How Can Funders’ Policy Engagement Practices Match Aspirations? By Centering Equity.

Lisa Ranghelli

The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s new report, Policy Influence: What Foundations are Doing and Why, provides a welcome snapshot of the sector’s recent approach to policy engagement.

Policy Influence highlights a chronic condition in philanthropy: practice often falls short of aspiration.

Ninety-three percent of foundation leaders responding to CEP’s survey believe that foundations should seek to influence public policy. Yet, while 90 percent also say that they do seek to influence policy, a majority say that influencing policy is a limited priority in terms of the allocation of grants, time, and resources. Only a slim majority (“more than half”) of foundation leaders report engaging in policy activities beyond grantmaking. And less than two-thirds of community foundations that engage in policy outside of grantmaking indicate that they lobby, a legally permissible activity for public grantmaking charities.

Attempting to affect policy is not a strategy that can be done well half-heartedly or on the cheap.

I prefer to view the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, though. Despite these findings, there are indeed positive trend lines in the report.

For example, half to two-thirds of funders report that, in the last three years, they have engaged in more public policy at all levels of government, especially state and local policy. No doubt the changed political landscape after the 2016 presidential election has had something to do with this shift.

The data in the report on how funders are engaging with policy, which I’ve examined through a Power Moves lens, are also promising. At least 75 percent of respondents that make policy grants are funding their grant partners to undertake an array of nine policy activities, and 91 percent are building power by funding community organizing and grassroots engagement.

Beyond grantmaking, a slim majority of those who already fund policy grants are wielding power by engaging directly in policy activities. Among these funders, for example, 85 percent report educating policymakers, funders, nonprofits, and other key actors; and 78 percent report using their bully pulpit (“voice”) to take public positions.

But it’s not all positive. Grantmakers are not sharing power as well as they could when it comes to policy engagement. While nonprofits consistently assert that they can best thrive when given general support and multiyear funding — and while the sector generally acknowledges this wisdom — many grantmakers still eschew these common-sense tips. Only 27 percent of foundation leaders say it is extremely important to provide core support for grantees’ policy efforts, and 54 percent have grant agreements that explicitly prohibit or limit lobbying. This prohibition is needlessly restrictive, as Bolder Advocacy has argued for years.

Why aren’t funders’ practices matching their aspirations? Foundation leaders cite challenges that seem to be perennial despite ample knowledge sharing on how to address them.

For example, at least one in three funders are unsure how to measure the effectiveness of their efforts. Yet, Bolder Advocacy, Innovation Network, Center for Evaluation Innovation, and others have spent the last decade or more producing guidance and sharing best practices on assessing advocacy efforts.

Another barrier is that grantmaker boards in particular are afraid of blowback if they take public stands, or if they fund nonprofits that do. Yet very few funders in CEP’s study report reprisals for engaging in the policy arena, and no community foundations report losing more donors than they gained. (In fact, 30 percent gained more donors than they lost!) Foundations can mitigate fears of blowback by soliciting input and co-creating policy agendas and strategies with grant partners and community leaders. Bringing funder board members and supportive legal counsel into dialogue with stakeholders to envision policy outcomes and tactics can help forge a stiffer backbone and perhaps motivate greater giving to policy work.

A majority of survey respondents also report engaging in policy collaboratives, which offers a way to share risk (and stretch limited policy dollars). But rather than considering how best to share risk, funders should reconceptualize risk altogether. Foundation leaders, consider the risks of engaging in policy compared to the risks of non-action (continuation or worsening of the status quo), or compared to the risks that communities of color and other under-resourced communities face every day. Funders and their trustees often enjoy tremendous privilege, yet they rarely assess risk in the context of their relative privilege. It’s time they do so.

Finally, many grantmakers feel overwhelmed by the enormity of policy challenges and struggle to weigh policy work against competing priorities. My colleagues and I at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) urge funders and donors to bring an intersectional racial equity lens to these considerations to help overcome this challenge. By soliciting frequent community feedback (especially from under-resourced constituencies) and centering internal discussions in data and analysis on the impacts and causes of systemic racism as well as other “isms,” grantmakers can gain greater clarity on who should be prioritized for benefit and which strategies make the most sense for advancing equitable solutions.

COVID-19 has made the imperative to embrace these practices starkly clear, as we see the toll that systemic racism has taken on communities of color where individuals are dying from the virus at much higher rates than whites. While funding for immediate crisis response is essential, it must be coupled with policy engagement — now and in the future — to ensure more equitable outcomes and to save black and brown lives.

In fact, after education, the second-leading policy priority cited by foundation leaders in CEP’s study is health (24 percent), which already had well-documented evidence of structural disparities in access and outcomes even before the pandemic. Foundation leaders can look to their peers that have embraced a racial justice lens in health equity for guidance on how to move the needle in this policy arena with the resources at their disposal.

Foundation size need not be a barrier to equitable policy engagement either. For example, the Brandywine Health Foundation in Coatesville, PA made 100 percent general support grants in its last round of grantmaking, includes advocacy grantmaking and policy engagement as part of its core strategy, and brings a strong racial equity lens to its work. The Rx Foundation is another small-but-mighty health advocacy grantmaker that recently made rapid-response COVID-19 grants to support homeless Boston populations and Navajo reservation communities, while at the same time investing in longer-term policy solutions such as home-care models that integrate telehealth.

There’s no way around it: to really make a long-term, systemic difference, funders will need to center equity, lead with community, increase the amount of grant funds and staff capacity they invest in policy work, and provide more general support and multiyear funding. Though funders’ practices to influence policy lag behind their aspirations, they can overcome challenges to this work — and they must.

Lisa Ranghelli is senior director of evaluation and learning at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow her on Twitter at @lisa_rang.

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