Philanthropy in a Changing Political Context

Kevin Bolduc

No matter where you personally stand on the results of our recent elections, one thing is clear: we in the nonprofit sector — grantees and funders alike — are entering a moment of significant change in the context for our work.

For some (voucher and charter advocates, for example) that direction seems like a welcome acceleration. For others (climate or health access funders, for example), the signaled changes are more disconcerting. For any organization with an advocacy agenda, the players and context are immediately different. The list goes on.

That’s why we designed an optional set of nonpartisan questions for funders to add to their Grantee Perception Report (GPR) surveys in February of next year. We want to help foundations understand whether and how their nonprofit partners are experiencing a changing context — and what they as funders might be able to do to support grantees.

Some have said that it’s too early to ask questions about change. I disagree. (Our current draft questions are at the end of the post, and I’d welcome your reactions — or interest.)

Yes, the exact form of the coming change is still clouded by some uncertainty. But increasingly, the direction of change is clear — and will be even more so when we launch grantee surveys in mid-February. This isn’t just about national U.S. politics, by the way. It’s about states (see: North Carolina) and local communities (see: my small hometown of Waterville, Maine — and probably yours too).

At the foundation gatherings I’ve attended since November 8, the question of how to respond is the question around every table, even though it hasn’t often been the question on the stage. Just in the last few weeks, I’ve heard a wide variety of responses from foundations ranging from “we aren’t political” to “we’re going to wait and see” to “we’re starting to plan now.” If my inbox and mailbox are any indications (though the past month has been a good reminder to not trust our bubbles), nonprofits of many different stripes and sizes are already firmly in the planning and acting camp.

Luck favors the prepared. And I have to admit that’s where I think foundations should be — preparing. Even amidst remaining uncertainty, and no matter where work falls on (or off) the political spectrum, funders must think carefully, reviewing the relevance of current goals, strategies, and approaches in the context of what we know from the signals already in front of us.

In this week’s issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, former Robert Wood Johnson Foundation executive Paul Jellinek and professor Stephen Isaacs give us a great example of what this kind of planning can look like. They get right down to a few potential new strategies for healthcare funders to consider based on their reading of the current signs. They suggest several clear strategies about monitoring changes, building, and sharing information. As they write, “It would be a terrible shame if foundations wait until there is a full-blown crisis before acting. Given the high priority that the incoming administration and congressional leaders have placed on health care, they are likely to move quickly on their proposals. Grant makers must act with urgency if they are to play more than a rear-guard role.”

To do that kind of planning, listening to the experiences and perspectives of those on the ground is crucial. As foundation CEOs indicated in CEP’s recently released research on the future of foundation philanthropy, hearing from beneficiaries and grantees are two of the most promising practices they believe can accelerate foundations’ future impact.

Well, now is a time for especially rapid and systematic listening, just like it was in 2009 during the Great Recession when we added temporary survey questions to the GPR about the economy’s effect on grantees’ work and organizations.

Right now, one thing is certain. In the coming months, opportunities will arise. I hope that this baseline information will help funders and nonprofits work together to seize them.

Below are the draft questions we will offer to include in this February’s grantee surveys. What do you think? Would you be interested in your grantees’ responses? Leave a comment, or drop me a note at

































Kevin Bolduc is vice president, assessment and advisory services, at CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @kmbolduc and contact him at

, Grantee Feedback, Grantee Perception Report, grantee perceptions
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