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New CEP Study Sheds Light on Foundation Efforts to Influence Public Policy

Date: May 13, 2020

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Media contact: Grace Nicolette – Vice President, Programming and External Relations: (617) 674-0763


Cambridge, MA — Foundation leaders strongly believe that efforts to influence public policy are an important way to achieve their goals, and though these efforts have increased in recent years, they remain a small portion of most foundations’ work, a new study released today by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) finds. The report, titled Policy Influence: What Foundations are Doing and Why, also finds that most foundations are collaborating with others and supporting grantees’ efforts as a means to achieving their policy goals, rather than going it alone, but face common challenges in their efforts.

“Policy change has been an essential part of the story in philanthropic achievements in areas from civil rights to consumer protections to public health, yet at the same time the role of philanthropy in influencing policy has garnered its fair share of scrutiny,” said Ellie Buteau, CEP Vice President, Research, and co-author of the report. “Our research clearly finds that foundation leaders believe in policy change as an important lever for change, and we hope the data and insights in this study will spur foundation staff, leaders, and boards to candidly discuss philanthropic engagement in public policy — including their own practices.”

Findings in the report are based on survey responses from 214 foundation leaders and in-depth interviews with CEOs and staff at 43 foundations, as well as survey responses from 419 nonprofit leaders on CEP’s Grantee Voice panel. Ninety percent of foundation leaders responding to the survey reported that their foundation seeks to influence public policy, with education (33 percent) and health (24 percent) as the top two issue areas in which foundations seek to influence policy. Nearly three-fourths of respondents reported having increased their foundation’s policy efforts over the past three years, but the majority still describe their policy engagement as limited in terms of dollars, grants, and time.

The study also finds that the primary way foundations pursue their policy agenda is through grantmaking. From the grantee perspective, nonprofit leaders surveyed suggest that foundations can better support their organizations’ work to influence policy by willing to fund more of this work and by providing grants with greater flexibility given the complex and long-term nature of creating policy change. When it comes to common challenges in foundations’ efforts to influence policy, building board support emerged as the most frequent challenge, as only 45 percent of foundation leaders say their board is completely supportive of the foundation’s efforts to influence policy.

“Our goal is for the data and stories in this study to provide a clearer understanding of foundation efforts to influence policy, and, in doing so, guide foundations to engage in this work more deeply and thoughtfully as they work to achieve their goals,” said CEP President Phil Buchanan. “This will be all the more important in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and accompanying economic meltdown. Progress toward virtually every imaginable philanthropic goal will be affected by policy decisions made at the local, state, and federal levels.”

The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Brainerd Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Wilburforce Foundation provided funding to support this research.

The report is available for free download on CEP’s website.

About the Center for Effective Philanthropy

The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide data and create insight so philanthropic funders can better define, assess, and improve their effectiveness and impact. CEP received initial funding in 2001 and has offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts and San Francisco, California. For more information on CEP’s work, including its research, publications, programming, and assessments and advisory services, visit

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