially considering the miniscule aggregate resources of philanthropy relative to public sector dollars — supporting policy change is a high-value way for foundations to achieve systems change. Indeed, funding advocacy efforts is a core component of the Philanthropy’s Commitment Pledge, which more than 750 funders have signed onto.

CEP recently released a study, informed by the perspective of hundreds of foundation leaders, in which we learned that foundation leaders overwhelmingly believe that policy engagement is a crucial tool to achieve their goals and, ultimately, to improve the lives of people and communities their foundations were created to help.

Foundation leaders are motivated by a moral and strategic imperative for philanthropic advocacy, as well as a conviction that, at its best, philanthropic engagement in policy elevates unheard voices, advances justice and equity, fuels democracy, and holds government to account. We’re seeing this in action, right now and over the past several months, as numerous philanthropic advocacy efforts respond to our country’s compounded crises.

I share some of these examples here in the hopes that they encourage funders on the fence about policy engagement to boldly step into the policy realm and be fearless advocates for their mission.

First, philanthropic advocacy can elevate unheard voices. “The scales of influence in our democracy are not balanced. Our role is to lift up voices that are often ignored,” one foundation leader interviewed for the study told us. Foundations should fund, amplify, and give power to voices that are excluded from political decisions that shape their lives. For example, a group of foundations is funding the Families and Workers Fund’s advocacy efforts that center workers and families in decision-making on relief efforts and future economic policy. And dozens of foundations in California, with leadership from Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR), called on Governor Gavin Newson to provide relief measures to undocumented Californians.

The work to lift up voices that are too often suppressed includes funding organizations that are deeply rooted in — and trusted by — the communities they serve. Take, for example, funding from Surdna Foundation and Marguerite Casey Foundation supporting Black-racial justice advocacy organizations like Color of Change, the Movement for Black Lives Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, and the “Justice Oregon for Black Lives” initiative of Meyer Memorial Trust, the largest initiative in the Trust’s history, to invest in Black lives.

And let’s not forget that, as one foundation CEO notes, “The majority of public policy influencers are for-profits driven by their bottom line.” Right now, we need policy influencers that prioritize people and communities, not profits.

Second, philanthropic advocacy can advance justice and equity, and specifically racial equity. It’s not news that social policy contributes to unequal outcomes and racial inequities, which one foundation leader we interviewed rightly calls out as “injustices perpetrated through public policy.” This moment requires a massive overhaul of the systems that have led to such injustices. As such, foundations’ responses must center racial equity.

We are seeing a push for this. More funders are heeding the call from the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) that philanthropy must address anti-Black racism, over the long haul, in dismantling the structures that disadvantage and marginalize Black people. Earlier this month, more than 30 California funders signed a pledge to address deep racial inequities and stand together for an inclusive and equitable future. And many funders — though not enough — center equity across their work and intentionally focus on issues that disproportionately impact communities of color.

Third, philanthropic advocacy can fuel a vibrant, open, and more democratic society. As historian Olivier Zunz has put it, philanthropy has much more often “enlarged” our democracy than threatened it. For example, hundreds of U.S. nonprofits and foundations have been advocating for a fair and accurate 2020 Census and safeguarding the right to vote. In light of the pandemic, grantmakers like Thornburg Foundation are financing safe census outreach activities for hard-to-count communities. Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation recently announced its largest-ever single gift, which supports get-out-the-vote initiatives focused on communities of color.

Fourth, philanthropic advocacy can serve as a check and balance to government. One foundation leader put it bluntly: “Government is not going to fund litigation to sue itself to do better by immigrant children.”

Indeed, in response to COVID-19, it’s been nonprofits, with the support of philanthropy, advocating to protect incarcerated people and pushing back against politicians who have exploited the pandemic to limit access to abortion.

Beyond their dollars, foundations are also using their voices to call out systems in need of radical overhaul. “We have failed our nursing homes and all those who live and work there,” writes Terry Fulmer, president of the John A. Hartford Foundation, as she calls for urgent policy action. In light of the housing and eviction crisis, Melville Charitable Trust has called for “rental assistance, eviction and foreclosure prevention, and emergency financial assistance,” emphasizing that “we can’t talk about racism without talking about housing and zoning.” And Richard Besser, president and CEO of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in noting how COVID-19 has magnified inequities, called for “sick leave, universal health care, quality child care and early education, as well as fair immigration policies.” And just last week he called out the unconscionable efforts of the Trump administration to subvert public health guidelines and unnecessarily put lives at risk.

Foundations are also demanding accountability. “When no version of ‘the talk’ can keep a person of color safe, when leaders fail to lead and systems don’t protect, fury only rises,” reads a statement from W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Or consider Minneapolis-based Headwaters Foundation for Justice’s call to action for the city to invest in community health and safety rather than increasing the police department’s budget. Or — with growing concentration of wealth and income inequality, even as millions have found themselves jobless and at risk of eviction — advocacy from philanthropists for higher taxes and a more equitable tax structure.

Amidst these many examples, though, I’m reminded of a key finding in our study: even as foundation leaders think policy engagement is a crucial philanthropic tool, it remains a relatively small component of overall foundation efforts.

With unprecedented needs, disproportionate impacts on communities of color, and urgency to root out anti-Black racism, now is the time for the nation’s foundations to ask themselves why policy engagement is such a small component of their work, and where they must do more.

Naomi Orensten is director, research, at CEP.

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